Some of the sweetest words to Norwu Kolu Harris are when she hears people mention her name and what she does and they say, “don’t mess with Norwu, she’s a feminist.”
It’s a reward for her mission to make people realize that all girls and women deserve dignity and respect, that their human rights are to be taken seriously, that jokes about rape are unacceptable.
Norwu is the youth program officer at Action Aid Liberia, the youngest-ever member of the board of directors at Helping Our People Excel (HOPE) Inc., and a co-founder of March for Justice, a national youth movement for social justice. She also volunteers with several civil society organizations in the West African country of Liberia.
Age 26, Norwu already has lessons to share from more than a decade of activism. “As a young girl aged ten, I started to realize my leadership potential and my passion for change,” she said in an interview.
When Norwu was in junior high school, a student at a Catholic school was raped and killed. The victim’s two guardians were accused, found guilty and sent to prison. It was a case that gripped the public and made her think hard and question what she would expect her friends to do if it had been her.
“That one incident served as a basis on which I decided to fight for the rights of women and girls,” she said. “Every time I hear of a rape it’s like a part of me just gets cut, cut in pieces. My body starts to tremble. When I look at our country and how not many rape survivors get their case reported or can get justice… I want to be there for those women, those teenaged girls, those young boys who are denied justice.”
As a young teen she earned the nickname “Sister with Power,” because she constantly invited classmates and neighbours to join the social club Sisters with Power, where she was president. The club was a weekend arts and crafts group which also provided literacy classes and lessons on self-esteem and confidence.
By 2009, the club grew into a full-blown community movement advocating for the rights of adolescent girls in Liberia. Under her leadership, chapters were formed in two other counties, and she progressed to the youth coordinator position for the chapter in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, for two years.
As a strong advocate for the rights of adolescent girls, Norwu was among a few young people who worked tirelessly lobbying lawmakers to adopt the National Children’s Law of Liberia in 2011.
In 2012, as a participant in a Girls Empowerment Forum, she served as team leader to write on sexual reproductive health and rights of Liberian girls. She was one of 20 adolescent girls who drafted a Manifesto for the Development and Empowerment of the Liberian Girl Child.
She presented the manifesto, on behalf of the Forum, at a National Stakeholder Consultative Forum on Sexual Gender Based Violence and several other meetings where she served as panelist and talk show presenter in 2012.
The manifesto called the government’s attention to the plight of girls and what they wanted to change and after several years of advocacy, it was launched nationally in 2016. Norwu earned a certificate of recognition for her commitment to the journey into womanhood in 2014 and she has since served a volunteer mentor to teenaged girls at Helping Our People Excel (HOPE) Liberia.
She became so passionate in her activism that she “forgot” that her father had told her she was destined to be a medical doctor because she was good at chemistry.
She now has her heart set on a law degree after the public sector administration degree she is studying for now. “My father realized this is where my passion is,” she said. “He said ‘I’m so proud of you.’” Her mother “always gave me the opportunity to be my own woman.”
What’s the most difficult part of your activism?
One of the major challenges, that gets me really, really frustrated is that we have the rape law, domestic violence law, the children’s act, all of these different laws are put in place but not enforced.
Generally, it’s really challenging, really frustrating that the police lack resources. At first point of contact, police officers are asking victims or parents or supporters of victims for financial support. Sometimes you hear police telling you I’m sorry, there’s no logistics, you have to provide a vehicle for us to investigate, to buy stationary to document the cases. They don’t have money. We go to the police station, and we have police asking for transportation! This is something we’ve been advocating on for years.
Also, a major challenge is the shrinking political space we have in Liberia for young people. Even when we’re doing a digital campaign we’re being labelled as people who are against the government. We are fighting for social justice and because the ones in power can address the social issues we want to change. There’s nothing we can do without them.
What’s the best advice you’re ever received?
I was invited to the CSW60 (the 60th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 2016) in New York as an advocate from Africa. Everything was being paid for. When I went to get my visa, I was so fired up, I was so prepared, I was so ready, I was so looking forward to making sure the voices of the young women of Liberia are heard at that high level. Then I was denied a visa.
I went back feeling so discouraged. I felt so disheartened. I felt a young woman’s voice was being denied. A young woman’s voice is being silenced. Then my mentor, HOPE Liberia executive director Aisha Cooper Bruce, told me there is a saying that every ‘no’ stands for next opportunity. That ‘no’ serves as a starting point for your next opportunity. She said “you’ll have a bigger platform than this. Your voice will go beyond CSW.”
And that is something that I always hold onto in all the work that I do. I always hold onto that. I don’t care if the spotlight is on me, I don’t care if people see me. I just do what I do. Fight for what you’re fighting for. There’s always a next opportunity.
What advice do you have for other young women activists?
My advice to all my fellow feminist activists would be that sometimes we get so overwhelmed, so fired up, so passionate, that we want everything to change right away. I always tell my mentees, every time I’m given a platform, to take it one step at a time.
Self care is really important. If you’re not taking care of yourself, the change you really want to see, you might not be here to see it. The change we’re all fighting for, there were people fighting before us and there are people who nurtured us and are no longer around to see how far the movement has come. They did what they could.
Always remember there are people who created the space that you’re in. While taking it one step at a time, make sure you create space for others who are yet to come.
Norwu Kolo Harris and Dildar Kaya are featured guests in the podcast series When Feminists Rule the Word – Season Three: Let’s Talk About Power.
What would you do if a genie granted you absolute power? In episode two, host Martha Chaves poses that juicy question to her guests, activists Dildar Kaya in Iraq and Norwu Kolu in Liberia.
Dildar works with ISIS survivors and Norwu in empowering women and girls. They examine the theme of feminism and power, identifying the qualities of good feminist leadership and workplace structure.
Martha, a professional comic, describes the evolution in the comedy world away from misogynistic and other mean humour. “You know who has power over me?” she asks. “My cats.”
Martha poses the ‘absolute power’ question more than halfway through, promising massages and ice cream for all when she’s in charge. Find out what Dildar and Norwu would do and enjoy answering the question yourself.
Between November 25 and December 10th Nobel Women’s Initiative will be showcasing the work of young feminist leaders and women human rights defenders from around the world during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, sharing the torch of their experiences, insight, and advice. To read the profiles of the other activists featured in this year’s campaign click here.