Naana Otoo-Oyortey

At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Jennifer Brough (JB): Hi Naana, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your career? 

Naana Otoo-Oyortey (NOO):  I’ve been working on sexual and reproductive health and rights since 1996. After I did my MPhil in Development Studies in Sussex, I realized there were quite several issues around women’s rights that I was interested in. I attended [a conference?] in Brighton on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) where I got to hear about issues around Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and my organization –International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) – had started talking about sexual/reproductive health and rights. My focus was around gender issues and equity within governance and programming around sexual and reproductive health.

That conference made me look at neglected forms of VAWG like FGM and child marriage. A small group of individuals within our own organizations, working on rights issues in international development, came together to work on issues around child marriage at the Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Girls. We helped shape the UK’s work on forced marriage after our landmark national conference and research on early marriage in 1998.

After 11 years working with IPPF, I wanted to focus on African women’s health and rights, primarily working in the UK but from an international development perspective. I had a lot of experience working at the global level, so it gave me a real understanding of the different issues and challenges and saw the urgent need to be part of the change process for African women and girls.

JB: That’s quite a journey!

NOO: I started at FORWARD in 1998, when the founder Efua Dorkenoo approached me to join the organization. When Efua Dorkenoo left to join the World Health Organization, I had the opportunity to play a leadership role. FGM was a growing concern in the UK and only diaspora organizations were working on the issue with little strategic support from national government. I was concerned at the deeply entrenched practice of FGM and felt I had a legitimate role to play in leading change. I felt that if I was born in one of the countries, or one of the ethnic groups that practice FGM,  I would have wanted somebody to defend my rights and speak up for me. [EM1] This was an issue that was affecting predominantly African women at the time, so being an African woman, I felt that I needed to be more vocal.

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JB: FORWARD does work in the UK and Africa putting diaspora community at its centre. When you work with organizations on a larger scale how do you maintain the people at the heart of your policy?  

NOO: We come from the perspective that the African people should inform the work at the policy level because at the end of the day change can only happen from within communities. You will need to dismantle the social norms that are so entrenched that makes girls and women vulnerable and powerless. This should be about engaging people at the grassroots. At FORWARD we use participatory research to raise the voices of communities we engage with. This enables people who have been affected to have a voice in a legitimate and systematic way that can be documented and shared.

We’ve also been instrumental in nurturing champions because at the end of the day, community champions make the difference on the ground. When we engage with international or bigger organizations, our approach has primarily been to contribute our expertise from community engagement, but also bringing the issues to the public arena and shaping policy. We are very effective at engaging at different levels, but we focus very much at the grassroots level because we want to make change more evident and sustained.

We engage and enable local organizations to have the capacity, technical expertise and tools to operate effectively, but also to make them more visible so they are recognized as key actors. As a result, when we’ve made these organizations visible, we tend to see the international, big organizations then come in to take over. This often results in marginalising local organizations and that is the big challenge we continue to face on the ground.

JB: This leads on to my next question about the Eurocentric approach that can be reproduced in development research and debates. When you have people who are working within communities and then people come in from the outside, this word ‘expert’ gets thrown around quite a lot. How does one determine who is an ‘expert’ if you’re not in the community? 

NOO: You’ll find that when it comes to publishing our work, we are not as recognized as other international organizations with stronger academic links, so often the debates and approaches are based on this kind of Eurocentric approach. We’ve always been saying that the diaspora plays a critical role in development, but if you look at who receives money and policy spaces, they are not necessarily diaspora organizations. If you do not get consistent funding you’re not able to scale up, reach out and be as visible.

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JB: You’ve touched on it briefly but how can we encourage the UK to make development a more Global South-centric sphere given the issues within the diaspora community?

NOO: In the UK, you find that quite a number of communities who are affected by FGM and forced marriage would have come from South Asia and Africa. So it’s asking how we engage communities here and how we can build on that to engage communities at home. With Sierra Leone, you’re finding that the diaspora has been very vocal on talking about FGM in the UK but have also started raising awareness around this issue in Sierra Leone, and this has been happening only in the last five to ten years. We see the stronger voice of the diaspora, but we need to engage equally at different angles. We’ve been working through the coalition of the Diaspora African Women’s Network to create a platform to provide a critical voice in terms of engagement with policy makers.

In the UK, we have just established this new leadership training, which was based on a leaderships training and social action programme being run by Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMWA) and FORWARD.   Akina Mama was established in the UK as space for African women and moved to Uganda. So as diaspora oragnisations we have joined efforts to implement this innovative feminist leadership programme called Tuwezeshe Akina Dada Young Women’s Leadership.  This is a Swahili word meaning enabling our sisters. To date we have trained over 85 young women in UK, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda and the impact that they are already making in their social action projects is really transformative.

Training has turned around lives of young women; it has been a combination of our own experiences and what we feel we should be part of, we are bringing our collective lived experiences. Most of us felt that this type of feminist training is what we all needed when growing up but we never had the opportunity. So that’s the element of our own lived experiences, our contextual issues, but also, our development experiences have helped to shape some of this work. It means the work we do is cutting edge but it takes a long time for our work to be recognized because, again, we do not have the capacity to scale up.

JB: Lack of funding for organizations that are doing such crucial work means that, ultimately, foreign policy and development policy becomes an echo chamber of the same voices, surely?

NOO: If you look at the arena around FGM globally evidence shows that change is more evident in countries where multiple strategies have been adopted, often with a strong role of government and civil society actors. Tanzania, where we have worked for the past ten years, has never had any of the global funded interventions or any big international development work but Tanzania has had one of the most effective reductions in FGM. It’s happening because local organizations are working together. We’ve actually started to document how working with local partners, enabling them to work together, is really the best way to make change.

JB: What would a feminist foreign policy look like to you given the issues FORWARD tackles?

NOO: For me a feminist foreign policy would tackle issues around women’s lack of participation in critical spaces; not only in political spaces, but also in social spaces. And to address the leadership capacity of women and girls, but also to enable women to have that collective sisterhood because, again, a single woman in parliament isn’t going to make much difference, whereas if you have a collective of women in parliament they can make that necessary shift.

Tackling gender-based violence is so insidious in its adverse impact on women’s capacity to engage in different processes. There’s the element of tackling sexual and reproductive health and rights to enable women, particularly women and girls from rural communities, to have access to information to understand their bodies, to build their confidence and to be able to enjoy basic rights around a safe and healthy relationship. The majority of the girls we’ve been working with have almost always experienced some form of abuse and some have experienced multiple forms of abuse. We’ve also been looking at abuse in universities in Africa as part of our Leadership Programme. We just came back from Uganda and Makerere University have had to set up a task force for tackling sexual abuse in universities. So there is the element of addressing issues around sexual abuse and VAWG, which is so pervasive in higher institutions of learning and how that impacts on women’s ability and capacity to be effective in political spaces.

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The most important thing is also to create spaces to build capacity for civil society, particularly for women’s organizations. You’d be surprised at how some women’s organizations have deeply entrenched patriarchal systems when it comes to how they govern. Their power dynamic is so similar to those within patriarchy so you’ll find when a woman rises, she doesn’t allow others to rise, so that kind of transformative leadership and power is not really evident. There is also need for a parallel focus on men and tackling issues around gender equality because a lot of these structures are so entrenched that men themselves also seem to see it as natural. So how do we engage young women also to be at the forefront and engage young men to be part of this process of change? Because otherwise men are going to be left behind, which would also aggravate the whole issue of violence and abuse.

JB: Knowing everything that you do and how long you’ve worked in your field, what keeps you motivated?

NOO: At FORWARD we just are a big organization of sisters. We come together every time, we work very hard, we challenge each other, we also recognize that the issues are very sensitive and difficult. I think that’s where we have this perspective of celebrating gains, by recognizing that we can have a voice and, most importantly, as a diaspora organization we have the legitimacy to be part of that change. I think that is what really keeps us ticking on a day-to-day basis and being passionate and committed to the change we want to see.

JB: What is your favourite book by a female author?

NOO: At the moment, it’s Chimamanda. Recently I’ve been reading Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions and it was like wow! It was so interesting and exciting to see such amazing advice and we actually use for one of her talks on feminism in our Tuwezeshe training.


Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough