- Zambia, where Sistah Sistah is based, faces some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the world
- Young activists founding organizations fighting against SGBV, period poverty, and other inequalities are often at a loss for where to start
- Sistah Sistah provides digital tools, training, and other resources for young activists beginning their work
In Zambia, sexual and gender-based violence is a significant problem and is increasing. A total of 36% of Zambian women aged 15 and above have reported instances of sexual violence, while the Zambian police force's Victim Support Unit documented a 29% surge in SGBV cases in the fourth quarter of 2022 compared to the corresponding period in the previous year. Young activists with innovative ideas to help protect and uplift women and young girls, however, lack the skills, resources, and tools to bring their projects to fruition.
The Sistah Sistah Foundation is a feminist NGO run by a collective of women focused on programming that educates, empowers, and protects women and other minority groups. The foundation advocates for including more women and people from marginalized groups as decision-makers, holding government and policy-makers accountable for failures to keep these communities safe, and creating a culture where everyone can thrive and reach their full potential regardless of identity or background. The organization often hears from other young activists with promising projects but who don’t know where to start, especially when it comes to securing funding. “We’ve learned that funders don’t fund you if you’ve never been funded before,” Holland said. “So if you’re an 18-year-old with no funding and a great idea, how do you grow your organization?”
If you’re an 18-year-old with no funding and a great idea, how do you grow your organization?
Ann Holland, Sistah Sistah Foundation co-founder
Sistah Sistah is one of Mozilla’s 13 inaugural IRL Fund grantees, the first exploratory grantmaking mechanism of the Africa Innovation Mradi that supports innovative projects at the intersection of tech and society. With Mozilla’s funding, Sistah Sistah built its first online platform so that organizers and activists across the continent could access and use its digital toolkit to help get their projects up and running. The free resources include training modules on topics like successful grant-writing, social media outreach and fundraising strategies, and digital safety and security practices.
The work carries risk. In March 2023, Holland and several of her colleagues were arrested following a demonstration they organized against SGBV right before International Women’s Day in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. The authorities claimed the protest was a front to promote homosexuality. Same-sex sexual activity is outlawed in Zambia, with a maximum 14-years prison sentence. Holland says it can be difficult to predict when the government will crack down – she and others had organized similar demonstrations without such consequences – but that safety and security training for activists is all the more important now.
“Success is when we see more young feminists wanting to do more activist work in their communities. As someone who constantly tries to study society and see what changes and what doesn’t change, it can be depressing to see how much hasn’t changed. But then if you go back in history, 100 years ago, a Black woman like me wouldn’t be allowed in certain spaces. Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t be allowed to buy contraceptives. Success looks like feminist allies and people who openly speak out against inequality. So things do change,” Holland said.
While she would love to see more dramatic progress, Holland believes that incremental changes are important markers of success. She cites the “Spectrum of Allies,” a tool that labels categories of supporters and adversaries on a continuum. The five categories include Active Oppressors, Passive/Silent Oppressors, Neutral Parties, Passive/Silent Allies, and Active/Vocal Allies. Holland stresses that activists like her often see the best results when trying to nudge people just one category closer to becoming a “vocal ally” rather than attempting to move them directly to that slot on the spectrum. “The goal is always to push people just one step further,” she said.
“The first person who made me want to be part of this work was my grandmother. She was a very tough, but also a very kind woman. She’d hire single mothers to work on her farms, and give out clothes to people who needed them. She always taught us to treat everyone with the same respect. Whenever you stayed with her, you knew you’d be cooking for a lot of people, and if you visited at 5 p.m., you knew food would be there for you to eat. Then when I was 14, I went to boarding school, and most of the girls who attended were on scholarships, so they came with very little. Some of them had never used pads. So I’d go around the school and get pads for them. From there, I’ve always done this kind of community work.”