“In my country – and in a lot of countries around the world and in Latin America and Asia – March 8th is a holiday. International Women’s Day is a holiday,” says Emilie Songolo, founder of AFRICaide and organizer of the 5th annual AFRICaide’s International Women’s Day 2018 Celebration. “It’s a day where women are honored and women are given that space to discuss issues. The main goal is to reduce gender inequality.”

Songolo’s home country is Cameroon and International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.

Here in Madison, Songolo has high hopes for her 5th annual AFRICaide’s International Women’s Day 2018 Celebration on Saturday, March 3, which has been growing every year. This year, it has a new location – DeJope Residence Hall on the UW-Madison campus. The event is being held on the Saturday before the official International Women’s Day and will be a great opportunity for area women to come together and share information and to network with each other on important women’s issues. This year’s theme is “Press for Progress.”

“We’re exploring the various meanings of the word ‘press’ from pushing to printing or speaking to writing,” Songolo tells Madison365. “If you go to the dictionary and look up everything that that word means, we are going to do everything we can to put that into action on March 3. I’m sure I’m going to open by asking people what ‘press for progress’ means to them and I know we’ll get some great responses.”

This is the 5th year that AFRICaide will be hosting the event here in Madison. AFRICaide is a grassroots non-profit organization that Songolo founded in 2005 that strives to reduce abject poverty in Africa through rural development projects, and to empower and assist female victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo in rebuilding their lives.

“We will be sharing our stories more at this event this year,” Songolo says. “Almost everybody who comes wants to share their story and we want to make sure that we make time for that. We want to encourage people to share their stories. We want people to be themselves, to express themselves, to share, and to make connections.

“We want women to make at least two connections before they go home,” she adds. “Hopefully, more.”

Back in 2014, Songolo and two others organized the first event and it had about 30 attendees. On March 3, she’s hoping for between 200-300 people to show up. That’s some serious growth for the event. Like every other year, Songolo encourages women who plan to attend to wear purple. “It’s not required but we are encouraging it,” she says. “For International Women’s Day in Africa, there is always a uniform every year. I know this is not Africa and I don’t want people to go out and buy stuff for this, but if they look in their wardrobe and find something purple they can wear it to the event to help bring about that unity – that we are here together and that we are one people. It’s very powerful.”

Songolo is excited to be having the event as DeJope Residence Hall, which is located right on the UW-Madison campus, on the shore of Lake Mendota. It has an outdoor fire circle and terrace that people can enjoy in the fall and spring.

DeJope Residence Hall on UW-Madison campus

“DeJope is just so beautiful. This is such a sacred site and we want to honor Native Americans, too,” Songolo says. “So much natural light pouring in. We’ll be in the same room all day and the vendors and exhibitors will be around the room the whole day.”

The event will also feature a global marketplace, cultural performances and a Women’s Walk Around the World. Songolo says that they always try to have a group walk on International Women’s Day. “Sometimes it’s harder here in Wisconsin because of the weather,” Songolo says. “We’re expecting decent weather though and there’s a lot of beautiful paths on the lakeshore, so we’re going to give it a try.”

Songolo says that she wants International Women’s Day 2018 to be as diverse as it can.

“We will be getting translators because we will be having people there from the Hmong community, people from the Latino/a community. We will have people translating for other people. We are really hoping for some great diversity at this event.”

Shiva Bidar, Chief Diversity Officer for UW Health and a Madison alderperson, will be one of the featured speakers at the event.

Shiva Bidar

“One of the areas where Shiva presses for progress is language diversity and also translation services, so she will be a great fit for us,” Songolo says. “It’s just by coincidence that we thought of her as a keynote speaker.”

Another speaker at the event will be Josephine Kulea, a Kenyan women’s rights campaigner. Rescued from female genital mutilation and forced marriage as a child, she has since set up the Samburu Girls Foundation, which has saved more than 1,000 girls from similar practices.

“She has been doing amazing work in Kenya rescuing young girls from early marriage,” Songolo said. “President Obama mentioned her when he spoke in Nairobi to Kenyans.”

Songolo says that she contacted the Madison-area high school minority services coordinators to hopefully get more students at the event. “Our children are our future. We would like girls to more and more become a part of this event; even speaking,” Songolo says.

International Women’s Day 2016 event
(Photo by Hedi Lamarr Rudd)

Songolo hopes that the celebration has good conversations about reducing gender inequality – not just focused on the easy targets but in everybody’s everyday life.

“Even in some of our families, boys and girls aren’t treated the same. Girls are treated like third-rate citizens within the family,” Songolo says. “Sometimes when we talk about these issues, people tend to focus on the workplace or the political scene or the social scene outside … but I think we need to do an introspection of ourselves and our own lives. Me, as a mother, how do I deal with my own children? How am I educating and raising my boys in their relationships with women and girls?”

Songolo says another goal of the AFRICaide’s International Women’s Day 2018 Celebration is to decide on two projects that the women will work on throughout the year.

“So that we don’t wait a whole year to see each other again. We want to keep doing positive things throughout the year,” she says. “A lot of good ideas have come up already and now with the partners that we have, I think we have the resources to really build upon what happens at the annual event to get women together.”

Interested in attending the 5th annual AFRICaide’s International Women’s Day 2018 Celebration? click here.