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28 April 2017

Women’s rights heroine Helene Batemona-Abeke: Empowerment from Cologne

The current usage of the term ‘empowerment’ is relatively new, having its origins in the 1980s. And in the 90s, as the Spice Girls were proclaiming the related feminist slogan ‘girl power’ throughout the world, Helene Batemona-Abeke came from Kenya to Germany. Her professional life is certainly a story of helping others gain confidence and strength - our definition of ‘empowerment’. Helene’s work focuses on other women who arrive in Germany.

Women’s rights in Kenya and Germany

Now she lives in Cologne, but Helene’s story began 46 years ago in Kenya, where she grew up. “As a child I was already aware that women suffer disadvantages.” She was lucky, however, and her father supported her. So in spite of the prevailing patriarchal structures she was able to follow her path and study. In 1995 she took part in the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. Then, after graduating, she came to Germany.

“I experienced the same things many people experience when they arrive in a new country: emergency accommodation, social welfare, running from one official authority to another, and even violence. As to the equality of women in Germany: I didn’t notice it at all.”

It was only when she joined the newly forming “No-One is Illegal” initiative that she discovered the Allerweltshaus (House of the World) in Cologne and became politically and interculturally active.


Activist for refugee women

At that time Helene became an activist, demonstrating in front of the state parliament in Düsseldorf even though she had no secure residence status. “It wasn’t easy,” said Helene, looking back, “but I discovered new networks and met new people, which made me stronger.” She began to study Social Work in Göttingen, with the aim of better helping other women. Today she is a citizen of Cologne and a self-employed trainer and consultant. Examples of her work include: training staff at the city’s public transport companies or public order offices in how to deal with refugees; working as a diversity manager; and providing training to lawyers. She also works directly with women who have come to Germany seeking refuge. Many of them, she says, are not able to live a life of equality here in Germany:

“The women arrive with nothing, without any residence title, threatened by traffickers or other family members, often with small children – and some of those were born after the women were raped.”

They are often very insecure and intimidated, and therefore very grateful for Helene’s low-threshold offer of a conversation and advice. An approach of ‘empowerment’ can help to improve the women’s situation, even when they are under pressure: “The women can learn to say NO. I encourage them to take steps to improve their employment chances, to lead their own lives, get to know new people and ensure they have an active social life,” explains Helene. She tells us of one woman: “People threatened to torture her family in her country of origin if she didn’t do what they wanted. I tried to give the woman strength. At some point she was able to stand up and say, ‘NO!’ She showed defiance and from then on she found a new outlook on life. Now she has a training placement and her children are doing well, too.”

Empowerment: Activating strength for an independent life

When Helene speaks about the women and her work, it is easy to understand the meaning of ‘empowerment’: helping people to find strength and motivation, activating the power to take their life in their own hands. As a blend of good friend, motivational coach and role model, Helene manages to help women to believe in themselves and find ways out of difficult situations, once they begin to really believe they can do it. Sometimes men perceive Helene as a threat because of her vitality and independence: “Some men don’t want me to speak to their wives. I wake the women up, but the men would prefer it if they remained asleep,” she says. However, there are different types of men. Some of them approach Helene and ask her to speak to or help their wives.



Domestic equality

Helene and her partner live out this modern version of the family: when Helene is away running seminars, he looks after the children. After her last pregnancy he took parental leave. “You carried our child for 9 months,” he said, “now I will carry it for the next 9 months.” “Change begins with the way we bring up our daughters and sons,” explains Helene. “Macho men were once boys, too, weren’t they?” Her own teenage son asked her: “Mum, are you now a feminist?” as Helene began to work on a contract basis for medica mondiale. “So I showed him the YouTube video from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which answered all his questions,” she laughs. For the future, Helene has many plans: “The free churches have a great role to play for integration. The church communities can offer new hope and security to many refugees.” Her mission: “The vicars and pastors are key people. They have to stand up for equality and encourage respect among the members of their local community.”


Background to the medica mondiale series

"Women’s rights heroines in the focus” Truly equal rights for women and men are still not reality – anywhere in the world. But without them there cannot be an end to sexualised wartime violence and there will not be peace – anywhere in the world. During the year we will present remarkable women and men from all over the world who have been or are active in the fight for the rights of women. We do this to pay tribute to their individual efforts and achievements, and also to remind us all that active commitment is still needed if we are to achieve gender justice and an end to sexualised violence.

Read the Story of Women's Rights Activist Theresa Dunbar from Liberia