“I take comfort in knowing that making a difference in one woman’s life, per day, is good enough. That “one” woman will also impact other women in one way or another.” …Letty Chiwara

There is beauty inequality. With equality, you see everything differently. You choose to treat humanity with dignity and respect, and you want others to see just how peaceful it is to live equally.

A taste of equality in her childhood led Letty Chiwara into fighting for gender equality and women’s rights for the past 24 years. With this, she has made a mark today as a great UN Women Representative. She currently is the Representative to Ethiopia, the African Union Commission and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. She worked for 12 years in New York, holding various positions, including UNIFEM and UN Women Chief of Africa. 

Letty Chiwara was instrumental in forging strategic partnerships for UN Women, including the European Commission, OECD DAG Gender Net, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, Africa Evaluation Association (AfREA) and many others. So strong is her passion for women that she took on the role of gender expert and women’s activist at the tender age of 30. These roles have seen her engage with and contribute to various inter-governmental negotiations like the Commission on the Status of Women, the Africa Union Summits, the Financing for Development Conferences and many others. She has also been actively involved with the establishment of various women-affiliated networks like FemWise (Africa Women Mediators Network), AWLN (African Women Leaders Network), and AGDEN (Africa Gender and Development Evaluators Network). 

Recently, she joined hands with other UN Agencies and the Africa Union Commission to develop the Africa Regional Spotlight Initiative – a regional programme aimed at ending sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), Harmful and Traditional practices (HTPs), and ending child marriages in Africa. Previously, she served as a Town Planning Officer in Matabeleland South and Harare in her home country Zimbabwe. Letty Chiwara not only has a wealth of experience, but she has also documented her knowledge for others to glean from through several publications. She co-authored the book “3 Leadership Journeys, ONE Story: Culture, Gender and African Women’s Leadership” with Regina Amadi Njoku (Nigeria) and Elizabeth Lwanga (Uganda). She has also joined 20 women worldwide to author an upcoming publication, “How Women Reclaiming Their Power are Changing the World: YOU MATTER”, which Bekker-Hill Books will soon publish. Letty firmly believes that knowledge is POWER. Hence, she ensures she imparts her knowledge and experiences as widely as possible. Time has seen her sit as a member of the board at Shelter Zimbabwe and REALL. Letty has been recently recognised as one of the 100 Most Influential African Women 2021 by Avance Media

The Equality Effect for Letty Chiwara

Letty Chiwara

Her source of inspiration is entirely unexpected. Letty Chiwara decided to fight for the right and empowerment of women because she believed everyone should have access to equality and enjoy its results. She was raised alongside seven other siblings, among which were 3 brothers, but her father never let her feel that she was a girl child. She felt equal and got as many benefits as were accorded her brothers. In a time when women could rarely get an education, she could go to one of the most expensive girl’s boarding school and all her dreams could be realised. This influence from her father gave the world a woman who is ready to fight so that all other women have opportunities and enjoy their rights fully.

Another reason for her delving into her career path was the British Council Scholarship she got from which she was awarded a Master’s in Urban Development and Planning at the University of London in the United Kingdom. While doing the program, she took up a course on gender. Here, she struck her gold and decided that it was time to polish it. In her class, they had a female lecturer, which made her realise that there were few female lecturers, and she decided that there had to be a change in culture and practices.

The Equality Milestone

Starting a gender-related career was difficult for Letty Chiwara. She had to quit her job as a Town Planning Officer and start following her dreams – pursuing gender equality for women. She did not have any job then, but her husband supported her, regardless. After eight months, she got an assignment with former UNIFEM where she was tasked with organising the first-ever SADC Women’s Expo – bringing over 200 women from the Southern Africa Development Community to a Trade fair in Harare. This assignment set her on the path to establishing herself in the gender equality and women’s empowerment world. Today she leads women through the continent, and people are amazed at how much she has achieved regardless of her background as a rural village girl from Gutu. Once, her childhood best friend marvelled at how this village girl who used to go to school with no shoes was now all over the media and on TV – travelling the world. 

Not only does she cover gender issues, but she has also recorded an improvement in communities she has impacted. She recounted how she started an economic empowerment programme targeting Zimbabwean Mutoko women living with HIV/AIDS. The programme originally known as the Mutoko Project has now transitioned to become the Nyahunure Trust – a community-led Trust that has been impacting the lives of women, men, girls, and boys in Mutoko. Letty has continued to visit the group after many years. After each encounter with the women, men, boys and girls, there was always an improvement. She has witnessed equality in action in this community – because the men are now equal partners with women in all household tasks – a stark difference with the community she grew up in – way back in the 1970s/80s.

She also played a huge role in the global advocacy movement to ensure that the Paris Declaration becomes gender-responsive, with aid being granted to women’s organisations.

In Ethiopia, she was the first UN Women Representative. It was a challenging task in a country that was highly patriarchal and male-dominated. There she started “Community Conversations” and encouraged her teams to go to the communities to create awareness on women’s rights, women’s empowerment, gender equality, governance, violence against women and many other topics. During these visits, she made sure to sensitise men because the leaders of the communities were men, and if they agreed with her ideas, the message they passed across would be timeously implemented. Notably, this helped, as the men’s attitude towards women in those communities changed. Through the Rural Women Empowerment Programme, she showcased the success in these communities by taking these rural women to share their stories of change at a Commission on the Status of Women in New York. These women had never travelled before. Let alone from their rural areas to the capital, Addis Ababa. The experience of travelling to New York was empowering. She had earlier done the same for Masai women from Kenya – when she led a global programme on Results-Based Initiatives on Women’s Economic Empowerment jointly implemented with the World Bank. Letty Chiwara believes she has made a difference – by empowering women and ensuring that both men and women work together for equality. 

Though she has achieved a lot regarding gender equality and women’s empowerment, she is still concerned by some communities and countries that are delaying putting up laws to protect women from gender-based violence. Many women still face cultural barriers and do not have equal access to education and opportunities. There are still cases of Female Genital Mutilation and childbirth and pregnancy-related deaths. Most times, women’s organisations which lead the advocacy and service provision for women and girls often find it a challenge to source and be granted funding. 

What the future should look like

For the future, she holds that “Women are uniquely suited to prepare younger generations to take part in the digital economy, a reason the government should empower more women in the fields of science and technology”. Letty has passionately led the development and implementation of the Africa Girls Can Code initiative – targeting young girls to get into science and technology. She believes that the next Mark Zuckerberg will come from Africa. To reduce future discrimination, she believes that violence against women should be stopped – as it is the main reason why discrimination exists. Letty Chiwara, in her interview with ATLAS, encourages you as a woman to “Believe in yourself! Go for it! Let nobody and nothing hold you back. I have always believed that knowledge is power, so make sure you immerse yourself in your field of interest and prove that you are capable. Know your subject and run with it!”

Written By: Joyce C. Nwezeh Obi-Akejelu (Writer, Social media manager and graphic designer with Africa4AfricaWomen/Assert/PAWES).


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