“I didn’t like to socialize with people,” Rebecca Kumi says, recalling her earliest memories in Kumasi, Ghana. “I kept to myself.”
Rebecca, now a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow and program officer at Action Aid Ghana, remembers when she first shook off her reclusive ways.
“I was 10 years old and was asked to thank a speaker at a church event,” Rebecca says. “I remember feeling so nervous, as I’d never spoken in front of a crowd before.”
“In that moment, though, I remembered that I had always earned the highest grades in my classes; that gave me the confidence I needed.”
“Afterwards, people told me I was a ‘great speaker,’” Rebecca says. “It was the first time I was recognized for that skill, and it sparked my interest in leadership.”
Today, Rebecca is working to empower other young women in Ghana, equipping them with the skills they need to find meaningful work and make a difference in their societies.
“Men are still seen in many parts of Ghana as leaders: leaders of homes, of organizations, of churches,” Rebecca says. “They don’t expect women to be leaders.”
Central to the gender divide, Rebecca explains, is a competitive nature among women, one that — rather than helping women advance in their careers — only maintains the status quo.
“Once a woman moves up, another woman is pulling her back,” Rebecca says. “The feeling is: ‘Why should I support a woman when I should be up there?’”
“They forget that when women are in power, they can help others rise up.”
As Rebecca sees it, addressing the issue hinges on reaching girls early with the message that they can not only achieve anything a man can, but also that they can support each other.
“Building confidence among primary school students is critical,” Rebecca says. “They need to learn early that it’s okay if a woman is powerful.”
In her training sessions, Rebecca first works with girls in a one-on-one or small group format, building up their confidence little by little before having them deliver a presentation in front of a larger group.
Equally important, Rebecca explains, is following up with these young women to ensure that they are making progress in their daily lives.
“I always tell young women that it’s okay to take risks,” Rebecca says. “If you want to grow, you have to get out of your comfort zone.”
For Rebecca, leadership is just that tenacity — one rooted in a meaningful cause.
“A leader is someone who has faced challenges but was able to navigate them,” Rebecca says. “She walks the talk.”