Women by Women: shattering stereotypes of women in front of and behind the lens
16 September 2021
ActionAid's second Women by Women photography exhibition shines a spotlight on the incredible - but often overlooked - talent of women photographers. Lola Ayanda from ActionAid Nigeria explains why this project is so important.
As a girl, I never thought my voice or those of other women and girls mattered, largely due to cultural stereotypes. But now things are changing. I am able to make a positive change by amplifying the voices of vulnerable women and children in Nigeria through my work as a women’s rights activist.
Over the last four years, I have been involved in multiple campaigns, including Women by Women, which is celebrating its second year. The project is shattering stereotypes through photos of women from Nigeria, Vietnam, Senegal, Bangladesh and the West Bank.
The local photographers behind this content, such as Etinosa Yvonne, whose work is featured below, are a powerful, artistic force. She and other Women by Women photographers have worked closely with their subjects to tell strong, compelling stories.
Bose Ironsi, for example (pictured), documented by Etinosa, is passionate about ending violence against women and girls. Her story reflects the lengths local women activists are going to, to support survivors despite the soaring rates of violence and a stunted justice system in Nigeria. They are determined to create sustainable change.
Despite the crackdown on civil society and turmoil Nigeria currently faces, progress is still being made. In the last year, 12 more states have passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act into law thanks to the unrelenting efforts of local women’s rights organisations. And in May 2021, history was made when the policy document abolishing harmful traditional norms, including female genital mutilation, was presented in an open declaration by the traditional rulers of Olaukwu and Oforola communities in Imo State.
We need more local storytelling like Women by Women, where the subjects own who they are and are given the space to express themselves in ways they find most comfortable."
Documenting stories of women with dignity
Poverty is already demeaning, and protecting the dignity of the person is vital. A woman living through poverty, injustice, or gender-based violence has many sides to her story and it is important that we don’t misrepresent it. So, when documenting women and girls living in such challenging circumstances - the whole experience should be empowering.
However, misrepresentation is inevitable when the storyteller is not properly situated in the context.
Charities and the media often already have a predetermined story they want to tell and only want the subject to conform to their desired narrative. This needs to end. It is unrepresentative of people’s lived realities; stereotypes people; invokes pity; and often leads to people making harmful assumptions consciously and subconsciously.
We need more local storytelling like Women by Women, where the subjects own who they are and are given the space to express themselves in ways they find most comfortable. As the popular African proverb goes, ‘she who wears the shoes knows where it pinches.’
It is high time we recognise and amplify this vital perspective.
Top photo: Bose Ironsi is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Rights and Health Project, a grassroots organisation that provides counselling and legal information for survivors of gender-based violence across Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Etinosa Yvonne/ActionAid