At Springer Nature, we remain committed to challenging oppression, celebrating advances in gender equality, and recognizing the challenges that remain. To mark Human Rights Day we have spoken to some of our editors and authors about the intersection of gender equality and human rights. In this interview we speak with Dr. Josephine Odera, co-author of Understanding Violence Against Women in Africa – An Interdisciplinary Approach (Palgrave).
At present, I conduct research mainly on women’s empowerment issues. As part of a larger team, I have recently completed research on women in trade aimed at increasing women’s participation in export trade. While I was happy to see how women were increasing their presence in this area, I was left wondering just how much more we need to do to overcome some issues once and for all. In cross-border trade for example, even recent research shows that sexual and gender-based violence is an ever-present reality for women. I was reminded of the continuing need for transformative mindsets to move small, women-led enterprises into the big league of trade. Many women engage in trade, but few businesses are self-sustaining and women’s struggle for economic independence is still a reality. I am involved in building networks for women to use available resources, for example through national programs, to strengthen their capacities, plug into bigger networks in trade and address weaknesses in basic areas of financial records, as well as using internet resources for their businesses and marketing tools.
A great part of my work is in the area of mediation between corporations, government and communities. In these, I pay particular attention to the voice of women and their concerns. Years of work in the field of gender equality and women’s empowerment have made me particularly sensitive to the fact that women’s voices sometimes need an amplifier. Secondly, I use my experience to raise issues that could be of concern for gender equality at the beginning of a process. We look at equitable solutions, bearing in mind that many of the women and men we work with are in spaces that they have never been in before and this can be intimidating but especially so for women. We have developed gender guidelines and one of my tasks is to see how these are respected in various mediation cases.
I am one of those people who believe in anchoring work in institutions so that mentorship can be an ongoing process. Together with a friend and longtime colleague, we are in the process of bringing together young professionals interested in mediation who can work alongside us and carry the work forward. To do that effectively, we are convinced of the need for some institutional structure but we have not yet figured out just how it will finally look. One thing that is certain is that we will go out of our way to have gender equality principles firmly entrenched in this work. I believe the short- and long-term goals of my work can be summarised in maintaining an intellectual and practical interest in research and in advancing the practice of mediation.
This is an area of continuing effort in building understanding and appreciation on both sides of the ‘divide’. The starting point for engagement often varies but perhaps largely due to an unexplored barrier between the two. It may even depend on where in the world, or even within country, one is and how the value of research is perceived in that environment. This partly explains the priority given to research in some contexts and not others. In my work, I found that research findings were fascinating to policy makers and there was a desire to quote the findings because there was an understanding of the value of facts to sound policy. Research per se was, however, seen as an academic exercise and left there. In our program on engaging the military and police in ending sexual- and gender-based violence, we were careful to create spaces for researchers, uniformed forces and policy makers to meet and to dialogue. In that, research was able to provide clearer lenses through which the enormity of the issue could be seen and also as validation for the imperative to act. Such spaces led to a series of exchanges in which policy makers were ultimately bringing researchers on board in policy formulation and implementation strategies.
It has always been clear to me that policy makers want researchers to demonstrate an understanding of the important responsibility that policy making is. Policy makers want the support of researchers without the latter being overbearing in the exposition of their knowledge. Policy makers guard their space so one must articulate research value in a language that communicates interest to the policy maker. I found it equally important to build a relationship of trust which then facilitates the process of integrating research into policy making. When UNIFEM raised the issue of the role of women in peace negotiations, it was through concerted research efforts that the issue gained policy value both within the institution and beyond. Many of the progressive policies on gender equality and women’s empowerment have required serious research to convince policy makers of the need for a policy framework. Sometimes, the researcher must bear in mind the interests and fears of the policy maker for the policy maker to buy into the value of the research. These dynamics vary according to the context and issue but the basics tend to remain pretty much the same. I have been involved in organising policy forums where targeted policy makers share their thoughts and these have proven to be an important meeting and relationship-building ground for policy makers and researchers. As different people feed into such discussions, the value of the researcher on one hand and the policy maker on the other increases in the other’s eyes. In human interaction, building relationships remains essential and equally so in the areas of research and policy engagement. Along with relationship building, having the skill to articulate and reference research findings in policy discussions cannot be gainsaid. The use of relevant and current research is invaluable in policy engagement. We need the persuasive power of research to effectively engage in policy!
Having already addressed the issue of public engagement, I must emphasise that the knowledge and clarity that research produce must serve society beyond the research community. There is a huge need for policy research but the language and mode of communicating that knowledge, those findings, and those facts must be crafted for the ultimate consumption of a wide variety of users including policy makers. Research must respond to both the needs of a knowledge economy as well as to the particular issues that society needs to better understand and formulate for its development agenda, etc.
I always wished that working on issues of gender equality would be less arduous and that I would not need to explain myself at every step. I am gratified that today, there is increasing acceptance of the concept but I wish more could be done to fulfil promises. I live in a country that passed a constitution with a provision that no gender would take more than two thirds of positions in various levels of government. This has not been respected and there has been no sanctioning but outright statements that negate any effort at fulfilling the requirements of this constitutional provision. I look forward to promises on gender equality being fulfilled! I look forward to moving from intent to action. I also look forward to adequate financing of the gender equality agenda and especially that which affects women. So often, the institutions seeking to advance gender equality tend to be the poorer ‘relatives. The struggle for the majority of women is transported into the international arena where the agenda for equality struggles even for the basics of survival. I look forward to women’s organisations using their skills and time not on managing meagre resources but in driving phenomenal change that the society and the world cannot ignore!
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would just sum it in the saying, women’s rights are human rights.
About Josephine Odera
Josephine Odera is the immediate former Director of Africa Centre for Transformative & Inclusive Leadership (ACTIL). She formerly served as Regional Director, West and Central Africa, UN Women; Regional Advisor, Leadership & Governance at the United Nations Women Regional Office for East and Southern Africa; and taught at the University of Nairobi's Institute of Diplomacy & International Studies (IDIS). She currently serves as a conflict & mediation expert in various African countries.