Faiza Jama Mohamed, 2008 Africa Prize Laureate

October 18, 2008
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Watch video of Faiza's remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have never gotten an award such as this!

I am really, really thrilled and honored to have been named by the judges, who chose to recognize the work I have been doing, with so many colleagues and partners in Africa. It is, indeed, a recognition of all the hard work we have all been doing to promote the rights of African women.

I know many of my fellow finalists very well. They are doing great work, and I am really humbled to be in this company of activists.

A friend asked me, when he heard that I was a finalist for this award, why I was even in this list, since according to him, I am not doing humanitarian work to feed the hungry people in Africa. Then he asked, "what has women's rights got to do with The Hunger Project?"

So, I told him.

I said "When people are hungry they are living in poverty, and poverty is the result of injustice."

In our societies, women from an early age, are subjected to many forms of discrimination that undermine their potential. Many girls, as they grow into young women, end up with limited choices in life.

In Masaai, Kenya, girls are married off when 13 or 15 years old-sometimes even younger. A girl will drop out of school and end up taking care of her husband who might be older than her own father.

In the Oromiya region of Ethiopia, girls are abducted, raped and then forced to marry their abductor-their rapist.

In contrast to this scenario, let me take myself as an example. I am one of nine children, four girls and five boys. Four of my siblings are with me tonight, and I am so proud that they are here to celebrate this recognition with me.

The first two children born to my parents were girls (I am number two). So a lot of pressure was put on my father to take a second wife because my mom was supposedly not good enough to bring boys into the world. My father was a strong man and a fair man, and he refused.

As it turns out, my mom then had three boys. Those three brothers, along with one of my sisters, are here tonight. I am so proud of what they have become as a result of the generosity and support of our parents. We try to follow in their footsteps.

In every respect, they invested equally in our development (education, sports, socially).

When men used to approach my father to give away one of his daughters in marriage, my father always told them, "she has to consent." Secretly, he would tell us, "you are still young, and before you settle, you need to get a university degree. So think twice before you even consider a marriage proposal."

Our parents were unique. But despite that wonderful upbringing, when I grew up, and came out into the world, and I started interacting with many different kinds of people, I came face to face with the shocking reality that not all families are like ours and that in the majority of families around me, girls and women were not enjoying what my sisters and I took for granted.

Ladies and gentlemen, that experience is what drove me into human rights work. I found, at Equality Now, the space I needed to do as much as I could to eliminate those aspects of culture in all societies that oppress girls and to promote equality as a basic human right for girls.

I have colleagues from Equality Now present here tonight. I am so grateful to them for the support they have given me in the ten years we have worked together. I would like to acknowledge them now.

Through Equality Now, I have been able to work towards building a global movement. The more I meet with women from different parts of the world, the more I realize just how much we all have in common, and how strong we are when we cross cultures and bridge continents. I invite you to join us in this great work.

I know from my own life that if girls, from an early age, were empowered and encouraged, then we would not be here tonight talking about poverty.

Following my country Somalia's collapse into civil war, many of our people fled to Europe and North America. I saw daughters send funds to support their parents back in Somalia, so their younger siblings could be educated.

The bitter taste of war has made many Somali families appreciate their daughters and begin to see them in a whole new light. In the traditional Somali wedding, when the couple is brought to their new home, a healthy baby boy is handed to the bride, and the groom receives a container of milk. This is considered a blessing. It is indicative of the preference for a boy and the milk signifies wealth. But in Somalia today, this concept is changing. The bride and groom are now handed one girl and one US dollar! The story goes, that if you have a daughter you will be abundant with dollars.

In all villages and towns, it is women and girls who work hard to sustain their families' livelihoods. There is a strong linkage between rights (political, social, economic or cultural) and the state of poverty.

The Hunger Project makes this critical link between women's leadership and the end of poverty.

When we understand this, poverty will end.

On behalf of African women who struggle every day to feed their families, to send their children to school and to bring peace to their communities, I deeply appreciate all the good work The Hunger Project has done, and continues to do, in Africa.

I have worked hard all my life, and I will continue to work hard, to bring people together and to empower women, whether it is individual women crossing clan lines in Somalia to work for peace or organizations joining across Africa to promote the human rights of women.

We are very grateful for your solidarity and for this wonderful recognition.