20 below: Habiba Cooper Diallo

Habiba Cooper Diallo (18)
Hometown: Halifax, N.S.
Executive summary: Bilingual high school student (English and French); volunteer; founder and executive director of Womens’ Health Organization International (non-governmental organization dedicated to empowering women in Africa and the African Diaspora via improved health care and the dissemination of health education); one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 youth leaders.

ABM: Many young people graduate high school without knowing what career they want to pursue. You’ve indicated not only a general interest in medicine, but also a very specific interest in gynaecology and obstetrics. How and when did you come to realize that this is your passion?
Habiba Cooper Diallo:
Upon reading the story of Anafghat Ayouba—the young woman who inspired to start obstetric fistula awareness and to subsequently establish WHOI—I realized that obstetrics is my passion. Her experience with fistula impelled me to learn more about maternal health and discrepancies in the health care system experienced by women all of the world, like here too at home in Canada.

ABM: You are privileged to live in one of the most advanced and liberal countries in the world, where gender equality is enforced legally and culturally. What roused your interest in, and advocacy for, social justice for women?
HCD:
Initially, my interest in social justice and advocacy was roused by my knowledge of obstetric fistula, which is a very devastating affliction. However, upon further reflection and study, my awareness of gender inequality in my own Canadian life compounded that interest.

ABM: Can you point to any local examples of social injustice towards women?
HCD:
Yes. As a Canadian female high school student, I can tell you that young girls are affected by the misogyny and rape culture that is pervasive in our schools. We’re all very aware of the rape incidents that happen on university campuses all across the country every frosh week, or the cases of murdered native women like Tanya Nepinak or Carolyn Sinclair that remain ignored. Statistics Canada contends that one in four Canadian women are sexually assaulted before the age of 16. These figures are very alarming.

ABM: Have you ever felt disadvantaged because of your gender? Why do you think we still have gender-based social injustice in the world?
HDC:
Yes I have, particularly with regards to some of my medical experiences. I think age is a major factor as well when it comes to accessing quality medical care or earning the respect you deserve in a medical setting. Patriarchy definitely plays a large role, if not the most important role, in perpetuating gender-based social injustices today. Once women and men alike sincerely value and respect women, and assess certain subconscious notions about the denigration of women, we can take a big step towards gender equality.

ABM: You founded WHOI and launched it on your 16th birthday. Please explain how and why you founded this organization and what you have accomplished to date.
HDC:
I founded WHOI by registering for legal status here in Nova Scotia, generating by-laws, and developing a board of directors. My reasons for starting the organization were to have a mechanism by which women of Africa and the diaspora like myself, could become empowered to take our medical concerns and experiences into our own hands. Learning about obstetric fistula in other countries was the initial impetus, but when I thought about how fistula related to my own medical experiences I became even more interested in starting WHOI.  I have been involved in maternal health research and public awareness for over six years, ever since learning about Anafghat at the age of 12. I have done extensive obstetric fistula outreach through media, writing, travel and public speaking, and through my organization’s website. In May of 2013, we held a screening of A Walk to Beautiful (a film about fistula in Ethiopia) and the proceeds were sent to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Thus far, we’ve had two fundraisers, the one in May and the one we did when I turned 16 in 2012.   This summer, I spent 5 weeks in West Africa (Guinea and Sierra Leone) where I did outreach at Engender Health, Conakry, and the Aberdeen Women’s Centre in Freetown. Next month, we’ll starting a Fistula and Empowerment Program (FEP) here in Halifax. The goal is to provide obstetric fistula awareness training to the participants so they too can contribute to the eradication of the affliction by building awareness in their own schools and communities. The second goal for the program is for the participants to identify their personal health care concerns and ways to address them.

ABM: What were your biggest challenges in establishing this organization? How did you overcome them?
HCD:
One of my biggest challenges starting WHOI was the process of obtaining legal status. It was tedious. I drafted a set of by-laws that all had to be approved by the registry. I then began to design a logo. Next, I wrote out the acronym for the organization so it could be part of the logo. Finally, I collaborated with a friend of mine from Toronto who’s a designer and visual artist. I sent him the sketch and he drew the final image of the woman and the baby currently on the logo.

Emotionally, I was coming to terms with my Dad’s death. He was one of my best friends and a number one fan of everything I did.  His death made me look deep within myself and draw upon my inner confidence, which gave me the strength to continue my efforts.

ABM: What is your ultimate goal for WHOI?
HCD:
My ultimate goal for WHOI right now is to implement the FEP program in more cities domestically and internationally, and to increase our financial capacity and thus do more programming for the eradication of fistula.

ABM: Who inspires you? Why?
HCD:
My mother is my biggest inspiration. In addition to her, all the other women in my community—my big sister, by aunties, my young female cousins—also inspire me. These women have been through the fire, and have managed to come out on top. My mother is a very experienced and educated woman. She holds a PhD in Black Canadian Studies and African History. Academically, I can set my eyes on her whenever I feel discouraged.

ABM: What motivates you?
HCD:
I am motivated by my personal experiences and by my interests. This philosophy is a little bizarre, but I honestly believe that surmounting very difficult challenges motivates you to fulfill your dreams and take advantage of opportunities that allow you to realize your potential.

ABM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
HCD:
In 10 year’s time, I see myself just about finished my medical education including gynaecology and obstetrics, and married with two kids. By then, I plan for WHOI to be more established with a greater financial capacity for programming and awareness building.

ABM: How would you describe yourself? Do you think you’re a typical teenager?HCD: I describe myself as possessing a variety of qualities and quirks. I love music; I’m a dance enthusiast, and I really love to engage with my cultures. I enjoy reading about metaphysics, and early African migrations. I’m very receptive to sounds—linguistic trills, rolls, a particular tone in a rhythm. I love the tonalities of certain African languages; they’re very textured and melodious. Am I a typical teenager? I honestly don’t know. I guess that’s left up to interpretation, but I do know that I’m not like everyone else, and everyone else is not like me. We all have a particular spot on the spectrum.

ABM: What are your best and worst qualities?
HCD:
My best qualities are my empathy, optimism, and belief. My worst is probably leaving things to the last minute, such as packing my suitcase hours before a trip—that’s the worst.

ABM: What do you do to have fun/relax? Do you have a favorite band/song?
HCD:
For fun and relaxation, I like to dance, listen to music, meditate, travel and hang around friends and family. There are many artists I admire such as Oumou Sangare, Lama Sidibe, and Ramata Diakite. Likewise, I have many favourite songs. Two all time classics are “Wayeina,” by Oumou and “Ntana” by Ramata.

ABM: You have a full academic schedule and consideration extracurricular activities. What’s the secret to your time management?
HCD:
Hahaha. The “secret” would have to be my lifestyle. I’m extremely focused, and I do a very good job of setting my priorities. I am very aware of my educational ambitions and also my objectives for WHOI. Hence, in order to achieve the two I have to demonstrate a lot of discipline. I don’t go out and party on the weekends. I’m usually home doing work, or if I am out it’s to visit a friend or participate in a WHOI/ community-related event. I am content however. I think it’s important to be fully aware of what you want and what makes you happy in life and to do just that.

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