September 9, 2022

The Spirit of Sisterhood From The AWLI Has Expanded My Understanding of Sisterhood To Be More Compassionate And Listen To Women’s Experiences -Zeinab Abbas

Zeinab Abbas is a Sudanese feminist who underwent feminist training under the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) in 1997 at Lake Victoria, Uganda. She is a lawyer and poet and writes about women's rights in Sudan. Meet our alumni of the month!

Kindly tell us about yourself and your work

I am Sudanese, and I come from a very conservative rural area. I have been interested in human rights since I was young and have been active in school and clubs. From my interests in journalism, I developed a school magazine while in secondary school and organized community-level activities. I studied Law at the University of Khartoum – the oldest university in Sudan. After graduation, I volunteered and wrote for a short period, focusing mainly on issues of youth and women’s rights. I also attended a lot of Law and Development and Human Rights training, including a Post-Graduate Diploma at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands on Law and development. In addition, I did an internship program in the USA with International Human Rights Institute. I also became a part of the Women in Law and Development in Africa (WLDA), and during that time, I applied for AWLI.

Which animal character would you best relate yourself to and why?

I admire horses. For me, they are very proud, fast, and patient. When I was very young, my father was interested in horses, and we had horses that ran in races. So I admire them because I think they are very loyal to the people they know.

Why was the African Women Leadership Institute (AWLI) appealing for you to participate as a leader?

I was not thinking about the AWLI in terms of being a leader or not being a leader. I occupied leadership positions right from secondary school. I learned about AWLI by chance while reading a magazine and found the course announcement, which I thought would be a good opportunity for me. So I decided to apply, knowing it would develop me as a leader. At that time, there was no internet, so I sent my application using a post office. I remember being amazed to receive the acceptance letter.

What were your expectations before joining, and did the Institute live up to these expectations?

The course was a new experience for me. Even though I had experienced other human rights law and development training, AWLI was my first leadership training. For the first time, I learned leadership skills and how to practice them. I remember the training had powerful African women facilitators who provided a lot of enhancement and moral support. I enjoyed the personal and professional life balance, communications skills, and women empowerment sessions. The added value for me was the practical side of the leadership programme. Before attending the training, I wrote to AMwA that I had a five-month-old child, and they responded with we will be more than happy to receive you and your daughter. When I got there, they gave me a creche facility, and a lady was helping me with the baby. We spent three weeks at Lake Victoria Hotel, Entebbe, and I got a lot of support from the faculty and the management of the Institute.

What exactly about the experience at the Institute is transcendent to your work today?

I was greatly inspired at the Institute when I saw women from all over Africa talk about their experiences and share ideas. The sessions were very inspiring, particularly in leadership, empowerment, and presentation skills. AWLI boosted my public speaking skills, like how to structure my presentation and speak to a diverse audience, especially an audience that English is not their first language. The three weeks gave us ample time to talk to each other and share experiences. After the AWLI, I continued working with CSOs like International Rescue Committee and doing Human Rights work. Even when I joined the EU, my kids were little, but because I attended and participated in the AWLI for three weeks with a baby, I resolved that there was no position I could not fill with or without kids. What I learned from AWLI enabled me to speak confidently about women’s issues, especially around policy advocacy for African women in leadership positions, particularly in the health, education, and economic sectors, and changing the male face of politics.

What has been your biggest achievement following the AWLI training you attended?

After the AWLI, I developed modules in leadership based on our local context in Sudan, especially on self-empowerment, leadership skills, and presentation skills. So aside from being a human rights trainer and a gender trainer, I am now a leadership expert. I am part of the women’s movement in Sudan, where this sisterhood spirit has supported me to understand and be more compassionate to others and understand women’s situations. Listening to women from different parts of Africa talk about their different experiences at the AWLI has also expanded my understanding of the situation of women in general. I am a writer and a poet. Recently, the military killed a young activist in Sudan, and I wrote a poem about it. The poem is now used as a famous song to demand justice. You can listen here I have written and published several articles, including needed reforms on the Sudanese special and Muslim Law. In addition, I have written an article on women’s issues and concerns during the transition period in Sudan that was published in the Sudan tribune in 2020 in Arabic. Likewise, my reports on the gender gaps in labour and legislation in Sudan and the image of women in the school curriculum are published. I have written other articles in English and Arabic. 

How was your interaction with faculty, who were they, and how exactly did they impact your journey during AWLI and beyond?

I was very impressed with the facilitators. I liked the sessions on how to keep a balance between professional and personal life, empowerment in general, and communications skills, which have been very useful to me. During the AWLI, there was no internet, so communication was through letters, and we continued to engage with each other for a while, but I never completely lost track of all the people. Most of my colleagues from the training are in high positions and making tremendous contributions to society. I see Margaret from Uganda, who was a member of the parliament. I see Josephine from Nigeria. I am part of the women’s movement in Sudan.

How important is sisterhood and networking in your line of work, and did the Institute support you in this regard?

The spirit of sisterhood from the AWLI has expanded my understanding of sisterhood to be more compassionate and listen to women’s experiences. Now when I work on women’s issues, I understand what to consider and not and how the context can have an impact.

Where did your passion for feminist leadership stem from?

From my practical experience, I see gender inequality in practice in daily life and then by reading and being exposed to ideas and learning.

 What challenges have you faced during your journey, and how have you conquered them?

A significant challenge is navigating a predominantly male-oriented culture as a professional and a mother. Additionally, in an economy that is not people-oriented, It is challenging to maintain a highly-demanding job and finally get people to understand that women have rights.

Many would regard you as a resilient African feminist who has immensely contributed to advancing young women’s rights. How have you maintained this brand, and what is your advice to young women aspiring to lead?

My advice to young African women is to understand their context very well. Because only by understanding the context can we bring about meaningful change. I know the situation in most of our countries is challenging. But, further still, there are no policies to improve women’s status. So we still have to fight for women’s education, health, political participation, and economic empowerment. Also, we need to respect our culture; even if this culture discriminates against women, we need not be confrontational in our approach. So we must continue our advocacy and continue being a good model for change and being innovative in how we want to achieve change and be consistent, and if we get fed up, we will not achieve anything. And I think there are a lot of opportunities, but we must explore them correctly.

Sometimes the work we do can be challenging and draining at the same time; what do you do to renew your energies?

I try to balance, not forget myself, and know why I do what I do. But, in practice, it is challenging because sometimes you are completely absorbed in work. In Sudan, we have a proverb loosely translated to ‘if you don’t love yourself, no one will. So, it is tough to prioritize since my focus is always to work; this is one area I need to strengthen.

 Why would you encourage young women out there to pursue the AWLI?

It is an exciting experience, learning, exposure, and exchanging ideas. I encourage young women to apply for the Institute and benefit from this excellent opportunity.

Who is your favorite African Female author?

My favourite author is Fatima El Murnisi from Morocco because she has addressed issues relating to women and Islam.


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