Meet our latest Young Women to Watch from the Leadarise Brussels community: Assita Kanko, a Belgian politician, colummnist, author, human rights activist and advocate for gender equality. Originally from Burkina Faso, where she studied journalism and started advocating for human rights, Assita migrated to Europe in 2001 where she obtained a Master‘s degree in International Politics and continued her upward career trajectory. After working for International Paper Europe, Price Waterhouse Coopers, the Flemish liberal group in Brussels Parliament and BNP Paribas Fortis, Assita joined the Liberal Party MR (Mouvement Reformateur) and was elected town councillor in the Brussels commune of Ixelles in 2012. Her interest in politics goes back to her childhood years in Burkina Faso when she would join her father in community meetings to listen to the discussions held exclusively by grown men. The experience of growing up as a female in a country with an authoritarian and male-dominated regime has left its mark on Assita and instilled in her the desire to fight for freedom and equality, regardless of gender or racial and social origin. She is taking full advantage of her current political role to argue forcefully in favour of a policy of inclusion and equal opportunities for both men and women.
In 2014 Assita was named one of “10 women to look out for in 2014” by Belgian Dutch-language magazine Knack. Amidst numerous columns and interviews in print media and TV, she is also the author of a strong autobiographic book about female genital mutilation, an experience she herself suffered in her native Burkina Faso at the age of 5. In Parce que tu es une fille (‟Cause you’re a girl“) she reflects on FGM and the pursuit of freedom and happiness as a woman. In October 2015, she published her second book, La deuxième moitié: Plaidoyer pour un nouveau féminisme (“The second half: advocacy for a new feminism”), on the position of women in the world. This year Assita appeared in a special edition on feminism of the Belgian ELLE alongside Leadarise co-founder Laura Hemmati and other young Belgian feminists.
Leadarise asked Assita to reflect on what showing leadership means for her. Here are her open and personal answers.
What’s your definition of a leader?
A leader is someone who is not afraid to lift others up by inspiring and empowering them. A leader is someone who is aware of why he/she is doing what he/she is doing.
What was your proudest moment?
There are so many of them. For example when I won my first election to be class representative. I was 11 years old. We were 100 pupils with a majority of boys and only 28 girls. My dad helped me prepare a strategy to encourage some boys to run and I ultimately won thanks to all the 28 girls including myself who voted for me.
My daughter Axelle is so amazing. 9 years old and a feminist. I am proud of her and what we are doing together.
Have you ever learned from failure?
Of course. Failures don’t exist. We go through experiences, sometimes great sometimes bad. We should always learn from each of them. Why did we succeed? Not only because something did not work.
What do you enjoy most about your job/business?
The purpose of what I do: helping shape a better world for girls. I decided long ago that I would never be indifferent to other women’s suffering. With my work I try to open people’s eyes to what women have to deal with from the cradle to the grave – just because they are women – and what we can do to help. The world needs more women holding influential positions, more women thriving in politics, business and in society in general. I believe we have the power to change things so that our daughters don’t have to fight these same battles. It is our responsibility to lead change now and this is what motivates me and keeps me going. When I remember why I do it I am happy and more motivated.
What’s your advice to young women in leadership?
Believe in yourself, be friendly with yourself. Network and surrounded yourself with great leaders, men or women. As long as they encourage you and lift you up. Don’t forget to learn from your accomplishments too.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
First I wanted to become a journalist and writer. I was reading a lot and unwittingly became a feminist. As a young student I discovered the power of democracy and how it could change the destiny of a whole country when my friend, a mentor and journalist, was murdered because of his political investigations. I looked up to him. Before then I did not know that democracy had anything to do with us. From then on I got interested in politics. Youth has to use democracy to have an impact on its destiny. Don’t just delegate your power to anyone. Choose carefully when you vote.
Do you think your appearance is important to your work?
Of course it is. I always dress for where I want to be next. It is important to feel good and strong. For me the choice of my shoes and the quality work of my hairdresser help me stay confident. A friend in London told me that as she walked into the board room, the men said they heard her confident feet approaching. Don’t underestimate the impact of attire and attitude. But all of this is nothing if you don’t feel well. So above all listen to yourself and do what you need.
How did you build your reputation?
By simply being myself. Sometimes you face people who try to sabotage who you are.
I just stayed myself and continue doing my work, making it visible as well. People will ultimately see the truth in who you are.
What have you learned never to do?
To give up. I never give up. I just shift from perspective and find another way. I’ve also learned never to ignore my inner voice.
For more of Assita’s work, follow her on Twitter @Assita_Kanko or visit her website: http://www.assitakanko.be
Article by Nele Rohricht