Elizabeth Nyamayaro giving her keynote address.

The keynote speaker for Seneca Falls’ Convention Days was Elizabeth Nyamayaro, the Global Head of the HeForShe initiative. Nyamayaro is also the senior advisor to the Under Secretary-General and the Executive Director for UN Women. In addition to her speech on July 15, I got to ask her about her work with the HeForShe initiative and the state of gender equality worldwide.

Nyamayaro was born in a small village in Zimbabwe. When she was a child, drought affected her community and she survived with the help of UN aid workers. Clad in a blue uniform, which she vividly remembers, the aid worker’s interactions with Nyamayaro helped to shape her future. In her speech, she said she asked the aid worker why they were in Africa, helping children like her. She recalled that the aid worker replied, “As Africans, we must uplift each other.” In her speech, Nyamayaro said she didn’t understand what that meant at first. But she came to realize that that moment would forever shape the way she viewed her place in the world.

At the age of 10, Nyamayaro was sent to live in the city with an aunt to ensure her survival. There, she dealt firsthand with inequality. “I must now deal with three kinds of inequality all at the same time. Racial inequality, because of the color of my skin; gender inequality because I was born a girl; social inequality because of my humble upbringing,” she said. Nyamayaro explained that she struggled with feelings of inequality and guilt upon returning to her small village. In that moment, she said, she decided to be just like the aid worker who saved her life as a child, and use her education to uplift her fellow Africans.

A decade later she landed at Heathrow Airport with only £250 to her name. She didn’t have any friends or family in the United Kingdom, but she had a dream to work for the United Nations and “become the girl in the blue uniform.”

Three years ago, Nyamayaro began her work with the HeForShe movement and she said that it became clear to her that in order to uplift half of society, one must uplift the whole of society. “It’s a new paradigm, but it’s a better paradigm,” she explained.

HeForShe seeks to bring men to the table as part of the solution to tackle gender equality worldwide. Nyamayaro said that the movement seeks to “do more than raise awareness. We have to move beyond awareness to concrete action.”

Two years ago at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, HeForShe launched a partnership with heads of state, COOs of global companies and universities. The goal was to create change and achieve gender parity by 2020 from the top down. Commitments from the group ranged from paid parental leave, equal pay for equal work and ending child marriage.

In her speech, Nyamayaro highlighted one of HeForShe’s partner success stories. Four months after joining HeForShe, the president of Malawi passed a bill to outlaw child marriage. Nyamayaro said the president engaged the male chiefs, who were part of the practice of child marriage, to play an active role in stopping the practice. In an eight-month span, the chiefs in Malawi annulled 1,400 child marriages. 1,200 of the girls returned to school.

Nyamayaro said that the HeForShe movement is a story about the power that one person has to create change.

If one small malnourished African girl can stand here today in front of you, miles away from home, imagine the potential we have to create change, Nyamayaro said in closing. It is my hope that we can create a world where men can work alongside women to bring equality. A world in which we all recognize that what we share is much more powerful than what divides us.

Sage Daugherty with Elizabeth Nyamayaro.

After the speech, I had a chance to speak with Nyamayaro further about HeForShe and the fight for gender equality. She stressed that the issue of gender equality is primarily seen as a women’s issue, when in actuality it is not. Nyamayaro said she wanted to work with men and people who fall on the gender spectrum and create an inclusive movement to work toward creating gender equality.

One of the biggest learning opportunities for her while a part of the HeForShe movement was when she was touring universities in the U.K. and France. She said it was an eye-opener when students were challenging HeForShe’s initial conception of gender as a binary. The students’ questioning resulted in revisions being made to the HeForShe website that stated gender is a spectrum and not a binary. “We included a box for other people that are not male or female to join the movement, so that was really inspiring,” Nyamayaro explained.

When asked what motivates her to keep fighting for gender equality, she said that there is so much at stake and that’s what drives her to continue her work at the UN. “I think we cannot afford to relax,” she said. “We just have to keep pushing and that’s what empowers me. When I see small change happen, it’s inspiring — I think we can do this.”

Nyamayaro encouraged young people to become agents for change and said that you don’t have to be a part of HeForShe or the UN to make that happen. Change can happen wherever you are, in your own families, schools and communities, she said.

“The biggest thing is that you need to be passionate about something that’s bigger than yourself,” Nyamayaro explained. “My mother always said, “To whom so much has been given, so much is expected.” I think that’s consciousness and being aware that you can all create change. It doesn’t have to be the biggest change, it just has to be that you do something for other people.”

-Sage Daugherty
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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