The Mary Robinson Awards for Young Women’s Leadership in Human Rights

The Mary Robinson Awards for Young Women’s Leadership in Human Rights
Ms Nancy Kapembwa receive her award from Ms Mary Robinson

The first ever Mary Robinson Awards for Young Women’s Leadership in Human Rights was launched on July 12, opening the 4th International Women’s Summit. Four awardees were selected among more than 70 nominations by an international review panel headed by Dr. Sigrun Mogedal. The award ceremony was opened by Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA.  Mary Robinson, Chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice and the first female President of Ireland (1990-1997), gave a keynote speech to present the awards and emphasise the critical work that the recipients are doing in human rights.  Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro and Susan Brennan, President of the World YWCA, were also present to welcome the awardees as they received their prizes.

In her opening speech, Ms. Robinson discussed the need for further advocacy, saying that “the world itself has woken up to the largely untapped potential of young girls and women.” Speaking on issues such as child marriage, education, and healthcare, Ms. Robinson stressed the need for both broad alliances and work within local communities. “The most effective way to bring about the change we need is to empower girls themselves, but they need examples to follow, they need young women leaders to stand up and have their voices heard,” said Robinson.

Awards were given in three categories: a young woman human rights activist from the YWCA movement, a young woman human rights activist from the broader community, and a YWCA that demonstrated exemplary leadership in the area of human rights.  Nominees were judged on impact, community empowerment, innovation, human rights focus, adaptability, motivation, and partnership with others. 

Nancy Kapembwa, from the YWCA of Zambia was the young woman that was selected from the YWCA movement. Nancy Kapembwa’s work has set a standard in Africa that evokes hope and courage. Growing up in the rural town of Chipata in Zambia, she witnessed the effects harmful traditional practices have had on women and girls and the primary motivation of her work has been to see her community make such practices a thing of the past. In her work for the emancipation of women in Zambia, she uses innovative techniques to empower women. Ms. Kapembwa has created a Survivor Support Group for women living with HIV. This group of women meets regularly to share experiences and to grow strong together. Equipped with knowledge, many of the young women Ms. Kapembwa has worked with now execute sensitisation campaigns in their own communities.

Another innovative method that Ms. Kapembwa uses in her work is community conversations. This is a six phase process that she designed to ensure progression from problem identification to action. The process involves men and women, and boys and girls. The involvement of men gives them a role as agents of change, thus rendering the process more effective and inclusive of all members of the community.

Ms. Kapembwa has become a role model to many women and girls. To date she has reached approximately 2,500 people, many of whom are women and girls survivors of violence and living with HIV.

Jacinta Nyachae is the young woman outside of the YWCA movement who was the recipient of the Mary Robinson Award. Jacinta Nyachae, from Kenya, has demonstrated relentless dedication to the legal protection, education and health care of people living with HIV and AIDS. In 2007, Ms. Nyachae founded the AIDS Law Project, which addresses the gap in provision of legal services to people living with HIV.  Through ALP, Ms. Nyachae has reached over 1,000 people through legal awareness at the community level and at least 300,000 people through public litigation on matters relating to health and rights. 

In her advocacy work, Ms. Nyachae has cultivated the interest of young women in rural Nairobi who wish to know more about their legal rights.  A simplified version of the HIV Act that was published by Ms. Nyachae, in conjunction with the legal aid training, has empowered women to identify violations in human rights and then seek legal justice.  Ms. Nyachae has done much to framework violations against female rights on the basis of gender and HIV stigmas.  She has successfully devised a way for young women to be educated and empowered on a community level and, in doing so, curbed and restrained abuse. 

It is Ms. Nyachae’s commitment, promotion and protection of the human rights of women living with HIV that brought her to Zurich, where she gave an inspiring and moving acceptance speech saying, “I still believe in human rights.’’

The Mary Robinson Award for Young Women’s Leadership in Human Rights was originally destined to be awarded to one YWCA. However, due to the exceptional work of two YWCAs, the panel decided to present a joint award to the YWCA of Belize and YWCA Canada.

The YWCA of Belize has led the way in human rights with their innovative use of barbershops and beauty salons as resource centres for HIV and AIDS education and dissemination.  Their projects address the increasing rate of HIV transmission and have expanded to include violence against women, distribution of condoms, and advocacy.  The General Secretary of the YWCA of Belize shared moving words in accepting the award, “The difficulties faced by the women of Belize drive and inspire our programmes. We believe setbacks, obstacles, and challenges are all temporary.  We can never give up.”

YWCA Canada accepted the award for their ground-breaking programmes that consistently and strategically further human rights for women and girls, including Girlspace, YW Leadership Miles, and Power of Being a Girl.  YWCA Canada continues to be at the forefront of leading social change within the country through building strategic partnerships and using social media.  YWCA Canada strives to help girls understand what personal and human rights mean in their everyday lives.  Accepting the award with intergenerational leadership, the recipients emphasised the power of influence and how one speech, one conference, or one person can serve to inspire.

Setting the tone for future Mary Robinson Awards for Young Women’s Leadership in Human Rights, the four recipients served as an inspiration for delegates at the International Women’s Summit and for human rights activists worldwide. 

The World YWCA congratulates Nancy Kapembwa, Jacinta Nyachae, the YWCA of Belize and YWCA Canada!

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