Bience Gawanas, Social Affairs Commissioner, African Union, Namibia

Words of Wisdom: “The acceptance of the unfairness is the challenge for African women. We need to ask: ‘Why does this rule exist?” – Bience Gawanas

Interview with Bience Gawanas, Social Affairs Commissioner, African Union, Namibia

Bience Gawanas, Social Affairs Commissioner, African Union, Namibia

Commissioner Bience Gawanas (Born in Namibia) is Commissioner of Social Affairs on the African Commission. Commissioner Gawanas was elected to two four-year terms as the Commissioner for Social Affairs at the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government in 2003 and 2008. In this role, she oversees advocacy as well as the harmonization and coordination of regional and continental policies and programmes relating to social development.  The portfolio of issues included Health (HIV/AIDS, Malaria, TB and other related infectious diseases); Migration; Population; Culture and Sport; Drug Control; Social Welfare of Vulnerable Groups; Labour; and Employment.

As the Commissioner of Social Affairs, Commissioner Gawanas developed policy instruments, projects and programmes on social development, including the Social Policy Framework, the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and the Declaration on Universal Access and an African Common Position presented at the UN High Level Meeting on Universal Access.

Commissioner Gawanas initiated pioneering activities such as the renewed Campaign on Malaria Eradication, the AU Campaign Initiatives on Human Trafficking (AU.Commit) and the Campaign on the African Cultural Renaissance.

Additionally, she launched the AU’s Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) continentally and in 25 AU member States in collaboration with governments and partners, which has refocused attention on women and their health.

She was a Commissioner on the Public Service Commission in Namibia from 1991 to 1996, and an Ombudswoman in the Namibian Government from 1996 to 2003.

Human’s rights activist

Commissioner Gawanas has a reputation as a champion of women’s rights in Namibia and Africa. She is Considered one of 100 influential individuals in the world for women and children.

Bience Gawanas ~ YouTube promo video

Suzanne F Stevens perspective: Why? A Question for all of Society

African Union website: http://au.int/en/dp/sa/

Bience Gawanas, Social Affairs Commissioner, African Union, Namibia

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: You have been described as a women’s activist and a human activist, how would you describe yourself?

[ Bience Gawanas ]:

  • As both
  • As a women activists that is about throwing myself into the game, and sometimes changing the rules of the game
  • Many times as women we are spectators and I think being a women activist means you are not a spectator, you are trying to change the rules of the game.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What ‘rule of the game’ do you feel you have contributed the most to changing?

[ Bience Gawanas ]:

  • I was the member of the liberation movement. I fought for the independence of my country.
  • I have taught many women in refugee camps. Today many of them are pioneers, doctors and leaders in the community.
  • I engaged with many girls in those refugee camps convincing them that an independent Namibia will need them.
    • I am glad to say that I engaged in those conversations. I never thought 30 years later that I would be the African Union Commissioner of Social Affairs and talking about sexual and reproduction rights of women.
  • So the biggest ‘rules of the game’ I have influenced is about making women equal. Not equal to men because there is not ‘man’s standard that I want to be equal to.’ It is about women and men being equal to each other. And the standard that we use to measure that equality is the human standard.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What was the catalyst for standing up for women’s rights?

[ Bience Gawanas ]:

  • I come from a family of eleven children. My parents never discriminated against me. So I was fortunate even though we were very poor, our parents never distingue between girls and boys.
  • Secondly, I grew up under apartheid in colonized Namibia, and as a black person you were really nothing. You had no rights. You did not exist apart from providing the labour. I decided to study law after my youngest brother was murdered in Namibia. A white man told me that “my intelligence as a black person is much lower than a white person” and therefore I will never be able to study law. Then I became a lawyer.
  • For me to become a lawyer was an opportunity to seek justice and fairness.  The motivator was the death of my brother, but more importantly, I wanted to prove apartheid wrong. I wanted to prove men wrong. It has nothing to do with the fact that I am black or that I am a woman to want to achieve, or to want to contribute and ultimately make difference.

[ Suzanne ]: What have you observed that is special about African women?

[ Bience ]:

  • They are very strong women. They are very powerful. All they need to do is find the power within themselves.
  • I think we are left by the wayside. Society created an image of women that we started believing in. I look at my mom and she still gives us the wisdom of her age and having eleven children.
  • Women show power behind the scenes. Men make the decision, but women have the power.
  • I believe African women have a passion, because we come from a community, you are not an individual.
    • The spirit of I am, because you are is there. I am not saying there are no selfish women, there are, but because of our very nature, we always want to belong.

What advice can you give to women to pursue their potential in the parameters where they are not treated as equal to their siblings?

  • We still live in a patriarchal world despite years of fight it.
  • But I tell women and girls, “I got to where I am, because I wanted to be where I am.”
    • I had patience. I wasn’t in a hurry.
    • It took many years to sit as the Commissioner, but I don’t need to sit here to bring about change.
    • You have the power within in, you just need to discover the potential you have despite whatever challenges you may go through.
  1. Know who you are
  2. Have a passion
  3. Have a vision
  4. Take risks. Get out of your comfort zone.
  5. Express your wishes and hopes.

When you look at Africa, what do you see as the biggest injustice to women today?

  • Exclusion, simply because of who we are. You know you have the capacity, and people are not making use of that capacity and that potential.
    • Patriarchy is everywhere. Therefore women are excluded.
    • Many of our cultures and traditions exclude women
    • Some cultures dehumanize women
    • I don’t believe if we are human beings that we can treat another human being that way.
    • We need to look at the physical and emotional impact it has on us when you are made to believe we are nothing.

    Education is key. It is a negotiation tool for women. It is only when you are aware of your environment and the possibilities that exist out there that you can negotiate the terms of your engagement. Whether it is a personal level, or society level or at the level where I am sitting.

Where can Africa strike the balance between tradition and progression?

  • At the AU we had a conference that we were going to address ‘harmful traditional practices’
    • WE wanted a different conference, we didn’t want women to come to speak how they were cut, or other harmful traditional practices
    • The theme of the conference was “Celebrating courage and overcoming harmful traditional practices.”
    • The purpose was to reflect on our culture in a positive way, but to also deal with the negative elements.
      • We need to understand where the beliefs come from. Was it past on from one generation to another without question?
    • All that is happening in today’s world is that we are saying human rights are invisible. They apply in every home and every village. That is what has made these issues visible. When you adopt the constitution in your country and it refers to gender equality and that women have the rights. If anything impinges on what the constitution outlines as your right, it has to be fought.
    • I think there is a big misunderstanding that if we fight negative cultures that we are also going to destroy the African culture. That is why we need to talk about both. What is it that we need to promote?
    • In the conference I asked the question, “Can we use the positive cultural values to overcome the harmful ones?” The methods in the West may not be the solution to fight harmful traditional practices.
    • This is not only about the rights of women, but also about the identity of the African woman. How do we make sure that our cultures are in-line with our rights?
    • We also have very good cultures which promote
      • Sharing
      • Standing together
      • Caring
      • Believing in the spirit of Ubuntu – “I am because you are”

Don’t be afraid to question…

  • You need to know how to frame the question
  • Then you need to have the courage to ask the question
  • Even at the African Union we needed to say, that is how things were done, but now women are involved now. We think differently, we do things differently. We want to bring who we are into the equation at the AU.
  • I was a public service commissioner, and in the public service we had rules that were openly discriminating against women. We had women that never question it. They may inside have known it was unfair and that they were being discriminated against, but they never questioned.
  • The acceptance of the unfairness is the challenge for African women.
  • We need to ask: “Why does this rule exist?
  • “What does the rule intend to achieve?” If it is discrimination, we have the right to question.
  • I also want to impart to the women of the AU, we should not just accept things because they have always been like that. We should question if we feel uncomfortable. If we feel it is not just and if it is not fair.

Do you think there are consequences to questioning, particularly as a woman?

  • Yes, definitely.
  • We may be accused that we want to become men.
  • That we are power-hungry; that we are ambitious.
    • My question is: “Is it wrong to be ambitious?”
    • “Is it wrong to have power?” The wrongness of it all is what you use that power for.
    • Generally, men feel a little uncomfortable when women are questioning them.
    • The questioning should not only come from the side of women, the questioning should also come from the side of men.
      • To question status quo.
      • To question why they were always so privileged?
      • To question to why they do the things they do?
      • As women you don’t start question because you have a position i.e. Commissioner of Social Affairs
        • You start questioning at high school
        • In your home, where it all starts
        • You don’t need to sit in a position to be a leaders or a change agent.
        • You can be a change agent just by asking “Mom, why does my brother not wash the dishes?”

Do you have advice for women who want to get involved into politics?

  • I find it hard to answer the question, because I grew up in a situation where you could not stand on the side-lines.
  • I was one of the few young women who got up on a public platform to speak. I don’t know where I got it from, but it was there. When you are stuck in a corner, you will get yourself out of that corner.
  • Many of us started early on in our lives.
  • If you have that passion to want to become somebody, you will pursue it. You will look around you and inside you and you will find what you want and need.
  • You can get involved an politics at the local level and make a difference
  • Parliament should never be the ultimate objective.
  • When we talk about women in politics we always talk about members of parliament, or ministers. These are very alienating structures. You can combine a women’s familiarity with the difference she can make where she is.

Why did you become a lawyer?

  • I became a lawyer not because I could make a lot of money, but because that was what I thought was the only way that I could find justice. I lived in a society that was very unjust. My brother was killed by white people and thrown on the road. I became a lawyer almost 20 years later.
    • Don’t’ go into politics for the glamour of the job, but believe by being their you can make a difference.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career?

I work in an organization that has existed since 1963. It has changed. But it is an organization that is still very male dominated. When us women came here, after women activist campaign to ensure the gender balance was acknowledged in the AU, there was hardly any women staff. That is how we got five women and five men Commissioners.

  • Now the challenge is how to make sure the gender principle trickle down into the organization and to our own countries.
  • In AU the leaders agree on the principle of 50/50, gender equality. At the national level that does not happen.
  • How do we promote ideals, the very good policies at the AU and ensure they make a difference for women in this organization and everywhere else?
  •  At the AU we have ‘commitments,’ for me the challenge is the translating of those commitments to give a better life to our people at the national level. There is a very huge gap between the two.
  • At our head of states we put through very important decisions and I wonder what happens on the ground? I started a campaign for ‘Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality Africa (CARMMA).’  I launched the campaign because we have been talking about HIV and malaria, but it does not focus on the gender nature of diseases.  If you talk about maternal mortality, you put it in the face of people that there is no reason that women on this continent should die of childbirth. It challenges our culture; children are so important in the African family, but the question is ‘does Africa care about those who are producing those children?
  • The reason for the campaign was we have all these wonderful policies and instruments that we have adopted at continental level, how do we translate that to action on the ground? CARMMA was a campaign to try and bridge that gap. Today we have 37 countries that have launched a campaign nationally. I tell them ‘don’t be politically correct while doing this’ “put yourself on notice to the women and the children in your country.”
  • For me it is not about more AID to rescue the lives of women, I think it should be about Africa to take ownership of problems and creating solutions to those problems. Many of the actions that can save lives may not cost a cent. We have to ask the question if women deserve to be treated like this?

Have you ever conducted an initiative that didn’t work & what did you learn from that experience?

  • I would really have to think about it. I don’t do anything on my own. I have to make sure others believe in it. That is always my starting point.
  • If I put out my feelers and it doesn’t look like it will work, I don’t do it.
  • If I get involved in something that I passionately believe in, I will carry it out. I will not get involved in something that I wont carry through.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

Sometimes it is just not worth it to rock the boat. You accept being treated differently. You don’t like to be there, but it is easier to be there. So you accept sometimes humiliation. I will let it pass this time. Sometimes I don’t make a fuse. I am referring to sometimes being put down by men. Most of them know that I don’t shut up, but when I don’t, it brings a little discomfort to the situation. So I ask myself, is this a life and death issue? I pick my fights.

How do you define leadership?

Humility.  A lot of us occupy positions, but we occupy positions that are bigger then us. Because these positions are bigger then us we have to fill the positions with unnecessary jargon and egos. That is when you forget to be humble.

If you occupy your position and you think you are bigger then the position, then you don’t need to fill the space. For me it is how humble are you to be able to impart knowledge to others? Only humble people do that, not people with big egos.

Leadership Lessons Learned – Bience Gawanas

  1. Take the plunge. Many of us have very good ideas. Share your ideas. Don’t just say “I want to do this.” Say to yourself, “I can do this.” The mindset must change. It is about taking the first step.
  2. Your idea may need more knowledge. Decide how to get it.
  3. You need to aware of the environment in which you live. See who else is doing what you want to do.
  4. The power is within us.

Advice from a taxi driver

“If you are constantly looking up than you want always more; when you look down, you thank God for where I am.”

One thing you would do differently in pursuit of your success?

I would continue staying as Ombudswoman of Namibia. I could see everyday that I made a difference in the life of a pensioner, or in the life of someone who is being discriminated against.

What is next for you?

I want to go back Namibia. My biggest mission is what happens in Addis (AU) needs to be translated into action. I want to bridge that gap.

I may want to go back to governance and human rights issues.

Reflective Realizations from Bience Gawanas

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old Daughter?

Here I am. Do what I have done. Please wake up and go to school. I know that difference that that every morning walk to school will make in your life.  I will let her play.

Q What do you wish you were told at 10yrs?

Life is not always determined by your circumstances and you can go beyond your circumstances. At 10, I was going to go to bed hungry, but if my mom said to me that it is ok, it will be better one day.

Words of Wisdom by Bience Gawanas

  • I am proud to be an African woman. I am a woman and I never would want to be a man. I would not want to be different.
  • Life is not always that bad if we want to rise above our immediate challenges
  • Don’t focus on the problem, move from the problem to the solution. Always look at problems with a solution in mind.
  • Network using the instruments that are available to us.
  • Start framing the questions

 


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    2 replies to "Bience Gawanas"

    • mulumebet

      What a previlage to know such a women, inspiring, as an African i am proud of you keep it up and God bless

    • Ellen Boyko

      That was a brilliant and fascinating discussion – thank you for sharing. To discover the potential that you have no matter the challenges. Believe in knowing who you are, to know where you want to be. These are key messages for women all over the world.
      Very interesting discussion re the traditions of Africa and the changing roles of women. The identity of women in history of the culture and yet in line with rights of women. I too will ask why the men in my family don’t wash the dishes.
      Suzanne – I was also touched by your share on your experience in Africa as a woman and being treated differently. Also – I love your top; it is gorgeous!

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