WLP begins the coming decade of partnership with the announcement of our new board chair, Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro. She is globally recognized for her leadership of organizations and initiatives that advance women’s and girls’ human rights. Musimbi served as President and CEO of Global Fund for Women from 2011 to 2019. Before joining Global Fund for Women as CEO, Musimbi was Director for Population and Reproductive Health at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Musimbi serves on the boards of a number of organizations, including the United World Colleges, UN Global Compact, CARE International, Landesa, and Homeward Bound Projects. Read Full Bio Here
Since leaving the Global Fund for Women in 2019, Musimbi has continued her global activism. In the past year she has met with networks of activists in South America to film a documentary on climate change, traveled to Antarctica with a group of 100 women scientists, and joined WLP as the new board chair. We asked Musimbi to share the highlights of her work with Global Fund for Women, the new initiatives she has been working on, and what she most looks forward to as the new board chair of WLP. Read the interview below.
1. As president of Global Fund for Women (GFW) for eight years, you helped advance the reach of the organization across the globe. What were the highlights of your experience and what learning would you pass on to individuals and organizations working for change?
Kanyoro: During my time at GFW, the women’s movement faced many challenges. We saw the rise of conservativism, polarization, and division of people, and many began to challenge women’s hard-won achievements. I would say the biggest achievement was that GFW stayed strong, and supported and funded the brave women leaders around the world who had to confront this opposition in their own surroundings every single day. We did not waiver. In fact, we were able to significantly increase funding for the activists and leaders of change in their communities and provide multi-year grants. We became more strategic about how we communicated with people, especially on social media. We expanded our use of advocacy, including films and other tools that helped us reach more people and attract the attention of those who may not read a traditional report. This allowed GFW to become a strong, strategic influencer and provide leadership to other NGOs across sectors to do more for the human rights of women.
2. What are some initiatives that you are particularly excited about at this stage of your activism?
Kanyoro: My main reason for leaving Global Fund was not because I was finished; I could have spent another ten years at the Global Fund. I look at this not as retiring but as a rewiring. I have many networks around the world that I would like to continue to grow. An area that I will focus on is climate justice and environmental protection because of the urgent need to raise awareness and to mobilize women’s leadership in this area. That is one of the reasons I was a part of this group of 100 women scientists and the expedition to the Antarctica.
3. Women’s leadership, especially in the area of climate justice, is also very important to WLP. Could you tell us more about your experience with this group of 100 women scientists and your time in Antarctica?
Kanyoro: This was the fourth trip for an organization called Homeward Bound that aims to support leadership development of a thousand women scientists to take their place in ensuring planet justice. These women come from a variety of scientific backgrounds such as physics, astronomy, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. They are experts in their own fields, but were seeking to develop the leadership that is needed to address the effects of climate change on people’s lives and the ways to stop the trajectory of environmental destruction.
For example, if you're a pediatrician, and one day you have a lot of children coming to the hospital with an illness that is caused by the environment, are you able to do more than simply provide treatments? What are the ways to help the community change their lifestyle or advocate for collective action?
The women scientists had been involved with each other in learning classrooms for a whole year. Going to Antarctica was the first time they met face to face. Each of them had prepared a strong presentation regarding what is happening in their profession and their own understanding of environmental and climate change issues. We were from 33 countries with every form of scientific background, from communication technology to medicine, to environmental issues, to water management, etc.
During the day, we set sail and had about five hours of learning. I was one of the faculty who synthesized what was happening during that learning, as well as provided examples of feminist leadership on advocacy and collaboration. Much of my presenting was on collaboration. Additionally, I did my presentations on helping people understand how UN protocols such as CEDAW, or the North Atlantic Treaty, can be used for our purpose.
Antarctica: A Case Study of Wholeness
It was an important experience to see Antarctica –which has most of the world’s water in the form of ice. Many parts of Antarctica are mostly whole, but there are parts of the continent that are not whole anymore because of the impact of climate change. We saw five different species of penguins in their natural habitat and many are already suffering because of global warming. We also saw that we need to change our food habits. For example, the so-called Chilean sea bass, a fish from Antarctica that is very popular in restaurants, is threatened because of commercial fishing, and many people are not aware of this. We came to see Antarctica as a case study of what wholeness looks like, and what it means when you disturb that wholeness. We are not only determined to be activists in our own environment, but also to be activists for Antarctica and for other places that urgently need preservation.
Building Bridges and Connections
I myself, as an East African, was able to make the connection between what sea lions experience and what is happening to land lions in East Africa. Now I see the necessity of applying the same consciousness needed for the protection of Antarctica to the conservation of our wildlife back home, which is in danger in different ways. I can see how tourism is impacting Antarctica in a way that is similar to East Africa. The wildlife is no longer able to be in an environment where the animals can live without being hit by vehicles of tourists or even killed by hunters. Making that connection makes me a stronger activist in my own environment here, and also globally.
This trip also formed connections between people working in agriculture and water management. We were able to see how, for example, agriculture impacts carbon. We have people who are working in industry, in carbon factories, and we could delve deep with them and, instead of demonizing them, listen to their stories. We acknowledged that we are still going to drive cars and we still need agriculture. Food is an issue, which can’t just be a burden for the farmers. We need to ask what we can do to provide the leadership so that we can deal with the issues of carbon and agriculture.
4. What are you looking forward to as the new board chair of the WLP Partnership? What areas of the partnership’s work are you most interested in supporting?
There are two reasons that I joined the board of WLP. One is to continue to work on leadership because women’s leadership means a lot to me. We have to be obvious, conscious, and strategic. I believe that WLP’s focus on empowering women--not only to hold positions of management and decision making, but to change the whole approach to power and to organizational development--is crucial to creating change. The Partnership uses an inclusive, participatory concept of leadership that is respectful of difference and diversity and is centered on the individual woman as the change-maker. I have known the organization for a long time, and I have known leading partners that have been devoted to working with the Women’s Learning Partnership. I have great respect for them, and I wanted to be able to join them in delivering on the mission of WLP.
In the three decades that I have worked, I have learned about events and trends as well as individual leaders and change-makers in many parts of the world. I'm going to pass on my contacts in the Pacific, Latin America, and Africa, to the Partnership to strengthen and expand the reach of WLP. And I hope that we can find ways to work together with newer foundations that are formed by families and individuals. I hope as I learn about all the things that WLP offers, I will find certain spaces where I can be supportive in addition in to my role of chairing the board.
But I think the most important thing for the chair of the board is to support the CEO of the organization and trust that we are a good governance board. I want to make sure that we allow the staff of the organization to run the organization, as we govern and make sure WLP sustains its reputation as a highly trusted institution. And that is what I am going to try to do.
Around the world, the spread of COVID-19 is changing how civil society organizations (CSOs) are able to conduct their work and the global women’s movement in particular is facing extraordinary challenges. Organizations that amplify women’s voices and choices on issues ranging from personal status laws to reproductive health are now confronting unparalleled hurdles but are also finding innovative approaches to continue their work. Women’s Learning Partnership’s has mobilized to ensure that the needs of women are not overlooked in emergency responses to the pandemic. Our partners are adapting their programs and campaigns to address the evolving challenges by moving their events online, using messaging apps and social media to disseminate information, sensitizing journalists about the pandemic’s particular threats to women in the home and outside, raising funds for populations most at-risk, and even broadcasting messages by megaphone in communities where there is limited technology infrastructure and access to the web.
WLP will attend the 64th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. Learn more about our events at CSW64.