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Staff Profile: Hanifa Nakiryowa, Global Health Associate
If you want to learn about resilience, meet Hanifa Nakiryowa.
Even as a child, Hanifa challenged the norms in a society where women are expected to be subservient to the men in their lives. She earned a bachelor's degree in education at Makerere University in her hometown of Kampala, Uganda as well as a master's in economics at Kenya's University of Nairobi.
She was raising two children while teaching at a local university and had just started a contract as a researcher for UNICEF program to protect and strengthen the rights of women and girls.
Then her life changed in an instant. In 2011, her ex-husband hired a man to throw acid in her face – an extreme but not-unheard-of tactic used by some men in that region to maim and stigmatize women who step outside traditional roles. She was hospitalized for more than a year and has endured 18 surgeries to repair her face and body, and the emotional and physical pain continues.
But that incident did not define her. Instead, an activist was born. By 2012 she had founded the Centre for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence. While also working with an orphanage for children of women injured in acid attacks, she met a visiting scholar: Louis A. Picard, director of the University of Pittsburgh's African Studies Program. In 2015, Hanifa and her daughters turned the page on a new chapter of their lives half a world away. She earned a master's degree in International Development from Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and joined the Jewish Healthcare Foundation as a Global Health Associate.
Given the deeply patriarchal nature of Ugandan society, how did you come to pursue such a high level of education and a career?
(Laughing) It was because of my father – although it was far from his ideal scenario. He was a well-known religious figure in our community who had the bad luck to have his firstborn (me) and second-born kids are girls. To maintain the status befitting his role – and against the advice of his family – he sent us not only through elementary school but also on to college, saying, 'If I don't educate my daughters, I might not have any children to educate at all. And then what kind of man am I?" I knew that in time he might give in to his family's wishes, so I worked very hard and won scholarships that allowed me to keep going even if he were to change his mind.
Why did you become an activist?
I have always been passionate about women's rights. After surviving years of domestic abuse and then the acid attack, I wanted to advocate for women in Uganda who were afraid.
What excites you most about JHF's work?
The advocacy. As part of the Women's Health Activist Movement Global (WHAMglobal), I got to research how the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) operates in Pennsylvania. We found that other states do a far better job of enrolling and maintaining participation in the program. We are trying to reinvigorate and reimagine WIC to improve maternal health outcomes across the state.
How does your work here differ from what you could do in Uganda?
The UNICEF program I worked with advocated for the rights of women and girls, and for maternal health. I believe that all women should receive at least basic health care. Poverty exists in both countries, but there are almost no resources in Uganda. Even free universal education is relatively new; when I was growing up, you had to pay even for elementary school. Here, you have programs like WIC. It feels good to be in a place where resources exist and to be able to find the right programs and to help people in need to access them.
What about southwestern Pennsylvania do you particularly enjoy or appreciate?
Pittsburgh has the wealth of being a locally global community. People coming from different parts of the world, bringing their culture and language. There are restaurants where I can enjoy food similar to what I loved in Kampala. I'm right in Pittsburgh, but I'm connected to home.
Resources like libraries allow people to find services or referrals for services they need: that's a step toward embracing the global community that lives within the local Pittsburgh region.
It was huge for me to find there are English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in the public schools. Kids from around the world can learn alongside local Pittsburgh kids.
And the strong sense of community makes me happy. At home, my daughters would go out in the morning to play with the neighborhood kids, come in for lunch, and go back out to run around until the evening. To live in a place where I can tell my kids, "Go walk to the library," is huge.
What kind of advice do you offer your daughters?
My girls are very independent. I remind them every day to stand up for what is right and not to put up with oppression. I lived my life in a cycle of oppression: I'd leave my husband, go back to my family, and they urge me to go back to him. It was normalized in my culture and upbringing. I tell my girls that if you're not comfortable with the situation, it's not right. Speak up about it.
Your daughters must be very proud of the work you've done.
My 9 year old recently completed a school assignment about role models. She wrote that her mother inspires her— that her mother is compassionate, she cares about other people who are struggling, and she goes out of her way to help those in need. This pushes me to strive to be a better person every day because I know I am planting seeds for the kind of citizens I am raising in my daughters.
Enjoy this interview with Hanifa put together by our Health Activist Network in 2018: