Naomi Tulay-Solanke is the Founder and Executive Director of Community Health Initiative (CHI) working at the intersection of women’s health and women’s rights in Liberia. Zeynep Meydanoglu who leads Ashoka’s gender justice work spoke with Ashoka Fellow Naomi Tulay-Solanke in the lead up to her participation in Changemakers United Africa, a collective effort to support social innovators at the forefront of the Covid-19 crisis.
Zeynep Meydanoglu: How has your work shifted since Covid-19 started?
Naomi Tulay-Solanke: Over the last 6 months, due to the pandemic, there has been a 50 percent rise in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). More than 600 rape cases have been documented, and nothing was being done. The justice system wasn’t working. The police wasn’t working. The court wasn’t adjudicating. Seeing this national emergency we had to shift the focus of our work to fight this culture of impunity, which has been normalized in Liberia.
Despite the pandemic, we staged a 3-day protest in August to put more pressure on our government, demanding that the criminals be held accountable, and the victims be given support. During the protest, we were beaten by the police, but it didn’t stop us. The government deliberately refused to show up and we drew attention to that. The media publicity created outrage – and the government’s knee jerk reaction was to hold a 2-day summit on gender-based violence, to which we weren’t invited because they saw us as troublemakers.
We didn’t let that stop us though. We were able to work with other women’s groups to carry our petition in the room. We don’t have to be physically in the room, but we need the change to be in the room. After the 2-day national conference, the government declared rape a national emergency and developed a roadmap – all our demands were included. But implementation is not there yet. So we are engaging with them. Asking them: ‘Where are you one month later?’ We are creating a pressure group to hold them to account.
Meydanoglu: What about your work making reusable sanitary pads to keep girls from dropping out of school? Is the Liberian government supportive of these efforts?
Tulay-Solanke: We have always invited the government into our work and we need their political will to make sure every woman and girl has access to affordable sanitary pads. But they have their own priorities, and they are a patriarchal structure. Issues that affect women aren’t a major concern for them right now.
A few years ago we elected West Africa’s first female president in Liberia. She put gender on the national agenda and appointed several women to high-level decision-making posts. Now we are back to the status quo and pushing women in leadership and decision-making positions is no longer a priority. We are fighting against that.
Meydanoglu: What opportunities do you see for greater gender equality in Liberia?
Tulay-Solanke: I see a lot of opportunities emerging. Everybody has observed that in every institution, every trade, gender is mentioned more frequently than five years ago. We are replacing an old systemic ideology and for that we need to invest in women. If women are going to occupy political spaces, they need to be supported to occupy these spaces. We need to be supported financially to run for office, we must invest in our ideas so that they can scale. We have a system that oppresses us, but we can achieve a lot.
Meydanoglu: What changes are needed in families to better support women?
Tulay-Solanke: I see partnership. We should build our home, family differently. A successful family is a successful society. We need to be team players, team builders. We need mutual support, not a specific work for a specific gender. We women should be natural, be ourselves and reject the artificial roles we are supposed to play. If we are tired running the house, we should say it and the man should then take over.
Meydanoglu: What about the backlash?
Tulay-Solanke: The negative backlash should be ignored. We are entering a space that is not accustomed to us, but we shouldn’t change ourselves just to make people comfortable. We also need to speak up for ourselves more. For example, society still expects working women to do all the home care work. If she is tired after work, people say ‘she is neglecting her children.’ What about the men’s role in this? As women we need to lean on each other, as a collective. If we are tired, we need to say we are tired. We need to recognize that we are oppressed and want to be liberated. Don’t pity us though, we just demand equality, the same opportunities men have.
Meydanoglu: So much about your work is ensuring women occupy public spaces.
Tulay-Solanke: Yes. The simple biological process of menstruation is keeping girls from being in critical spaces – like schools. You can’t make critical decisions about women without women in the room. Nothing about us without us. We have to create those spaces. The men who are in top power positions don’t know for example that menstruation is a barrier to the other gender. Women know it so they would articulate this issue and handle it, if they were in positions of power. The same with abortion, raising children, etc. That is why it is so important for women to participate in decision-making and be in public spaces.
Meydanoglu: What are the key spaces where women and girls need to be?
Tulay-Solanke: A lot of places. First, schools. Power comes from being knowledgeable so first we need to empower and educate more women. Then they will be able to make it to other institutions. In many religions women can’t be in top positions. A woman can’t be a priest, or an imam. In some traditional cultures she cannot be chief. Why? We need to ask these questions. And when women are able to occupy these spaces, we need to support them.
Meydanoglu: Where do you see your work in a decade?
Tulay-Solanke: Within 10 years, we will be able to talk about sexual reproduction in decision-making spaces. I see a strong shift in power distribution and female leadership. Menstrual health will not be a barrier anymore and we will be celebrating our gains as women.
Naomi Tulay-Solanke is the Founder and Executive Director of Community Health Initiative (CHI) working at the intersection of women’s health and women’s rights in Liberia. Forty percent of girls across Liberia miss school because of a natural biological process – their menstruation – and the prohibitive cost of sanitary pads. Ashoka Fellow Naomi Tulay-Solanke started the country’s first community-based reusable sanitary pad industry as an entry point to ensure girls’ rights to an education.
Zeynep Meydanoglu is the Director of Ashoka Turkey, and the leader of Next Now/Gender. Prior to Ashoka, Zeynep led civil society strengthening initiatives and contributed to Turkey’s women’s movement in organizations like TUSEV, KAMER and Purple Roof Foundation.
Next Now: Ashoka is mobilizing the strength of its community around gender justice. Next Now/Gender connects unlikely allies around shared visions of the future that address gender bias and embrace gender justice. This is Part 1 of an Ashoka series that sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders guiding the field.