Khulumani appreciates the support it has received from the African Women’s Development Foundation as the Ghana-based organization honours one of its far-sighted founders, Ms Joana Silochina Foster.
Founded in 2000, the African Women’s Development Fund has significantly aided in organizing for women’s rights, both through capacity building programmes and partnerships, and through supplying hundreds of women’s organizations with grants. Over the course of the past 15 years, the AWDF has supplied women’s organizations with a total of 28 million dollars.
The first Africa-based organization to provide such funding, the AWDF traces its pioneering work to the dreams of its co-founder, Joana Silochina Foster.
On 5 November 2016, Joana Foster’s contributions came into sharp focus when she passed away. She was 70 years old and had spent the past two years battling cancer.
In speaking of a woman whose life helped ground feminist activism in an African context, AWDF co- founder Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi paints a vibrant portrait. “The last time I saw her was in August 2016 in Accra…She was very frail, but still had a sparkle in her eyes and her sharp wit,” Adeleye-Fayemi writes. “She told us that she was going to attend her own wake in London before she passed away. ‘I am going to be there for my own wake. No one is going to have more fun than me’, she declared. That was vintage Joana. Warm, funny, smart, loving, generous, optimistic.”
Foster, Adeleye-Fayemi, and Dr Hilda Tadria, co-founded the AWDF together 16 years ago, but Foster’s work for women spanned many decades before that. At a youthful 17, Foster began her work in activism as a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK. Over the coming years, she would pursue an activism informed by both her studies in law and her diverse cultural background. Born of a Ghanaian mother and British Indian father, Foster grew up exposed to multiple cultural perspectives. “Joana understood what it was like to manage diversity from a very young age,” writes Adeleye-Fayemi.
As a lawyer, she used her legal perspective to improve the lives of women, practicing law in Ghana and the UK. Not only women’s struggles but poverty and racial inequality sounded on her radar. Her activism often produced pioneering results. Comfort Lamptey writes that, “Whilst working as a senior gender adviser to the UN peace-keeping mission in Liberia, Auntie J broke new ground in a number of important areas which had far reaching effects on global peace keeping practice, and which also helped to advance the push for women’s rights in Liberia. As an example, she advocated strongly and successfully with the mission leadership to ensure that thousands of girls who played support roles with the fighting forces in the war were not ignored, but got support as part of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process (DDR). The formal recognition of the category of Women Associated with Fighting Forces (WAFFs) in UN DDR parlance, took root in Liberia as a result of the formidable work done by Auntie J and her colleagues.”
Lamptey writes of the importance Foster attributed to civil society activism, aiding in the establishment of the Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL). In addition, she was the national director of Cuso in Ghana. Cuso is a Canadian NGO which sponsors and supports various social justice projects across the globe. Ultimately, however, Foster recognized that NGOs in the global north could not be the salvation of women in Africa. In 1995, meeting Dr Hilda Tadria for the first time at the fourth world conference on women, Foster remarked, “What we really need are our own resources.” Out of the recognition of this need the African Women’s Development Fund would eventually grow.
In reflecting on this pivotal occasion, when she first met the woman with whom she was to found the AWDF, Dr Tadria writes of her instant connection with Foster. “A few minutes after settling in, I looked around the room, and there across was this pretty woman with the most engaging smile. It surely was meant for me: I smiled back. Each time an important point was made, this woman and I would look at each other across the room, nod and smile at each other. When the session was over, we zoomed across the room and introduced ourselves. I remember we held hands as we walked out and as soon as we were out of other people’s hearing, looked at each other and in unison said, ‘we can do this’.”
Not long afterwards, they would meet Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and ultimately co-found the AWDF. Of their collaboration, Dr Tadria writes, “Our togetherness, no matter what, has remained firm in spite of the challenges we have encountered; three women, three countries, bound by a common vision and driven by feminist passion.” And Foster, too, spoke of the unity born of the forging of the AWDF, stating, “AWDF is an excellent example of solidarity amongst African women.”
In showing what such solidarity, and the commitment of women to one another, can bring, Joana Foster has left a legacy that will echo for many decades to come.
HISTORY of the African Women’s Development Fund
15 years ago, three women named Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Joana Foster and Dr. Hilda Tadria created a philanthropic organisation focused on making measurable change in African women’s lives. Inspired by the aspirations of the African women’s movement, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) was created as an independent resource for gender equality and development across the continent. Today, the AWDF’s grant making practices are built to support the initiatives of African women who may not have access to mainstream funding due to capacity, language, location, and marginalisation. In fact, the AWDF has served as a key donor to 60 percent of grantees who experience serious challenges to sustainable funding. AWDF’s website clarifies how over the past 15 years AWDF has worked to build relationships with, and mobilise resources for close to 1,200 women’s organisations in 42 African countries across the continent. AWDF signifies so much for us as African women. It embodies strength, commitment, sustainability, leadership, creativity and so much more.
Moiyattu Banya, Founder of Women Change Africa and Co-Founder of the Girls Empwoerment Summit in Sierra Leone, explains, I have always admired AWDF because of it’s commitment to supporting our work as African women. AWDF has continued to support so much innovation on the continent for African women, by African women. As a beneficiary of AWDF support both organizationally and individually, I can say that the lives of African women have indeed improved because of the support and leadership of such an organisation. As AWDF turns 15, all I want to say is Bravo, and keep up the good work! I know that the work will only continue to expand, grow and create better lives for African women not just in Africa but also in the Diaspora.”