For Habiba Cooper Diallo, it took awareness, compassion and determination to erase the miles between herself the women and girls suffering from obstetric fistula across the oceans. After reading about Anafghat Ayouba’s journey from fistula patient to women’s health and empowerment advocate in her community in Niger, Habiba, then 12-years old and living in Toronto, Canada, began learning about obstetric fistula. Writing essays and giving speeches to her peers and community were Habiba’s first steps towards informing others about this preventable condition affecting up to 100,000 women each day(World Health Organization 2010).
Habiba was further ignited while speaking with two fistula patients around her own age during a visit to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia in January 2012. The 16-year-old was compelled to channel her passion, knowledge and experience into something bigger. In April 2012, Habiba, founded Women’s Health Organization International (WHOI); a non-profit organization whose aim is to empower women “in Africa and the Diaspora, to gain autonomy with respect to their individual medical affairs with an emphasis on maternal health”. She celebrated her 16th birthday by holding a pre-launch and fundraiser for her new organization.
In May 2013, Habiba was named the 2013 recipient of the Zonta Halifax, Young Women in Public Affairs award for leadership and commitment in the advancement of the status of women. In June of this year she was recognized by Youth In Motion as one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 Canadians making a difference in our world. It is our great honor to share our interview with the young, insightful and ever so mature Habiba Cooper-Diallo, founder of WHOI.
Tempo Africa: Habiba, you are indeed a forward-thinking young woman. From where did you get the “audacity” to empower women at such a young age?
Habiba Cooper Diallo: Thank you. You know, that’s a really good question. My “audacity” stems from the realization that I am a Black woman seeking to enhance my own empowerment as it relates to me taking control of my health. Therefore, although I may be young, WHOI’s mandate to “empower” women is just as relevant to me as it is to a 6-year-old girl or a 40-year-old woman. The need for girls and women to assume full responsibility and autonomy over their health- whether that means asking their doctor to thoroughly explain a diagnosis or being able to finance medication or surgery- does not begin at any set age.
As I help other women take control of their health, I too learn to do the same. I actually popped by the natural food shop this evening to pick up herbs like nettle and raspberry leaf to improve the health of my liver and skin.
Tempo: Why did you choose to start an organization rather than contributing to the work of an existing one?
Habiba: I chose to start WHOI because of the unique objective I wanted to pursue. WHOI is one-of-a-kind in that we seek to provide health information and resources to medically disenfranchised women. However, we make an effort to not impose, dictate or be held accountable for their health care plans and decisions.
Tempo: On WHOI’s FB page you’ve written: “We do not want to recreate or perpetuate stereotypes, ‘gothicness,’ and all other negative aspects of the very important issues affecting Black women and girls.” What did you mean by this?
Habiba: WHOI does not want to endorse concepts and images about Black women that could be detrimental to our health. To give a specific example, the media, educators and other sources of authority on issues of health often portray young black women as single, impoverished, and uneducated “baby mamas,” or ghettoize key features of our culture, whether it be Jamaican dance (e.g wine) or urban, hip-hop inspired fashion. I used the term “gothicness” to denote something that is archaic or outdated. Hence, while in many cases these are accurate portrayals of black women, they are not the whole truth and as such must not take precedence.
Tempo: What are some ways supporters of WHOI can speak to issues of health and education in a healthy fashion?
Habiba: It is important [for supporters to] have some level of cultural competence and understanding. The mental, emotional and physical health issues of Black women and girls are unique given our genetic differences to other racial groups, in addition to the racialized violence and discrimination we’ve faced throughout history, which are still very alive today in the form of racial health inequalities. It is important that people know the reasons for which they support WHOI, and these reasons are inextricably bound to the historical and contemporary experiences of Black women and our health.
Tempo: You wrote about empowerment through the rekindling of spirits. Can you tell us about one particular empowered “spirit” you’ve encountered or are seeing emerge since becoming engaged in this work?
Habiba: Yes indeed. Ever since starting WHOI and sharing my passion for health and my positive educational experiences publicly, I’ve received a very positive response from the young daughter of a close family friend. My work has fuelled her ambition and motivation and as such has inspired her to pursue extracurricular educational opportunities that will allow her realize her personal and academic talents, ultimately bringing forth her “empowered” spirit.
Tempo: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Habiba: I appreciate your interest in WHOI and encourage you all to join us via social media. We can be found on Twitter and Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/whoi11 and https://twitter.com/whoi11. Also check out our website at: http://www.whoi.ca/
Watch Habiba’s Interview during the Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 Ceremony here: