"So I thought that I need to be there where the decisions are made. I have to be on the table because if you are not part of the agenda, you will be part of the menu. And I think we've been part of the menu for too long as women and all other things. So I thought it's important for me to be at the table to be able to make sure the right decisions are made."

Zainab Hawa Bangura, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON), began her career as a women's rights campaigner in her home country of Sierra Leone. Her reasons were personal: at age 12, her father, a muslim cleric, wanted to marry her off to an older man. Her mother refused: sacrificing her own marriage for her daughter's future, she insisted on education.

Though extremely poor, Zainab's mother got her way and Zainab earned scholarships to study at a university in London. Returning home, she documented horrific atrocities during the civil war and then joined the government as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Health. As UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict from 2012 till 2017, Zainab talks of the secondary trauma she felt after taking in the pain of countless accounts of rape inflicted on women and girls as a weapon of war.

Today, Ms. Bangura worries for the health and safety of her staff and the populations they serve in the face COVID-19.


Full Transcript +

Melissa Fleming  00:00

From the United Nations, this is Awake At Night. I'm Melissa Fleming. My guest this week is Zainab Hawa Bangura the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Nairobi. Welcome Zainab. 


Zainab Bangura  00:15

Thank you very much. I'm extremely honored to be given this opportunity to share some of the things that are very important to me.


Melissa Fleming  00:28

You are speaking to me from Nairobi today but you are originally from West Africa from Sierra Leone. Can you tell me about your childhood there and about particularly your early family life?


Zainab Bangura  00:42

I come from a very traditional Muslim family. My father was a Muslim cleric. My mother comes from the most traditional ethnic group in Sierra Leone where as I speak to you, women are still parts of the husband's property when they die. So she is distributed as part of his assets amongst members of the mill, surviving families. So she is in everything by the brothers or the uncles, whoever in the family that is interested. We don't have rights. We don't have rights to property. And we are part of the properties of the male members of the family. That's why that's the background I come from. My mom was illiterate. At the age of 12. My father wanted me to get married. My mother refused because the male members of her family had been educated she had not. So she witnessed the transformation of people's life when they get an education. So I was fortunate to be an only child, and she insisted that I have to get an education and my father refused wanting to marry me off at 12. And my mother then said No. So my father throw us out and so my mother and myself went to the village. So I grew up as my mother's daughter and she instilled in me the values of education that my life will change if I get educated. So I grew up in extreme poverty, I had to be given clothes to wear, friends had to give me uniform when I was in the 12th grade, they had to give me shoes. But I kept to what my mother said, by the time I was in 12th grade, my mother couldn't pay school fees anymore. She was a very strong woman in our community. She was a leader. And so she was respected by the politicians and once she became very active and supported them, they asked her what do you want us to do for you? And she said, just support my daughter to get an education. Through that I was able to get a scholarship. And I was able to go to university, I went to university with five dresses, a pair of slippers and sandals. So it was a very difficult childhood. But as I said, my mother instilled in me that with an education, the sky will be your limits. That's my background. I'm fortunate to have broken the glass ceiling, but I still have 95% of my family below poverty levels. So I grew up with the pain of poverty, with the humiliation, with the psychological and emotional impact it has to you; the lack of self-confidence. So I grew up with that. So for me, poverty is one of the strongest things I'm very much concerned about because I know how it feels to grow up in poverty.


Melissa Fleming  03:54

You said a lot that was, you know, very, very striking about your childhood. In particular, about your girlhood and the potential that you might have been married off to a man at the age of 12. And yet your mother resisted. Do you remember those feelings at the time? Did you know who the man was that your father wanted to marry you off to? And how did you personally react?

Bangura walks on a red carpet with the German President.


Zainab Bangura  04:23

I don't know the person. This was a discussion between my mother and my father. But, of course, I didn't want to do it. Because I don't know how I could get married at 12 I didn't understand. I had the support of my mother. And she kept telling me it's not going to happen over my dead body. She made it very clear, and she was prepared to sacrifice her marriage. And so my father walked out on us and just left us and abandon us. So she packed me off with her and went back to the village. To her village. So that's where I grew up.


Melissa Fleming  04:59

That was this unusual at the time to be growing up in a single-headed household, you know, with just a mother and not a husband?


Zainab Bangura  05:09

Yes, it's not easy. And until her death, I could not understand because a single woman is not accepted. My mother during Ramadan, the month of Ramadan, she will pack whatever she gets, she has, and she will go to my father because she feels she's obligated to be there and serving him. Despite what he did to us, he has a second wife. My mother always went back because she thought she was obligated to do that. The tradition and if he wants her back, he has to come and take her. He never did. But she will always go. 


Melissa Fleming  05:47

Yeah, it sounds like your mother was a remarkably strong woman. How has she influenced you going forward and even to this day?


Zainab Bangura 05:58

She, I always tell people, if I owe anything to anybody in my life, it's my mother and sadly enough, I lost her. You know, more than 20/25 years and I still celebrate her. Because I owe my life to her. She was a remarkable woman. I think the reason why she was very, so bent on making sure I get an education, apart from the fact that the male members of the family were educated, my mother was sent to an uncle in the city to work as a house girl. She saw little girls of her age going to school, some of them she introduced to me later in life, while she works in the house, and they will talk to her. So she had a little bit of experience of city life. But of course, because she was illiterate, she comes from a poor family. She had to be married off to somebody who was much older than her. So she was she was determined and made the commitment, if I have a child, I will make sure she goes to school and it was fortunate I was an only child. And I always said to my son, I also happen to have one biological child and then an adopted. I said to them if I had sisters and brothers, I don't think I could have been educated. But I was an only child to my mom, so she chose to put all her resources and effort to make sure that I get an education


Melissa Fleming  07:30

Sounds like a really a remarkable woman, you said she passed away, what kind of affected her death have on you?


Zainab Bangura  07:40

I have never recovered from the pain of it. Every time I go to the village, because I have a house in the village, I go there in her honour, first thing I do is to visit side graveside, she was buried just by the house. It's very difficult but she's still part of me.


Melissa Fleming  08:01

What does she, what does she give to you now? Like what is that? What would you say to her if you could say a few words to her now?


Zainab Bangura  08:09

I think she was an inspiration to me. She taught me a lot of life lessons, you know, to be able to have empathy for people to understand people, when you're dealing with people always put yourself in their, in their circumstances. You know, she always says to me, you have to be humble. You know, and you have to respect people, always learn to forgive. So her death was a big loss to me because I don't have a sister or brother on my mother's side. I grew up very lonely. Until my son grew up, who is now my best friend. Who, I can say, is my like my soul mate I never have that kind of person that could replace my mother.

Bangura, seated at a table, is in deep discussion with a member of the Police Advisory Committe.


Melissa Fleming  08:55

What was your relationship like to your father, did you, did you have any contact with him?


Zainab Bangura  09:00

Yes, I had contact with him after my mother died for couple of years. But then he also didn't live long, he died. So I was an orphan at a very early in life, but I didn't have that close relationship with him like I had with my mother, because I still, the pain was too much. And the other thing for me that was also very difficult why I couldn't forgive my father, or why I found that difficult to forgive him, was because when my mother died, the tradition is you have to look for him, because technically they are still married. So he was informed. He came to the village. About that time I'd already, I was back from England doing my postgraduate studies, and I had my son and my then spouse who was who are not legally married came to the funeral my father being a Muslim cleric refused to accept him saying he doesn't want him to participate in the funeral. And so to be able to, and he was very close, my spouse was very close to my mother. So, which one of the most difficult experiences in my life I had to stop the funeral. I went to the mosque, I got married. To allow my then husband to actually participates in the funeral of my mother. I think that was what finally broke my relationship with my father. And that was one of the things that led me to get involved in women's rights issues. Because I just thought here was a man who left my mother to suffer with me. At my, at her death, he still had power over her. He had power over me. That was when I became a women's rights activist.


Melissa Fleming  11:01

It seems like this was the turning point. But it was also a culmination of all of the events of your childhood. So can you talk about that a bit.


Zainab Bangura  11:10

We had a big conference of women in the northern parts of Sierra Leone, which is the heartland of where I come from. After that conference, we had a military coup in Sierra Leone. So everything was brought to a halt. And of course, under the military government, you can't discuss things about human rights. The military government suspended the Constitution, and all discussion about constitutional rights, human rights cannot be done because we have a state of emergency. So that's when I diverted my attention from women's rights to work for democracy. So the next two years or so, I spent fighting to make sure we have a democratic country and I led a campaign for democracy in my country. And then I founded a campaign for good governance which was the first human rights organisation in Sierra Leone, and working on women's rights, human rights and democracy,


Melissa Fleming  12:08

This is, so this was, I believe, your campaign for good governance that you founded. It was around 1995. The country was in the midst of a civil war in the 1990s and through that time, describe what it was like, what was the security situation and how was it for you, a young woman trying to found a human rights organisation in that kind of environment.


Zainab Bangura  12:37

Our conflict was very brutal, because, there was a lot of atrocities committed and part of my job during this time, as a human rights organizer was documenting the atrocities committed by both parties, the military, the government, as well as the rebels. So both of them committed a lot of atrocity they cut off the limbs and arms and feet of people, my youngest victim was three months old baby who was amputated and a lot of women were raped. It was during this time that the whole issue of forced marriage actually came into the scene where girls were abducted and gang raped by several people and taken into sex slavery. So towards the end of the war, the spread and part of the agreement, the special courts of Sierra Leone was instituted to investigate the crimes that were committed during the war. And a lot of the girls who had been abducted and enslave and became sex slaves were were were interviewed by the courts, and they were able to tell their stories. So I was asked by the special court to write a report on forced marriage the phenomenon of forced marriage. It was accepted as an international crime.


Melissa Fleming  13:54

Do you remember one story of one of the accounts of one of the girls that really particularly stuck with you.


Zainab Bangura  14:02

It was very challenging for me the one I remember one particular girl I met, who had seven children. She didn't know who the fathers were. Because at every time of her life, she was taken by one person. She was raped, and the person either die or abandon her and she will be pregnant, she will have the baby. And then she moves on. Somebody else gets hold of her gang rape her. She was raped so many times and she became pregnant and ended up having like six children. The time I met her, she was pregnant with the seventh baby. She couldn't go back home. And some of these girls were school girls. They couldn't go back to their parents. They stayed out.

A man speaks to Ms. Bangura. She is wearing a blue helmet and protective vest.


Melissa Fleming  14:55

I know that you were very much known for your outspokenness and also your condemnation, your public condemnation of these atrocities. But it also made it really risky for you personally, I believe you were targeted even for assassination several times. 


Zainab Bangura  15:14

Yes, because I was on the list of the wanted people by that the groups by the rebel groups because I was listing all the atrocities. And so as the war advanced, and as the military, as the rebel groups took more and more territory, they really knew that I was the one who was giving all this information to the world.


Melissa Fleming  15:36

Did it come to a point where you actually had to become a refugee?


Zainab Bangura  15:40

Yes, I was actually informed by the US Ambassador who had ran off to Guinea, he called me the night and he said, you're on the hits list. You have to leave, they're coming for you. If you don't leave, you'll get killed. And I went to Guinea and then I went to Conakry, we were refused entry. We spend the night at sea. And I was able to talk to the crew of the boat to contact somebody in Freetown, who then contacted the president because he was in exile. At that time, even the President had run. After staying at sea for like 11 hours. We were allowed to come, to come off the boat, and we came down to a process. But I never asked for refugee because I was always eager to go back.


Melissa Fleming  16:30

You did go back eventually right and even ran for President.


Zainab Bangura  16:34

I did. I tried because I realize that as a civil society, you don't make the decisions. And I realized that we got to the position where we got as a country because of bad political decisions. And, you're civil society, you advise, you cajole, you do whatever you can. But at the end of the day, the politicians are the one who make the decisions. And I realize a lot of times they make decisions that are in their own interest that might not be in the interest of the ordinary people, and which sometimes can lead into conflicts, and which eventually, in our own case, lead to war. So I thought that I need to be there where the decisions are made. I have to be on the table because if you are not part of the agenda, you will be part of the menu. And I think we've been part of the menu for too long as women and all other things. So I thought it's important for me to be at the table to be able to make sure the right decisions are made.


Melissa Fleming  17:39

And you did manage - you served both as Minister of Health and Minister foreign affairs. And so how challenging was this as a woman in your society to hold these positions of power? 


Zainab Bangura  17:52

So I was accepted, I became Minister of Health, you know, I was respected as Minister of Health and because of my knowledge of the traditional system I was able to reach out to them and involve them and get them to participate, feel part of the decision making process. And so it was a very interesting experience. And well, I'm used by lots of people to see how people achieve results. So the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is high profile, you travel and one of the things I also learned being a Muslim woman, I found out that people normally don't say no. And I think it was very successful for me because they just can't say no, especially in the Middle East. It's very challenging, but I'm I went down several visits Kuwait, Qatar, you know, all of this country UAE and others. I was able to get a lot of support for my country because they were sometimes they literally shocked and then they find is very shy to say no, and you ask them, they just answer.


Melissa Fleming  19:00

At the UN, you continued your work for women's rights. And in 2012, you became the Special Representative on Sexual Violence and Conflict. How do you personally deal with the stories of the atrocities that you document?


Zainab Bangura  19:17

It was very difficult because I had to share the pain. As I listen to this woman across the world. It was very difficult. Even women, for example, women in Bosnia where the war had suspended because I always say the war in Bosnia was never finished, it was suspended, the women were still living in pain. Not to talk about those I met in Lebanon, in Syria in Iraq in DRC, in Central African Republic in Somalia. There were lots of different experiences and pain. You know, meeting somebody in the DRC Who was raped by seven men and who got pregnant and every time and give birth and every time she sees the child she tries to strangle the child because she sees the faces of the seven men on her. You know, going to somebody in in in Jordan who was abducted and turned into a sex slave and every time she was featured and sold to a new posting, meeting the Yazidi girls telling you about their abduction, and controlled by the ISIS, and how the girls actually tried to poison themselves with rat poison, to strangle themselves with their scarf and how they were treated and how they were auction you know they do the catwalk in front of people who came from different parts of Arab world and this girls  were at so much in front of people like they do in the cattle, they sell them that people look at them to examine them. You know, you hear those stories. It's very, was very painful. It was very, very painful. And I think for me the worst experience was when I met the Yazidis. That was a very difficult trip for me. Because I started from Lebanon, I went to Syria, Damascus, I was there. I went to Istanbul to talk. You know, it was very difficult experience. I move I went to Jordan, I visited the camps. Then I went to Iraq. And from there, I have to tell you, I was so, so broken, because I come from a culture where we don't talk to, we don't do therapy as Africans, we don't believe in it. I have to be honest with you. And I have so much pain in me so much bitterness, the only thing I could do as a devout Muslim, I just decided I have to go to Mecca. I have to go somewhere where I can unburden. And I asked the Saudi governments, they provide hospitality and I tell you, I went into that mosque I sat from 2am until the next morning, and I was just crying. Because I had listened to all of those things this woman have said to me, and I met some wonderful women in Lebanon. And I got this woman talking and one of the women said to me, that that's a woman sitting there, she whispered to me, that woman, you know, she was raped in front of her husband, and the husband was killed in front of the son and since she came, she's not spoken. And I moved from where I was sitting. I went over to her, and I held her. When she started talking, we were both crying. It was the first time she spoke.


Zainab Bangura posing for a photo with a Syrian refugee woman.

Melissa Fleming  23:00

Now you're head of the UN Office in Nairobi and you are helping to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. What are you noticing now about the situation for women?


Zainab Bangura  23:13

One of the things that's as common as very clearly is that because women have forced to work from home, most of the time they have this relationship that's a very toxic, that's an abusive, but the office is their escape mechanism. They come to the office in the morning, they go back in the evening at home, so they have that eight hours or nine hours period when they're out of the home. So they are able to manage. Now they are being forced to be in the same house with their abusers with those husbands who are actually abusing them. And these women have to also work from home. Some of them have children they have to take care of because the schools are closed. So it becomes very difficult. For the women to cope. In Kenya, there has been an increase of 40% on gender-based violence. So we decided as at UN to look at it. So we decided, why don't in one have to have a special town hall meeting to talk about gender-based violence. So this presentation was made by UN Women. And once they finish the presentation, whether I discourses, I came out to support the presentation and explained to them, this is a problem with women. I said, I went through it, I was Minister of Foreign Affairs, I was in a very abusive relationship. And I explained to them what happened, what I went through, I said it was so bad that the only person I could talk to was my President who saw it but who also come from the same ethnic group like myself. So he said to me Zainab you can't talk about this. He said, Nobody will believe you. And they will think because you are foreign minister, the most senior woman in governments, please. You know, you said you are lucky your foreign minister, so you travel out of the country most of the time, just managing it. Was very, very difficult. I said I was only able to get out of that relationship through my son, who eventually said mommy Enough is enough. This has to come to an end. I can't accept you. So he with his support, I was able to get out. And I said, so I want you to know that it can happen to anybody. You cannot be ashamed of it. You are not the only person and you can seek help and you need to seek help when it happens. I said we're here. I am here. We will support you. Just let us know. Don't be afraid. Immediately after that meeting I started getting emails from staff telling me what was happening to them. That is protecting them that will protect them and that we look after them.


Bangura is cooking with Syrian refugee women.

Melissa Fleming  26:02

Zainab I need to ask you the question, what keeps you these days awake at night?


Zainab Bangura  26:08

Well, I think I look at this from a personal and from professional. If I start with a professional, my duty of care to the UN staff, making sure they have all the information they need to keep themselves safe, because there's a lot of information and knowledge on COVID-19. We don't have a vaccine, we don't have drugs. So how do people keep themselves safe, is prevention. So all of the information we have to give them whether they are broadcasts or whether we have townhall meetings or group meetings, I try to do that. So to make sure staff are very much aware what they should do what they should not do. The second aspect of the duty of care are still on the professional side is to make sure we have the available support medically socially psychologically everything for staff when you get sick. You know, the health system in Africa is very weak. We consider during this pandemic even developed countries who have some of the most sophisticated health system have really, really experienced very challenging times in which they overrun their health services, let alone in African countries in Kenya, for example, we have about 500 ventilators across the country. I monitor the ICU beds because it is the ICU beds where we bring colleagues in the region on a daily basis. Last week, we ran out of ICU beds in Kenya. By Monday we have five so I monitor every day the beddings in hospitals. The big hospitals in Kenya how many ICU beds do they have, how many HDU beds do they have, how many ward beds do they have that helps me to make sure that colleagues whether you are in Darfur, you are in Madagascar, if you need to be medivac to Kenya, there is a bed for you. So for me, that's, that's on the professional side. On the personal side because I grew up in poverty, I was born in poverty, I experienced poverty. I went through the pain, the humiliation, the psychological effects of poverty, and I've seen it across the world as I travel. It's how people suffer around the world, the vulnerability of people, especially women and children, and how difficult it is how all of our problems we're having are man made. And all of it also leads sometimes to lack of knowledge, people not being able, having access to opportunities. So it is that pain I still go with me which I grew up with, with a pain so every time I see these things I just I say to myself: What is it that we can do?


Melissa Fleming  29:06

Is there anything just, that you do to relax?


Zainab Bangura  29:09

I think my most form of relaxation is taking a walk. And I, because I live in a complex where I can walk 12/13 kilometres, so I try every morning. I try not to start working in the on the job before 10 or 9. So that in the morning when I finished my prayers as a Muslim, I do my first prayers at 5:30 when I do my prayers, I can go up and open the windows, listen to news, BBC, CNN. And so by 6, 6:30 I can put up my walking shoes and take a walk and actually walk for an hour or more. And then I come back and then I take a shower. I take my breath and I start my day. So walking and I I have a very good team I talk my team is very good I, I will talk on the phone a lot of the time teams, on teams. So that's the only way because I used to live alone, which was very challenging. But it's about more than a week ago, my family join, my son and his wife, they joined me. So at least I have company until now, which has, which has made a lot of difference.


Melissa Fleming  30:23

Zainab, Thank you so much for sharing your incredible and inspiring story with us. Thank you very much.


Zainab Bangura30:31

It's a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.


Melissa Fleming  30:35

Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of this devastating pandemic. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org slash awake hyphen at hyphen night. On Twitter. We are @UN and I'm @melissafleming Zainab is @zainabhawa. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us It does make a difference. Thanks to my colleagues at the United Nations and to my producers Bethany Bell and the team at Chalk and Blade: Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse