With 19 years of experience working in the gender and energy sector, the International Coordinator and Programme Manager of the ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy is seen as one of the pioneers working on mainstreaming gender into energy policy and practice.
Once she obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in Veterinary Medicine, Sheila Oparaocha decided to change route and went for a Master’s Degree in Gender and Development Planning. She started her career working as a research associate at the Asian Institute of Technology on gender and development before joining ENERGIA in 1999.
Sheila is one of the amazing women that influenced me to learn more about gender equality in the energy sector. In the past three years, I have been inspired listening to her speak at many conferences, so this time I went ahead and tried to understand what was it that drives her. “There’s no place where I don’t advocate. It is just part of who I am,” she explained during our conversation.
Where do you consider yourself at home?
I come from a very diverse background, so home has many different meanings. Home is where my mother is, currently in Zambia. It’s also where my mother comes from, Kenya. I also feel at home when I go to Nigeria, where my father comes from. I lived in Thailand for four years, and it has always felt good to be there. And of course I have my husband and my daughter in the Netherlands. So, the word ‘home’ has different nuances. There’s a song that says ‘Wherever you lay your head is your home’. This is exactly how I feel when I go back to these places.
What’s your advice to women around the world?
I love what Madeleine Albright said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I have really seen the power of women coming together. If we come together and work together, we can really change things. We have to have each other’s backs, we need to work for and not against each other and we need to plan and strategise and be quite firm with what and where we want to go.
What inspired you to enter the field of development?
It was two things. My father was a veterinarian, and although his work was very technical and commercially focused, he was also a philanthropist as the district governor of the Rotary Club in Southern Africa and this was very important for him. I grew up with quite a privileged life in Zambia. But when I moved to Thailand, I interacted with people who did not have the advantages I had. I also noted that people viewed me as different and thus treated me differently. That was quite a cultural shock for me. My studies on gender and development were also a complete eye opener and very different from my first degree on veterinary medicine. I became aware of a lot of social issues beyond the technical issues I had studied.
But there is another experience that has had a major impact on who I am. My father went to Zambia as a refugee. In the ’60s and ’70s, when he was supposed to go back to Nigeria after his studies in Kenya, a civil war broke out in Nigeria. My father’s community, the ethnic group Igbo’s, wanted to separate from the Nigerian state and this caused repression, cultural attacks, starvation among the ethnic group, and many deaths. As Zambia was the only country in Africa to publically empathise with the suffering of the Igbo’s during the civil war, my father move to Zambia as a refugee. At the time, in Zambia there was a leader, President Kaunda, who never used the word ‘refugee’ to refer our community. Kenneth Kaunda’s policy was people-oriented. He believed people should have opportunities in order to deliver their highest contribution to the country, and as such refugees should be integrated into Zambian society. When my father arrived as a refugee, he was expected to contribute to Zambia’s development, so he started working as lead veterinarian at research station in Mazabuka, Zambia. I grew up without knowing the feeling of being a refugee. I never stayed in a refugee camp nor was I ever treated as one. I have always been treated as a regular Zambian. This acceptance, empathy and caring for the people in vulnerable situations shaped my life, provided me with an education, healthcare and other such opportunities and made me the person I am today. Later on, when I started working, I realised how privileged I was and how my life could have been very different without a people-centered leader like his excellency President Kaunda, and this made me reflect on what I can do to change the lives of the most vulnerable people. This is why although I could have worked as a veterinarian after my studies, I went into development work.
How did you get involved in women’s empowerment issues?
During my studies, I realised that beyond economic growth, you will always have externalities also in the form of a group of disadvantage people left behind. Usually these are women. The good news is that we are on track to change this. Nowadays, women are more aware of their rights, and women themselves are shaping their own opportunities. They struggle and cope. They do the best for themselves and their families.
“There’s no place where I don’t advocate. It is just part of who I am.”
My family has always been an example; my dad met my mother in Kenya working as a professional journalist and writer, she left everything she had, moved to a foreign country and changed her career to farming to provide for her family. She shaped who we are and what we do. Like her, a lot of women are the backbones of their families, communities, of the development of their countries and they contribute substantially to economic growth. Although it is a daily struggle for women in the developing countries, women are not victims, they have great potential. They just need to have opportunities to realise their potential.
What does sustainable development mean for you?
It means that people are able to move from where they are to a better position and status, within their communities and societies. It’s about providing services and opportunities to people so that they can improve their livelihoods and those of their future generations, economically and socially.
What will you always advocate for?
Empowerment for women and vulnerable groups, economic development as a means to minimise the gap between those who have and those who have not. I will also always advocate for the truth and for people to be able to tell their own truth. I believe in the freedom of speech but in a way that respects others.
What are the main challenges of the fight for women’s empowerment?
Lack of funding and people’s mindset. People still see women more as means to an end rather than as partners to achieving development goals. Others see them as a threat. Because of that people still don’t prioritise women’s issues. The level of funding to women empowerment and to address gender inequalities is embarrassing compared to the amount of money that goes to other endeavours, like to defense or certain types of industrial development. If we were to direct that money to addressing the inequalities that women face, I think it would made a real difference in the way we would develop.
What are you doing when you’re not advocating for women’s empowerment?
There’s no place where I don’t advocate. It is just part of who I am. I do it educating my daughter, engaging with my husband. To me, being a feminist does not have a negative connotation, it just means that you are someone who strives for gender equality, and advocate for women and girls and other disadvantaged groups. When you work in this field, you work against all the inequalities. It’s part of who I am. I could never separate it out.
What makes you optimistic today?
I do things and can see gains in very critical areas, even though they might not be as large as I would like. We are beginning to see women presidents, women prime ministers, women in parliament, etc. Women are driving economies in developing countries. We really have to cherish what we have achieved, we have to fight for it and we need to pay attention to not set this back.
What’s special about the next generation?
If I look to my daughter, I see that her generation is far more politically intelligent. They don’t see boundaries, and I think they are going to break most of them. I think it’s going to be a far more ‘accepting’ society. The next generation is going to address prejudices, change approaches, and achieve goals that I could not even imagine.
What kind of opportunities does sustainable energy development bring?
Sustainable energy galvanises social and economic development of different stakeholder groups. It provides basic needs in terms of healthcare, food and water, to various groups. It provides a means for people to earn an income and run businesses. It changes the way women and poor people live, changes the way we engage with our planet and environment. It can revolutionise how our governments use important resources, how we exploit them in ways that can really have substantial impact on our society.
What would you like to spend more time on?
Politics. At the end of the day, everything is political. I’d like to be part of the development cooperation process and make decisions that I think are the right ones. I would like to be in a strong political position to decide to give far more funds to women’s empowerment, pro-poor programs, and development. But I think I won’t ever be able to do this. In the country where I am living, The Netherlands, I don’t have the tools to engage politically as I am not fluent in Dutch since I did not grow up there. However I will continue to try to do my best in the position that I am in working for gender equality and women’s empowerment as civil society practitioner and actervist.
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This interview was featured in The Beam #8 — Together for Climate Justice, subscribe to The Beam for more.
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