Megan White Mukuria, Molly Melching, Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro and Deogratias Niyizonkiza presented the panel on “Women’s Rights in Africa” in New York City last Tuesday. 

Three renowned nonprofit founders shared in intimate detail their experiences in Africa that inspired them to advocate for women’s rights at a panel discussion at Lycée Français de New York last Tuesday. In a talk moderated by President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, Megan White Mukuria of ZanaAfrica, Deogratias Niyizonkiza of Village Health Works and Molly Melching of Tostan, spoke of their ongoing work as founders and CEOs in various African countries, and of the importance of creating sustainable approaches to empower women and girls.

Dr. Kanyoro of Kenya centered the discussion around the three leaders as “change-makers” with “ideas that make a difference and solutions that save lives.” She wanted to know their “aha” moments and how they got through their darkest times.

Mukuria started ZanaAfrica to empower Kenyan women and girls after she realized many girls were not attending school because of menstruation. 

“Sanitary pads are their second highest cost a month,” Mukuria said. She explained that four out of five girls across East Africa can’t afford sanitary pads. Mukuria’s idea to make and distribute affordable pads has created opportunities for girls to attend school, with the hope of decreasing the number of girls who miss at least six weeks of school each year. She also helped write government policy in Kenya to ensure that pads would be as available to students as pencils. 

Mukuria wanted to look at a low cost intervention that yielded the largest return on education and health outcomes. ZanaAfrica also provides health education in part because Mukuria realized many girls did not understand why they menstruated.

“Girls have a right to answers to their real questions,” Mukuria said. “When a girl or woman is able to make her own choices, she is able to step into her life.”

For Niyizonkiza, his profound moment was when a mother approached him, saying she had lost four children, and that she was sure the only child she had left would die. 

“In that moment I knew we couldn’t take a step back,” Niyizonkiza said about Village Health Works, a Burundi-based nongovernmental organization he founded.

“I approached those mothers who were suffering,” he said. “What can we do together?”

Not only does Village Health Works have a health center that focuses on prenatal and neonatal care, the organization also focuses on education, food security and economic development.

“I have seen resilience in rural Burundi,” Niyizonkiza said. “If we work together with local communities, you will see change rapidly.”

Like Mukuria, when Melching arrived in Senegal over 40 years ago, she was also concerned that children weren’t in school, and that there were no participatory learning activities. She started a center for children and weaved African culture into the curriculum. The Demb Ak Tey Center was so successful that they started a complementary radio program. 

“We were in a community and I realized people had been listening to the radio, and they started [using] information they were learning,” Melching said. That was when she realized “maybe there’s a different type of education.”

Based in Dakar, Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program has expanded to Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Mali and The Gambia.

“Our program is built around traditional African culture with a human rights-based education, that I’m happy to say has saved many lives, and has empowered men and women,” she said.

Over 7,000 communities have abandoned female genital cutting (FGC) across Africa because of Tostan’s groundbreaking community-led program. Melching explained that creating an organization isn’t easy. 

“How do we look through dark moments?” Melching repeated Dr. Kanyoro’s question. “I’ve had many.”

She told the story of Boubou Sall in Malème Niane, in the region of Tambacounda, Senegal, describing him as “a man tied to the movement to end FGC.” Many years ago, Sall had a daughter whom he thought died from complications with malaria. It wasn’t until Tostan’s program was invited into his village that he realized she may have died from tetanus as a result of having been cut. This year Melching attended one of several community-wide declarations for the abandonment of FGC in Senegal. Sall’s granddaughter, Mariama Kabor, a CEP facilitator in Soutouta, participated in the declaration. 

“It gives me all the strength and hope,” Melching said. 

The “Women’s Rights in Africa” panel was presented by Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance and Project Redwood of Stanford University. Raising Change sponsored the event. 

Photo and story by Jenny Cordle, Communications Associate