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60 Year Powerhouse

Meet Dr. Thelma Awori

In this captivating profile, we unravel the extraordinary journey of Dr. Thelma Awori, an 80-year-old powerhouse who has dedicated her life to championing women’s rights in Africa since the 1960s. You can read more of her story here. 

  1. Women cannot afford to blink; the stakes are too high.

Dr. Thelma Awori may humbly reject the label of a powerhouse, but her unwavering resilience and refusal to back down have made her an icon of inspiration. In a world where many falter, Dr. Thelma Awori remains an indomitable spirit, a relentless advocate who refuses to back down. At 80 years young, she offers a piercing insight drawn from her years of experience, warning us against complacency. In her eyes, women cannot afford to blink, for the stakes are too high. 

2. What inspired you to become involved in the fight for women’s rights? 

I was really inspired by my mother. She was a fighter for social justice, justice for black people, and for women, besides her being a journalist. She was a member of the women’s movement in Liberia. She would always say, “you girls can always do better than boys.” She was always the force behind the “You have to do something; being a woman is not an issue.”

3. At what age did you pick up advocacy and think about being part of a movement?

(Laughing) I actually thought about this. I think it must have been at the time I graduated, got married and got my job. When I went for my first interview, the university registrar told me, “Oh, you know this job isn’t for a woman.” There was a white woman who was there for the job, but the register said that was a “man’ because she was single and talked no nonsense. I had a set of twins, and I was told I couldn’t do the job. But I insisted and got the job. It was when I realised the constraints that women had to face. I later joined the women’s movement in Uganda, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

4. Looking back up to this moment, do you think we have made progress in how our society perceives women?

The change has been tremendous. People now know what the gender agenda is, they might fear it in some places, but they now know. One of the things that pleases me is what young women are doing. They are carrying the agenda forward, maybe different than how we did it, but their context is different from ours. If anything were to happen to me today, I have no worries because I know these young women will carry this struggle until we get it right. 

5. What do you count as a major achievement that you personally have witnessed or contributed?

That would be getting the voices of market women to the policy agenda. I grew up in a rural area, and I felt that rural women’s voices were not heard. When I first joined GIMAC (Gender is my agenda campaign), it was women like me who attended. I kept saying we are advocating on behalf of those who are here; we have to bring them here. GIMAC was open to the idea, and we did it and brought the women farmers. It is because of a woman farmer who came to GIMAC that If you look at Aspiration 13 of the Africa Agenda 2063, you will see the aspiration to return the handhoe to the museum. These women have a voice, and their voices are now being put in policy documents. 

6. Advice to the young generation of activists taking up the gender agenda in this current space. 

You know what we say in the women’s movement, ‘You cannot afford to blink because when you blink, they will change things and move it backwards.’  You have to keep your eyes sharp all the time and be very analytical. When you see something coming, you have to ask what it is and how it will affect women. 

7. Being a woman can be considered to be tough in this society, more so if you are also considered a feminist. What is the secret ingredient that has worked for you over the years to win over sceptics? 

Be persistent! Be professional! You don’t have to be aggressive; be persistent, and people will know who you are, where you stand and what you can’t compromise on. Walk the talk! 

8. If you had a chance to erect a billboard in every major city in Africa, what empowering message would you display? 

Build on the strength of women! 

Dr. Thelma Awori is the founding co-chair and president emeritus of the Sustainable Market Women’s Fund (formerly Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund), which has directly and indirectly empowered over 15,000 market women in Liberia. Her work with market women has expanded to Uganda through the Institute for Social Transformation; she is also a founder of that organisation. Being of Liberian descent, Dr. Thelma has held various high-profile positions and considers herself a Global Citizen.

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