Anny Modi: From teen mother in a war zone to a women’s rights defender
By: Sara Qamar
When feminist activist Anny Modi was a young girl she was inspired by her father, a politician in the former Republic of Zaire. He “did not distinguish between a girl and a boy. He treated children as equal and pushed us to give the best of ourselves.”
It was an ideal she kept close to her heart, when at just 13-years-old, Anny’s father passed away and she was displaced to the city of Goma, amidst a deadly conflict that also waged a war on women’s bodies. “In Goma, there were so many refugees, and the environment was already unstable,” Anny said. When the community there rejected her, because they perceived her as being part of another ethnic group, Anny became further isolated.
In Goma, Anny couldn’t access basic necessities, such as sanitary pads or quality information on her sexual health and rights. Eventually, at 17, she became pregnant. “From the orphan girl, I became a teen mother still in a war zone.”
“Before giving birth, I felt like my life was over,” Anny said. But then things changed after having her daughter. “She became my new source of motivation and hope, courage. Because I wanted to create a better world for her and other girls.”
Anny’s daughter was born in 2000, the same year that UN Security Council resolution 1325 was adopted. The landmark resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts. “Without that resolution, we did not have any legal documents that could give women power and voice to claim the space to participate,” she said. Over the next two decades, as the Women, Peace and Security agenda strengthened, so did Anny’s resolve as a defender of women’s rights.
“Our patriarchal system decided before we were born, who we had to be, how we had to behave, how we had to look like. I could not conform. I did not conform,” said Anny. Today, Anny heads her own non-profit organization, AFIA MAMA, working on sexual and reproductive health and rights to improve women and girls’ well-being. They also work to eradicate stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as survivors of gender-based violence including sexual violence, child labour and child marriage.
She says that often for women and girls, the aftermath of gender-based violence can compound the victim’s trauma. “If you are not supported, if nobody believes you, if nobody listens to your voice, if you have an impression that the world has forgotten about your existence, this is what kills women and girls the most,” she said.
She has strived to become a “voice of the voiceless” — advising leaders like the Head of the UN mission, MONUSCO, and the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the needs of women and girls whose situations look not too different from what she once went through. “When women know that somebody is talking for them, somebody is making sure that their voices are heard, their needs are considered, the space is being created for them to contribute, to participate, and to build a different environment, this gives them more hope.”
The solution to preventing violence, Anny says, is to have more women in power and more meaningful participation of women at decision-making tables, taking into account women’s perspectives in resource distribution and providing social services. “We, as women, we’re going to prioritize our community’s well-being and peaceful living together,” she said. “If we’re not sitting around the table, we will continue to be victims of decisions that we did not participate in.”
The ultimate goal is to give women and girls the “capacity to build their own agency,” and ensure they are given the knowledge and tools to achieve economic independence. “For women and girls, their sexual and reproductive health is very much linked to their economic empowerment and personal development.”
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere in the world, there is much work to be done to achieve gender equality, and leaders don’t always listen. Does Anny ever feel discouraged? “After all the promises that we get from leaders about doing better the next time and still doing almost the same thing, we can feel disappointed,” she said. But instead of giving up, “it gives us more strength to keep on doing what we’re doing.”
“Remember what pushed me into this [work] was [the motivation] to create a better world for my daughter and other girls. Until we create that, I have no reason to stop.”