The personal is political! Florence Butegwa, UN Women ESARO Advisor on Policy and Governance
In the interview below, Florence Butegwa, UN Women ESARO Advisor on Policy and Governance traces her personal career development and how it positively impacts on the broader frameworks of developing gender sensitive institutions in Africa. With eloquence and skill, Butegwa locates the UN Women/Kenyatta University-ACTIL partnership into the broader African Union architecture for peace and security.
DN: You have a chance to tell the world about yourself, in your own words and in the best way you can.
FB: My official name is Florence Butegwa, but my real name is Florence. Most people, both young and old call me Florence and that speaks to me better. I am an easy and accessible person. It makes me fit within and identify with a broad range of people. I am a mother of five children, all grown up and a grandmother too. I believe so much in the family as an immediate support system where all things are normal, and I am privileged to have a family that is strong and supportive of each other and our respective careers. My partner and children have a strong bond, and three of our children are married. Family has grown bigger with their partners and their children and the bigger the unit the stronger the ties become on a daily basis. This family also gives me a sense of belonging and purpose because with the children I have a responsibility to guide and support them through their own transformation in their personal lives and in their careers. My eldest daughter is a gender specialist and advocate, and this is very much within the same work circles as mine and I find it very interesting and rewarding that my beliefs and passions have been passed on to the next generation. My other children and partners are all professionals in their own right and sharing the values that I hold dear to me.
As a student I knew I wanted to much to become an academic. The early path of my career was in law, I trained as a environmental lawyer with specialisation in international environmental law. My work into the women’s movement and women’s rights followed an incident that happened when I was teaching a group of bank managers. This incident made me realise the importance of the law in women’s lives, and also to the importance of getting people to know and understand their human rights as the basis for development. I was discussing with the students how the law impacts on the personal life. I touched on the issue of marriage and suddenly one lady burst out of the room, crying. I thought that she was sick and followed her to give her necessary support. She was devastated by the realisation from the class discussions that at law she was not married to the man she had lived with and with whom she had children and property
After this incident I started writing a proposal to do research and find out the levels of awareness of personal rights and the law among women in both urban and rural areas. If this young woman professional did not know her rights who else did? The findings revealed a huge gap for realisation of women’s rights. I started doing this interesting work on women’s rights and this is what I have been doing for the largest part of my career. I find satisfaction in what I do even if I touch the lives of one or two women because I am convinced that the options and the choices they realise have become wider through interaction with my work, but there is also always that feeling that says one or two is not enough to transform the society in which we live because there are such fundamental and structural barriers to women enjoying rights. As women in the front we need to mobilise as many women and men and young people to understand that the education system needs to change, the justice system needs to change, and it will only happen by us touching the lives of many. I eventually left academic life and went into a women’s rights activist career for 10 years with the women lawyers associations, the Women and Law and Development in Africa Network, a pan-African network, and eventually within the UN system where there was an institutional legitimacy and connectedness with policy makers and a degree of resources that expanded the potential of influencing transformation.
Here we have made a lot of gains in getting laws and policies that are friendly to the realisation of women’s rights adopted by countries in which we work. We have made some progress in supporting movements that amplify women’s voices and create demands for governments to act and create better laws. We have made progress in facilitating awareness among women that things don’t have to be the way they are but we need options to enforce their rights. The changes are not enough because for each woman who is able to access justice and enforce her rights there are several more for whom that attempt to claim rights can be futile, and even fatal. They can be subjected to violence within the family; may lose contact with their children because there are societies where children are perceived to belong to a man rather than to the two parents; they often run the risk of losing property that they have worked for all their lives, so there must be something that we need to do and that explains why I am very excited by the establishment of the African Centre for Transformational and Inclusive Leadership (ACTIL) because I think the missing piece is the quality of the leadership that we have in Africa. We have worked on supporting an increase in the numbers of women in positions of authority. Although they remain few we have to admit that there has been progress. Unfortunately simply increasing numbers has not led to the leadership that can institutionalise the kind of transformation we need so the new thinking as we partner with Kenyatta University is that we need to grow a different kind of leadership among women and men that is really transformational, that is about changing the mind-set of ourselves as women leaders, ourselves as male leaders, and also about what true and effective leadership is all about.
In our conceptualisation the sole purpose of leadership is to create more leaders not more followers; it is not about power over others but more about power within moving from inside to touch and groom others and transforming itself into power with others. That is real transformation because you don’t see yourself as being powerful for yourself and your personal gains as creating followers but as having power with women and men who think like you and are interested in the values that you hold dear and will make the values and the changes you want. The drivers of their leadership create an environment within which people can respect each other and understand fundamental human rights and know that these are rights everybody in our society is entitled to enjoy. The focus on transforming the mind-set is critical and I think that is exciting and giving the centre a unique space in the work that UN Women does. In the work that human rights advocates have done and I can feel that gap and am really proud to be associated with it.
DN: Please enlighten us on the UN Women partnership with Kenyatta University to create ACTIL
FB: The ACTIL idea comes from the period where Africa was moving towards or preparing to celebrate the 50 years of the African union, the 50 years of independence. This was the time when there was a global financial crisis but Africa was managing its issues reasonably well so there was this level of positive thinking in the continent ‘this is Africa’s moment’. A lot of natural resource is being found and exploited, foreign direct investment is increasing in leaps and bounds and remittance from Africans in the diaspora are increasing every year. Africa is saying our own people can develop Africa. Alongside this excitement was a dialogue about the missing piece. If Africa was doing so well in other areas how come there was still a gap in terms of women’s rights in particular and human development in general? A lot of natural resources were being discovered in Africa but still being exploited for external benefit. It was the African decade of military coups, armed conflict, disease, violence against women and poverty. This was the irony.
This is where the need for transformative leadership was muted. The major question was, can the leaders that we have now take advantage of African now to ensure equitable and inclusive development? The audit was on the current leadership and an analysis of their quality. This practical reality provoked the idea of UN Women contributing to the emergence of this kind of leaders who can take the rich resources that Africa has including its people and use them to transform our societies to the level and vision that AU has crafted where we want to be in 50 years’ time. We were very clear about this and we thought UN Women would contribute by setting up a centre of learning that can foster dialogue among leaders about what needs to change and how they can be agents of change. We looked for a partner sharing the same ideals and given what Kenyatta University has been able to achieve in less than a decade under the leadership of a woman vice chancellor the convergence of value and ambition was natural. I think we are seeing the benefits the centre has been able to bring. It was launched mid last year but in less than a year the changes that have taken place among the graduates and people who have participated in our trainings session and the impact that you can begin to see within the structures they have committed to work with you can see that the vision of the centre was not a misplaced vision and it is possible to transform mind-sets. People start seeing opportunities where they didn’t see any opportunities before, and where women choose to work with transforming minds real change is inevitable unstoppable.
DN: What package does ACTIL have for the youth, given that they are tomorrow’s leaders?
FB: We are conscious of always making sure that in every group of participants that we have we have that intergenerational dialogue. Drawing examples from this group from Zimbabwe, there are young women leaders and I had a chance to speak to them about where they see themselves and I also encouraged them to challenge the knowledge we are sharing with them by looking at it through the lens of young people. Do young women politicians still need rallies for political activism when technology abounds? All the rules about organising rallies the resource person was talking about, does this knowledge relate to young politicians who are mobilisers in their political parties? The young do not communicate through rallies, they do through Whatsapp. Young women must challenging existing modes of doing things and ask themselves where they are in that set up. We need critical mind-sets amongst women. I was very happy to ehar the young women from Zimbabwe challenging this space in that manner. We are in the process of developing a youth specific program about young leaders across different sections and see how they can work to transform the mind-sets of young leaders because they have told us many times that they don’t what the notion of youths being the future leaders, they are the present leaders exercising leadership in all spheres. There are many countries now with young parliaments and defining ‘age-set rules’ about doing politics and we are conscious and have identified some youth based leadership institutions we are working with to brainstorm how that young leadership course will be structured, and define the target group and content as well.
DN: What are your last words of encouragement to women?
For African women leaders there is no way we can devote or separate the personal from our history, and from the public. We need to keep both healthy. We need to avoid the negative association of women leadership with misery, chaos, and without our children. To me nurturing future generations is very important. Women leaders should be free to make choices that still make them able to nurture transformational leadership in their children and in younger men and women for the future. Holding spaces and families together will help change men’s thinking. Why do men still believe that women cannot be parliamentarians when they are in marriage and if that is their choice? Why do men have to rush to divorce women and enforce a stigma all the time women rise in positions of power? Where some divorces are inevitable some families must also remain intact to communicate that existing together is possible as both women and men leaders. I have done some conversations with women parliamentarians and in one country they were saying 60% of parliamentarians have had to divorce because of too much pressure and denials of women being leaders. There is something fundamentally wrong and I am sensitive to in my own life. Where a woman chooses to be a political leader and remain in marriage no one should make life difficult for her, and this is important. Why should an upcoming woman politician be pressurised until she quits family? Some women have quit marriages not because it is impossible to balance the public and the private, but because society sets difficult rules and boundaries for women to collapse the private and the public in a transformative manner. Family has been supportive to me as a career woman and this is the way I do leadership and the way I would like fellow women to perceive family relations as the starting point for peace in the nations and in the world. Here at ACTIL one of our methodology is that we have a whole day session on the self; on self-management, self-regulation, and on balancing the private and the public and I hope as we will be able to work with the Zimbabwean team and reach that stage.