The Women Deliver 100 recognises women and men, both prominent and lesser known, who have committed themselves to improving the lives of girls and women around the world. Honorees derive from the fields of health, human rights, politics, economics, education, journalism, and philanthropy, and represent a great diversity of geographic and cultural backgrounds. The 100 honorees were selected from among hundreds of potentials and feature some of the most intrepid, committed, and results-driven people in the world. www.womendeliver.org
At only 21, Sarah Nkhoma has made it to Women Deliver 100; a list of the 100 most inspiring people who have delivered for women and girls worldwide, alongside greats such as Gracia Machel, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Ban Ki-moon and Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Mathaai. The list was drawn up to commemorate the 100th International Women’s Day on Tuesday March 8th.Sarah, an HIV and Aids advocate who has been jailed and beaten up for furthering her cause, tells AKOSSA MPHEPO of the fire that fuels her passion for advocacy, what being one of the world’s top 100 signifies to her and how she intends to grow as a person and an advocate.
What exactly is Women Deliver?
Women Deliver is an international organisation that deals with issues concerning and surrounding maternal health and rights, particularly concerning women and girls. Women Deliver strive to make a positive impact on the livelihoods of all girls and women through various projects, other organisations and through the mobilisation of key figures in various fields.
How did Women Deliver find out about you?
I am part of a global network called The Global Change Makers. This network of young activists and social entrepreneurs is a British Council initiative comprising almost 800 young people from over 100 countries in the world, all below the age of 25 the majority between the ages of 16 and 23. When high profile events such as the Women Deliver conference take place, the Global Change Makers programme provides young people from within the network, who work in a relevant area to the one the organisers of the event are interested in. We are mobilised to attend to represent the network and other young people from all over the world. The aim is to talk about major issues from a young person’s perspective.
You are 68th on the list of top 100 people, which also includes greats such as Oprah Winfrey and Gracia Machel. How does it make you feel?
It is an honour to stand among great women. But more than anything, it is also humbling because it serves to highlight the urgency of the times we live in particularly for the African woman. It is a tremendous feeling to lift up such an honour that truly belongs to every single young Malawian woman who strives to make a difference. This is a calling, not a career. It is a personal dedication to being the change we want to see and to be the ones who make that change happen. This isn’t about me as an individual, this is bigger than that. It is about bringing about a positive revolution to the life of young women.
When did you first learn of this and what was your initial reaction?
I knew about it three weeks ago. I was completely shocked for about three days, then, I have had a warm and fuzzy glow ever since.
You were acknowledged for being an HIV/Aids activist and educator. What have you done so far?
I have worked with Abstrak Beatz Entertainment alongside Qabaniso Malewezi where we interacted with the Baylor Teen Club. I have attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2009 where I had several panel discussions with key figures such as Mary Robertson ex-president of Ireland and Kofi Anan. The main message as always was breaking the silence that shrouds sex and young people as a way of beginning to deal with HIV. I am part of the Global Change Makers network and have been a peer facilitator in the network. I am now working on a community action project called Love Thy Self that focuses on growing self-esteem, providing correct information on HIV, STIs and contraception as a tool to help young girls protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. In my capacity as entertainment director at Mzuzu University, we organised social weekends with an HIV theme. In this respect, I mainly use edutainment to put across an important message to people; stop dealing with HIV by assuming that young people are not and will not have sex. Let’s start talking, giving feasible solutions, providing a support framework.
You also attended the Women Deliver Conference in Washington, where you presented to over 3000 people last year…
Yes. In those moments, when I am presenting my cause to so many people, I feel like I am the mouthpiece for all the young women who do not have a voice. It is an opportunity to inform people who can help with the reality that young African woman and young people in general are facing. It is also an opportunity to infuse people with passion and knowledge that might make them do something or change themselves to really make a difference in young people’s lives.
You mentioned, during this Washington conference, that you were arrested and brutally beaten…
It was during my varsity days, when a student sit-in coincided with a social weekend that I had planned and had secured sponsorship for from the British Council. I did not participate in the sit-in, but sat quivering in my room with a group of friends. Still, we were arrested because according to them ‘university educated girls are show offs…’ and ‘they think they are better than us’ which is entirely untrue. Law enforcers started calling me mzungu (white person) and asked me if I wanted to be their girlfriend. When I objected, they beat me up. My left kidney was injured, causing internal scar tissue to develop. I only found out later that the sponsorship secured from the British Council went missing in administrative coffers during the sit-in and someone had told the law enforcers that I was the ring leader of the sit-in, because I am an activist. This was not true. This experience only strengthened my resolve because it made me realise how women are still abused and victimised by men who have power in various ways throughout society and that an educated woman is a threat who is punished for being such by men. This needs to stop. Women should not be punished for being activists and being educated, women should not be victimised by those who want to use their efforts to get ahead.
Let’s go back a few steps; what drove you into HIV and Aids advocacy?
I made the decision after my sister revealed her HIV status. HIV is really everyone’s issue in Malawi as we are all affected in some way. Someone close to us may be suffering in agonising cries or silence. We can’t pretend that this isn’t the case anymore; everyone must do their small part about it.
Was the disclosure easy on you?
It wasn’t easy because my sister and I are very close; however it was even harder for her because she had to muster up the courage to disclose her status. Everyone was surprised but some were angry, which is completely wrong! No one would wish HIV on themselves. People make mistakes, but I feel that a lot of men make mistakes and it is the innocent wives who get HIV and have to pay. Because most of the people who have HIV in this country are young women that we all know personally and that we cannot ignore. I chose to take a stand against this pandemic and the elements that are making it even worse. My sister is my inspiration because in her I see so many young Malawian women.
What drives you?
I keep going because I don’t want the future to be like this. I know that the future is the responsibility of everyone who lives now. Giving up is not an option. If we give up, we all suffer and the consequences are our fault. You just have to keep your head up and keep trying.
Usually, when people stand out, not everyone accepts them or their causes; have you experienced this yet? How do you deal?
All the time. Do you know PHD syndrome? (Laughs) Others have tried to pull me down. People often don’t like what they don’t understand and few try to understand. I deal by reminding myself I am convinced that I am doing the right thing and that one day, the little I do would have contributed to the exalting of the African woman.
What have you sacrificed to be where you are today?
I have lost my naivety; the comfort of being able to pretend bad things are not happening because now I see the world for what it really is (I do not regret this). I have lost the chance to live a life of numerous friends and being accepted by everybody and having the easy life because I am so engrossed in furthering my cause (I do not regret this). All in all, I have not lost anything worth crying over.
You were previously a student at Mzuzu University. What did you study and how does it come into play in what you are doing now?
I studied towards a Bachelor of Arts in education degree which I completed in December last year. Advocacy and teaching are pretty much along the same lines. Currently, I work with Theatre for a Change (TfaC ). I work in the monitoring and evaluation department and as a radio presenter on the Tisinthe show (aired on Zodiak) which is part of the radio programme.
Who motivates you?
All the wonderful women around me like my mom and sister Margaret.
How have your childhood and the people around you shaped you into the person you are today?
Contrary to people’s expectations, growing up for me was not easy. I had to face a lot of tough things and make tough choices. All the good things and bad things can either break you or build you. It is your choice. I chose to let them build me. Good people raised me up, bad people pushed me higher!
What are your favourite things?
I love a really good book or movie.
Anything about you that other people do not know?
I hate geckos!
You are one of 2011’s top 100 people, according to Women Deliver; where do you go from here? Do you have any set plans on becoming even greater and doing more in terms of HIV and Aids advocacy?
I want to see Love Thy Self (the community Action project) lift off and I want to continue giving all that I have to ensuring that young, African, female leaders survive and achieve. It is not at all about me being glorious; it is about us no longer being at the highest risk of contracting HIV because we are equipped with information that enables us to make better choices.