Interview with Colleen LaFontaine, Co-Founder, Present Purpose Network
Is it possible to encourage peace in Africa?
Peace is an outcome.
An outcome of a society where individuals have freedom, where civil society can hold their government accountable and where all people can exercise their individual agency – men and women alike.
The realization of freedom, accountability and individual agency comes from both the top down and the bottom up.
Policy can legislate freedom and allow, for example, the creation of civil society groups. Yet policy alone cannot bring peace because policy alone cannot create individual agency.
With the crises in South Sudan and Central African Republic, for example, there has been much written about the role of women in peace talks and negotiations. The United Nations has even passed a resolution to broaden women’s role in the peace process.
With the crises in South Sudan and Central African Republic, for example, there has been much written about the role of women in peace talks and negotiations. The UN has even passed a resolution to broaden women’s role in the peace process. Yet if women don’t have a voice in their community or even in their own home, how can they influence their country?
All women need to realize their agency in order to achieve lasting peace in Africa.
If women don’t have a voice in their community, how can they influence their country? All women need to realize their agency in order to achieve lasting peace in Africa.
A woman needs to be able to impact her own household and her own community – then she can impact her country.
She needs to be on the front-lines of her own development. Because we know improvements in her life helps everyone – her daughters and sons, her community, and ultimately, her country.
Increasing a women’s individual and collective agency leads to better outcomes, institutions and policy choices.
We know that investments in women and girls can increase a country’s productivity gains by up to 25% and that increasing secondary school education for girls boosts per capital income growth. The world has responded to this data and the international community has committed billions of dollars to programmes for women and girls.
Over the last 20 years both the international community and developing countries have publicly committed to improvements for women and girls through policy interventions including: commitments to equal access and participation in government, CEDAW, ICPD’s universal access to family planning, and individual developing country’s commitments to projects like universal primary education and ending child marriage.
In spite of the gains over the last two decades the picture is still challenging, and far from peaceful, for many women across Africa.
Yes, government intervention and the international community can change formal institutions, the law, infrastructure, funding and other valuable resources – but these interventions alone won’t change the societal barriers preventing women and girls from participating in education, markets, won’t change their role in the household, in society at large.
Liberia provides a good illustration of constructive government intervention by having a policy of free primary school education – implemented by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Liberia provides a good illustration of this – Liberia has a policy of free primary school education – implemented by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Yet 40% of girls ages 10-14 have never been to school. This is not unique to Liberia nor by any means to Africa.
There are issues, factors and beliefs preventing girls from attaining education related to the value of girls, cultural norms regarding child marriage, safety concerns due to gender based violence and opportunity costs – all of which need to be addressed.
Policy alone is not enough to address these issues. Change also needs to happen on the front-lines, in the grassroots, by women, for women. With that change will come freedom and individual agency and the ultimate outcome of peace.
What are you doing to encourage peace in Africa?
Perhaps what I do is best expressed as learning, funding and sharing.
In an effort to dive deeper into the issues that I am passionate about I recently completed an MSc at the London School of Economics.
Graduate school was an opportunity to gain not only an historical perspective on the issues but to explore contemporary arguments and research regarding peace and gender issues in Africa and across the developing world. In my dissertation I investigated the relationship between democracy and contraceptive prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa. This work served to further reinforce my belief that change can’t just come from above – it must simultaneously come from the ground.
If one role incorporates learning, funding and sharing it is my role as co-founder of Present Purpose Network.
Our mission is to help young women fulfil their purpose by working as a virtual network – learning, collaborating, investing in innovation local solutions. We support fellow women leaders working in the community with women and girls most impacted by poverty, violence and inequality.
These are the women that are creating peace in their communities and enabling a generation of women that are the world’s next peacemakers.
For example, we have just made our second grant to Akili Dada. Present Purpose supported their social entrepreneurship program and we are now funding networking and educational opportunities for their young leaders.
In my dissertation for my MSc. at the London School of Economics, I investigated the relationship between democracy and contraceptive prevalence in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We also made an investment in Integrate Bristol – a student-led advocacy program here in the UK.
These girls from the Somali and Sudanese communities in Bristol are tackling big issues like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and gender-based violence. And they are good at it! They raised awareness across the UK and even took their anti-FGM campaign to the UN.
Present Purpose also aims to educate and inform women philanthropists. We learn, discuss, even debate, the issues impacting women and girls.
Many of our members are from North America and Europe and arguably no amount of education can fully enable us to understand the complexity of these issues at a grassroots level. So in order to better inform our discussions and enable us to make better funding decisions we have several young African members who have benefitted from projects like those Present Purpose funds.
We also made an investment in Integrated Bristol – a student-led advocacy program here in the UK. These girls from the Somali and Sudanese communities in Bristol are tackling big issues like FGM, forced marriage and gender-based violence. And they are good at it!
I am also on the advisory boards to several non-profits including One World Children’s Fund. One World is an amazing organization that funds grassroots projects around the world and across Africa. Through my work with One World I was introduced to Collaborate for Africa. When life relocated me to London I launched a chapter of Collaborate for Africa here in the UK.
Finally, I would have to acknowledge the important role of social media for its capacity to facilitate peace.
Social media allows me to have powerful conversations about gender issues, democracy and governance with men and women around the world. Through these conversations my knowledge grows and my opinions evolve. Twitter also enables me to share information about the incredible women we fund and the people we meet through our work. Follow me @ColleeninLondon
Learning about the issues that prevent peace, funding the women that tackle those issues and sharing information is how I, and any of us, facilitate peace in Africa.
What can others do to encourage peace in Africa?
Get involved. Ask questions and constantly learn.
The path to sustained peace across Africa is complex. But complexity is no reason for it not to be achieved.
Any of us, all of us, can be a part of a solution for sustained peace in Africa.
Understand that there is no one magic solution, but hundreds of solutions in countries and communities across the continent.
Any of us, all of us, can be a part of a solution.
Support initiatives that fuel African communities so that individuals can exercise their freedoms, so civil society can thrive and so men and women can exercise their individual agency. In communities around the world you will find individuals committed to peace in Africa. Join them – question, challenge and learn. Understand the crucial role that gender inequality has on suppressing peace. Think about how you can support the women at the front-lines, in the grassroots, to fight inequality, realize their agency, and facilitate peace in their communities and in their countries.
Join the conversation and find your own way to impact peace in Africa.