Changing the Face of Politics Podcast
Episode 7: Bi-Khim Hsiao interviews Fauziya Abdi Ali
Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute's Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode, Ambassador Bi-Khim Hsiao speaks with Fauziya Abdi Ali, President and Founder of Women in International Security in the Horn of Africa, in an interview about advancing women’s leadership in peace and security in Kenya, Africa, and around the world.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Ambassador Bi-Kim Hsiao, and I'm the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative office in Washington DC. My guest today is Fauziya Abdi Ali, who is the President and Founder of Women in International Security in the Horn of Africa. I am very much looking forward to this conversation today, as we talk about the role of women in changing politics, but of course, also in changing the face of the world. Fauziya, hello.
Fauziya Abdi Ali: Hello, Ambassador. It's good to be here. Thank you for you and NDI for having me in this podcast series.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes, well, it's quite fascinating to see more women playing important roles in security. And traditionally, we often look at the narrative and discourse on international security and conflict, and we often see women as victims. But in terms of playing a role in facilitating peace, in taking leadership positions, I think it is great to see women playing that role. And I'm so delighted to be able to have this opportunity to talk to you. And I'd like to start by asking you what motivated you to get politically active? And specifically in the area of security and peace.
Fauziya Abdi Ali: For me, getting active was not only a calling, but it was necessary. So I grew up in Kenya in a town called Kisumu. And what was synonymous with Kisumu is each time we had an election, what would happen is immediately after the election, we would have some level of political violence post that election. And coming from a community which was considered marginalized - because we were not necessarily ethnic majority in that, in that county - it was interesting for me to try and understand why is it each time we have, in order for our voices to be heard, most people would go out into the streets and actually debate around the, not only the political processes, but also the sustaining of peace within the country. And so my work begun from that urge to sort of get an understanding, a deep understanding on peace and security, as well as democratic spaces. And so for me, what I do actually is I actually go out and talk to different civil society organizations, including community based organizations, on why it's important for us who focus on peace building, sustaining peace, on security issues, to actually also have a political strategy when it comes to democratic peace. For us to find meaning and create opportunities where participation and addressing of the causes of conflict is done, through also the state institutions as well. And so all this began from that urge. I think also from the fact that for a long time, I noticed like most of the CSOs who we were engaging with earlier on, actually felt the need to actually be against government and not necessarily work with government. And I think for civil society, as much as we are here to also make sure that we are like looking into some of the human rights issues that may be violated, et cetera, we also exist in order to be able to promote non-violence in our ways of doing things. But at the same time, being able to be open to things like to dialogue as well with our counterparts who are in most cases within government and other state organs.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yeah, so you started out with a concern about democracy and your communities and expanded your involvement in that way. And I'm curious, what do you think the role of women has been in the process? Do you think the community is supportive of you playing this particular role?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: So I think this space of having women and especially young girls engaging in politics has improved. I think now if we look back, and tying this to even the anniversary we are going through, now that it's 20 years since we had the WPS [Women, Peace and Security] agenda come into play, both 25 years for Beijing [Conference Platform for Action] and for [UN Security Council Resolution] 1325 it's 20 years, we see a significant change. Globally, as we all may know is, the women legislators have increased from 13% in the year 2000 to 25% in 2020. And I think this is important to put across. In Africa, where I come from, the number of women legislators has increased from 11 to 24%. In Kenya, when we held our 2017 elections, we had 172 women who actually took part and won seats. This is up from 145, which was in 2013. But despite all these improvements, I think one of the key things that is still alluding us is the fact that we still don't have the critical mass when it comes to female legislators. We've still not met the 30% quota. And I think this is across many countries as well, and this is still indicative of the power dynamics within societies. So for persons like me, when engaging in this space because we come from spaces that are very patriarchal in nature, right? It is still that challenge of addressing the importance of women in leadership. There's a lot more, there are still gender stereotypes that are associated with the women in leadership, which we continuously work with other women peace builders to address in what we do, so that we create spaces, not only for ourselves, but for the future generation to be actively engaged, not only in political leadership, but also in the decision-making spaces, in whatever type of activity they want to take up.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes, well you noted some changes over the past 20 years in terms of the level of women representation. Do you feel there has been - are there generational differences over the support for different roles of women in your society?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: I think there is generational differences. I think for one, what makes me very optimistic in this space is when you look at young people, the young girls, young women, they are actually going out of their way to break the gender stereotypes that exist. I think they are coming out and we are coming out strongly to take back spaces that were predominantly men spaces. At the same time, we are also looking at how do we better address issues to do with peace and security. We don't necessarily have to follow what we sometimes term as very traditional approaches to peace and security, but rather embracing what is new and can be useful for improving this space. And in one such example, is the use of technology. I think right now, what technology has provided to most people, both young and old, is an opportunity to have your voices heard, opportunity to put out your messaging, opportunity to reach as many people as possible with what you want to put across. And I think this has been critical in shaping how the different generations are looking at the political spaces and the peace making spaces.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: As you're talking about some of the broader trends and the changes in the political space around you, in terms of gender progress, I'm wondering if you have, if you could share some of your personal experiences in terms of the difficulties that you have faced have there been some personal challenges for you?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: So, yes. Engaging in a space that, as I mentioned, is predominantly patriarchal in nature is not an easy task. It's one that has caused a little bit of, I would say unrest even for myself, because it's a space that sometimes you are ridiculed for what you believe in, it’s a space where even going out and trying to discuss topics that are sometimes considered topics that should not be discussed in public spaces is actually quite difficult. In this similar spaces, women are not necessarily perceived as leaders. The roles that women are given are those that they should be either at home, taking care of the kids, and should not necessarily be participating in decision-making. And I think that this is one of the main gender stereotypes that we work within each and every day. Secondly is, as much as we appreciate the use of technology, technology has also become a space where a lot of bullying happens. It's also a space where women especially, as you put out your agenda, it's also a place where you also get pushback from misinformation, because people are trying to harass you online as you put across what you do. They create the false personas and put that up close. And unfortunately with a lot of misinformation and very little true information being passed, in some cases, this actually is then taken as the quote-unquote gospel truth, which in most instances, impac the way we, women who are in public spaces, are able to do our work. But despite all this, what actually keeps me going is the fact that we, as women, know that there is the importance of our voices to be heard. If you actually don't engage in these spaces, then we know the impact this will have in our own communities.
I actually work on also preventing violent extremism, which is not an easy area of engagement. And what drives me is the fact that I work also with a network of other women peacebuilders, and each and every day we go out of our way, putting sometimes our lives at risk to discuss what are the real socioeconomic issues that are driving extremist violence in our communities and how it is important to not only look at the securitizing, the militarization approach that sometimes is used, but to actually break that down and look at what other policies do we need to put in place? What other empowerment activities do we need to put in place, so that young people are not attracted to violence and extremist violence in particular. And so this has been a critical task that we keep doing each and every day, with successes, I have to add. Because as I mentioned, I look at it from a political strategy for a democratic peace. For me, what we have been able to do is even talk in spaces where most of the policies are considered very securitized. And this is in particular designing a national strategy and prevention of violent extremism. When that strategy first came out, it was silent on gender. And now two, three years down the line with the support of the national countering, counter-terrorism center, we have been able to put out another strategy that actually has a stronger pillar around gender issues in particular, looking at gender equality and gender equity. And I think this has come through from the dedication of most of the women who have been engaged in this space to actively keep engaging, actively keep engaging with the state institutions. Because at the end of the day, we have to work in partnership with the whole of society, which includes these state institutions.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, the challenges of extremism and violence are quite prevalent or common around the world and among many countries as well. And I'm curious in all of your work and contributions, do you feel that the participation of women or the perspective of women is particularly effective in dealing with these issues? And are there some examples of your successes where the contributions of yourself, but maybe as well as other women, have been the key to resolving some of these difficult challenges?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yes. So I strongly feel there is need, and continuous need to engage with women, especially when addressing not only conflict, but also violent extremism in particular. We all know that, and even research has shown this over and over again, when you have women engaging in political spaces, when you have women engaging also in policy as well, women actually bring in a different dynamic into the conversation. In most cases, you even notice that conversations also get geared to key areas such as education, healthcare, rights, as opposed to putting a lot of financing around issues to do with defense and, you know, putting national security as opposed to human security first. And as women, and also directly working in this space, what I think has been clear engaging in this is the importance of not only viewing women from the lens of mothers and persons whose children are the ones who are joining extremist groups, but also women's agency around the element of prevention. Being able to put across our awareness around the importance of, you know tolerance and living at peace with one another while practicing your religion as well without fear. So for me, at the end of the day, you cannot have democratic spaces when the democratic ideal in itself on inclusiveness is not taken seriously. And inclusiveness for me, it means having women in those spaces to ensure that conversations are happening, having practices that also address inequalities that are within the communities we serve. And so those are key critical ingredients.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Great. You know, you've addressed my next question, which was about gender equality and democracy and how the two work hand in hand. So let me move on and ask you if being in public life and having this active role in peace and security, have there been any surprises for you? What have been the pluses and minuses for you personally?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: I still get surprised that we still have to discuss the importance of having women in these spaces, be it in the boardroom, be it in parliament, be it within, you know, community meetings. I think it's still surprising that as many years that have passed, with all the data we have been able to gather, with all the research that is, with all the facts that people are noting, that we still have to come out and defend our positions of why we need to be in these spaces, and I think this is surprising to me. What has actually, to me maybe should be a wake up call to the world, is actually the pandemic. Because what the pandemic, COVID-19 has done is clearly showcase the inequalities and the impact of inequalities. This is why for many countries, including my country, we have seen an increase in gender-based violence. For instance, in Kenya, the very first month that we initiated COVID measures, gender-based violence went up 42%. So these are clear indications that we really don't need to solve problems just from the surface level. We really need to get down into the root causes. And in most cases, the root causes are social issues, economic issues, including political issues. So as much as we want to address COVID-19, which is really imperative to address, I think it's important not to address it in a silo. It's important to address it from all the areas that I mentioned.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes. Well, since you brought up the pandemic and COVID-19, do you think this current crisis has influenced your political viewpoints? You mentioned that gender-based violence has increased and how, and, and you said that there, you know, we need to address the source of the violence. Has this increase been related to the formality in which the government or society has responded to the pandemic, such as work from home or restrictions on outside movement? Or do you think there are other broader considerations and challenges that we need to overcome in addressing the pandemic and its challenges?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: I think COVID-19 has changed political viewpoints and mine as well in particular, because one of the key things I can mention is, I think what I've noticed is even clearly that trust when it comes to governance, and especially messaging coming up from governments, and this is why we have a qualification of what will term as misinformation, as conspiracy theories around COVID-19. This is why we have many people still rejecting some of the COVID related measures that are put in place, which is actually for, to protect the health of that citizen. But where we see, why we see this is because there's also a limited trust, there's lower levels of trust between the communities and the governance structures that are in place and the people behind these governance structures. And because of that, you notice the discrepancy in actually taking up the measures in different countries, including my own country. For me, what this has done is to try and see ways to better bridge the divide, because when COVID happened and the measures around the pandemic, for it to even be implemented, a lot of hard security had to be employed. We saw a lot of police going into, into communities trying to enforce the wearing masks, trying to enforce curfews. And with that came the challenge of increasing the gap between the communities and the security actors as well when it comes to trust. And moving forward, as we look at ways to address the pandemic, we and myself, including the institution I serve, which is Women in International Security, are working diligently to look at ways, how do we bridge this gap, right? Because a society where there's limited trust between it and the institutions that are meant to serve it, is a society that is more open to conflict, is a society that is more at risk of democratic spaces being taken over and turning violent. And for us, it's important to ensure that we redefine the terms like security, to mean security around issues around health to mean security around safety, for women, for instance, to be able to go and and get maternal health coverage when they need it, to be able to access those hospitals when they need it. So, to us, it's all about redefining some of the state-centric terminologies around security to be more centered on the person, as opposed to national security.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: You mentioned the need for improved public communication in a health crisis, like COVID-19. And you also addressed the rise of disinformation and conspiracy over new social media platforms, which you brought up earlier too. I'm wondering if, do you feel there's a special role for women in terms of being public communicators or facilitating that gap in public communication when it comes to such large scale crisis issues that are really affect every single person, like the COVID-19.
Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yes, I absolutely believe there is space for women to support communication and how we communicate during the crisis. I think one of the key things to put across is if you, looking at even my own communities and how we addressed COVID-19, is when countries, and especially the countries that got first hit, went into what we call a me-first approach, where they look internally, and not necessarily want to support outside, women that I work with and myself, we did not use the me-first approach. We looked at where are the challenges within our communities. We understood that information needs to get to the, to the household level and not everyone can be able to access the same level of information when living, maybe in the rural setting or in the slum setting, as opposed to those who are in larger cities. So we employed the use of radio for one. So radio is one of the best communication tools in Africa and in Kenya as well. And we used radio to pass messages around how to protect themselves, but in addition, added in messages around peace, messages around ensuring that the reduction of gender-based violence is also happening, and messages of where you get support in the event, or you're a victim of gender-based violence. And I think this was critical because communities were able to now understand, where do I get help? I do not feel abandoned because the fear that the virus caused most of even the peacebuilders actually took a step back to try and understand the pandemic, and in order to revamp some of their activities, and that created a gap of which the communities felt abandoned when they had the highest need. And for us as women peacebuilders, and also persons who work at the community level, it was important to ensure that people feel a sense of connection, especially when going through such a crisis, which more, not many people had understood what it was about and was still fairly new to them. And so that connection, the use of things like radio, putting up posters, we went into the community and actually did artwork where we would paint messaging on how to protect oneself, the simple measure of washing your hands, social distancing, etc. It's also important to note that the element of social distancing is new. For most of us in the communities, our way of interaction is to engage and to hug and to have that connection. And then in a short period of time, this had to stop. And so how do you slowly help with behavior change so that they can be able to keep themselves safe in spaces that are really cramped in some instances, especially in slums, and ensuring that they still are able to receive food because they are, most of them, most of the community members lost jobs. And so people had to step up and put food drives and ensure that these communities were still receiving the basic food to keep going in their community.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yeah, well it sounds like you've been very busy throughout this period in trying to raise awareness and in communicating with the communities. And there has been a divide between those perhaps more urban oriented and connected through modern technology to sources of information versus other types of communities. And I’m wondering, since your work does cover the region, you deal with the broader Horn of Africa area, and have you observed any differences in how the different countries respond to the current crisis? You know, one thing that has happened around the world is the border closures. And has cross border work in terms of peace-building have been affected in your region?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: So yes, cross border work has been affected because of the restrictions in movement, the restrictions in the way the different countries also apply different measures. And it also has increased the length of time to even do cross border work when you have opportunity to cross the border from one country to the other. But one of the key things we've noticed is for countries such as Somalia, which are coming out, they're stabilized, but their institutions such as the health institutions are still fragile. The pandemic has an impact, especially in countries that are coming out of conflict and trying to rebuild and to stabilize. And I think this will actually take things back for them. For the Horn, we also had the threat of locusts and this has affected food security. So it was also a time for the Horn, when we had like triple threats, we had the COVID pandemic, we had already the security threats that are posed by the extremists, especially those coming in from Al-Shabaab, and then thirdly, we had the threat from the locust invasion, which was affecting food security. And so when, it meant stepping up in three forms. Addressing how to support investments around cushioning environmental factors, such as the locust invasions, supporting, putting out messages around health issues. But at the same time, ensuring we are supporting dialogue, because dialogue for us is critical in this particular time and ensuring women are at the center of this dialogue because they are affected all the way to the community level, so ensuring they're there. Making sure that even the conversations that we are having, whether it's on physical support or social protection, that it also has a gender lens. Unfortunately, it's still an area that needs a lot of improvement because when you look at social protection now, it's not necessarily looking at things from a gender lens, yet women are, majority of the caregivers at the moment are women. They're still underpaid in most cases, not even paid, because if they're providing it at their own homes, this is not a paid service. And so just advocating for, we really need strong gender lens, and ensuring that we are addressing the pandemic and other crises to ensure that it is inclusive to all members of this society of which women are critical, critical, and a large players as well.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Wow. Well, you've been talking about many, multiple challenges that are coming to you at the same time, but certainly as many women leaders around the world, you're multitasking and dealing with these multiple challenges in a very clear, effective way. I'm wondering, despite all these challenges, are you generally optimistic about the future? Do, can you foresee accelerated change in a positive way for women's political empowerment in the next few years?
Fauziya Abdi Ali: I am absolutely optimistic about the future. I think very strongly the future is female. No doubt in my mind. And I think looking at even examples we've had from the international community of how, when you have female leaders at the realm, how they've been able to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic is really being tackled well, I think gives all of us who from across our different countries. Looking forward in the next 10 years, and looking at even the women I'm working with every single day and the young women in particular, who we are supporting to mentor as well, they give me hope because they are very strongly coming out, they are no longer looking at issues the way the previous generations were looking at it. They are learning from the previous generations. They appreciate what the previous generations have done to take us to the step we are now, 20 years on. And now creating their own innovative spaces to tackle their challenges around whether it be political or social. There's so much innovation that is being put out. I'll give you an example. When you look at COVID-19, the girls came out and actually were amongst the first to design masks, come up with, you know, masks from the household level, just looking for materials and designing masks that are inexpensive, that can be used for communities. The stepping stool for us to be able to wash, to wash our hands, some of these innovations were done by young people. So to me, they are stepping up to support efforts in their communities. They're working harder to out messaging on the same. I think the main challenge that they face is not only through the technology and the bullying and the harassment that is coming out, is getting that adequate space for people to listen to young people and say, ‘Hey, they have too a voice because the future is actually theirs’ and have to be able to sit at that table each and every day to discuss topics. I think for us women who have been engaging in political spaces, we had coined the word that if you do not have a space or a seat at the table, you carry your own chair, but for them they're asking, why do you need to carry your own chair? You can actually even use technology to keep pushing out the same messaging and getting to a bigger audience than that within just the boardroom. But they do appreciate the fact that you still need to be in those boardrooms when decision making is happening. So it gives me a lot of hope that 10 years down the line, you'll definitely see that completely the future leaders will be women.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Well, it's great to hear this optimistic tone. And I think it's fascinating about the role that the younger generation is playing in the innovation and creativity brought into the picture of public policy, but also the new tools in the technology sphere that they are able to deploy, does give us some hope and optimism about the future space for the next generation of young women and girls. And I do want to thank you so much for providing that optimistic outlook on the future. And it, it is great to talk to you to hear you sharing your stories and the situation in your country, the challenges that you are facing.
Fauziya Abdi Ali: So thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to be here today. And I look forward to, you know, getting to hear more from the other women as the series continues.
Bi-Khim Hsiao: Yes, well one thing about the pandemic is that we have all adjusted and actually connected with different parts of the world through these very new technologies and platforms that you have mentioned, that is chartered and led by the younger generation. And hopefully that will continue to keep us more interconnected, it will allow us to share best practices. and the progress around the world and in different regions. Thank you again for sharing and for educating us all on your challenges, as well as your accomplishments.
Fauziya Abdi Ali: Thank you!
Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at ndi.org.