Female photographers shattering poverty stereotypes

Thursday April 16 2020

Messaging. Ms Fakhria Momtaz takes a yoga class up to the mountains at Shahrak-e Omid Sabz in Kabul, Afghanistan. PHOTO BY TAHMINA SALEEM

AS part of the activities to mark this year’s International Women’s Day, ActionAid partnered exclusively with local women photographers in five countries it works in to bring a different perspective to the way women and girls living in poverty are represented – and to shine a spotlight on their incredible talent, which is so often overlooked.

The photographs were taken for the campaign titled “Women by Women” that celebrates women who are breaking down barriers, from a street artist in Afghanistan to the founder of a women-only coffee collective in DR Congo.

The campaign is a meeting of two women – a photographer and a subject – to share empowering stories, shatter stereotypes and control how they, and their lives are represented, and highlight the next generation of female leaders.

ActionAid presented a photographic exhibition celebrating women in front of and behind the lens at gallery@oxo in London’s South Bank in England from March 5 to March 8. The exhibition showcased the stories of women and girls in the global south told by talented local, female photographers.

The six photographers were Esther Ruth Mbabazi (Uganda), Pamela Tulizo (DR Congo), Miora Rajaonary (South Africa), Morena Perez Joachin (Guatemala), Farzana Wahidy (Afghanistan), and Tahmina Saleem (Afghanistan).

Esther Ruth Mbabazi
Ms Mbabazi, an award-winning photographer, said: “It feels good to be among the few of the female photographers available in Kampala... “Women by Women” gives us photographers the opportunity to feel part of our own stories and tell the stories of our own people.”


“Many would not fly me from Uganda to go and tell a story in the UK, but they would fly a photographer from the UK to go and tell a story in Uganda, but now it is starting to change. It is really exciting – I can be a part of the stories of how my country and community is being presented out there in the media,” Ms Mbabazi added.

“We are really excited to have come this far with our Women by Women campaign. The six local women photographers we partnered with exclusively for the first year of the campaign have done exactly what we hoped they would in shattering gender stereotypes,” the deputy director of communications at ActionAid UK, MsTaahra Ghazi, says.

“As an international organisation working with women and girls in the world’s poorest countries, we understand the danger of ‘the single story’ and how rarely women are asked to represent their own experiences. We would like this campaign to give a different insight into women’s lives – for the audience to feel how strong these women are, despite all they have been through,” Ms Ghazi adds.

Women by Women is a unique photographic campaign that champions the inspirational stories of women and girls, as well as the incredible talent of women photographers in the Global South.

Throughout the year-long project, ActionAid will exclusively work with local female photographers. “This is just the beginning of a longer journey we wish to take in profiling trailblazing women and girls worldwide and sharing their untold stories,” Ms Ghazi said.

With support from ActionAid, the women, who are the subject of the photographic exhibition that is improving the lives of women and girls in their communities every day, are championing women’s rights and transforming their communities, and fighting for economic and social justice.

As a documentary photographer, Ms Mbabazi uses storytelling and photojournalism to address issues in her society that are often overlooked.
Her work explores changing conditions on the African continent, with a focus on the social, economic, physical and emotional aspects of daily life, especially in rural areas and for minority groups.

Mbabazi photo series focus on Margaret Kasolo, Asiah, Cossy, and Nabuule Shaliwa.
Ms Kasolo, 57, is a nurse at Kawaala Health Centre IV in Kampala. She has been a midwife for 35, years and has worked with ActionAid since 2013 as a gender-based violence coordinator at the hospital.

Ms Kasolo links women and girls in need of help with ActionAid-supported shelters. At the same time, ActionAid connects those in need of medical attention with Ms Kasolo at the hospital.
Ms Kasolo is also a survivor of violence at the hands of her former husband. She now uses her position to help other women and girls rebuild their lives after experiencing violence.

Another only identified as Asiah, 37, experienced years of domestic violence while raising her four children in Wakiso District.

Ms woman Asiah has been supported by ActionAid since 2013, receiving counselling, financial support and legal assistance to gain custody of her children. She rented a home for her family and opened a hair salon, investing profit in new business ventures selling firewood, making bricks and rearing chicken.

Now Ms Asiah trains other girls in hairdressing skills through an ActionAid skills programme in her salon. “I empower them to work hard and to be empowered by themselves. From there, they go and work for themselves. If all women in Uganda can get their chance of empowerment, it can reduce domestic violence in homes,” she says.

Ms Cossy, 40, is the chairperson of her local community in Kampala. She was battered by her husband after medical tests showed they were both HIV positive. When he passed away, she sought treatment and further support from ActionAid’s local partner, the Makerere Women’s Development Association.

Ms Cossy received training in hairdressing and handicrafts, as well as start-up capital to build her own business. With Shs200,000, she bought the materials she needed to run her shop and hair salon. The salon has now been operating for 16 years.

She also works as a facilitator in her local women’s network, called God’s Grace. She trains single women in hairdressing skills and every Saturday, she invites women to weave baskets and sell them in her shop.
Ms Nabuule, 54, is a survivor of violence and counsellor for women and girls living with HIV/Aids in a poor neighbourhood in Kampala, where she grew up.

Through ActionAid’s partner, Tusitukirewamu, which translates to ‘Let’s rise together,’ Ms Nabuule, learned how to make reusable sanitary pads. She sells them at affordable prices to women and girls in rural areas, where accessing sanitary pads can be a challenge. She now trains others to make them too.
Among her many business ventures, Ms Nabuule also makes liquid soap that she sells to schools and neighbours.

Morena Perez Joachin
Born in Guatemala City, Ms Morena Perez Joachin initially worked on television before becoming a photographer and photojournalist at the age of 18.
Ms Morena’s photographs often focus on women and she is particularly interested in capturing images of indigenous towns in her birth country.

She has exhibited in Guatemala, Spain and Chile, and has worked with publications including the German Press Agency dpa.
“To be a woman photographer in Guatemala is still a challenge. You have to work a lot to show off your portfolio and have the same opportunities as a male photographer, like travelling alone and safely,” Morena says.

Ms Morena’s photo series focus on Rebeca Lane, a trailblazing Guatemalan hip-hop artist who uses her music to promote feminism and fight for social justice.
Ms Rebeca has rapped about getting justice for the victims of Guatemala’s violent 36-year civil war and for having the right to love whoever you want. She is a survivor of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of a former partner, a topic she addresses in her most famous song: Mujer Lunar (Lunar Woman), which calls for respect for women’s bodies.

Farzana Wahidy
Ms Wahidy, an award-winning photographer was the first professional female afghan photojournalist to work with major international press agencies, including the Associated Press, among others.
Ms Wahidy’s work has largely focused on capturing the often-untold stories of women and girls in Afghanistan, something which, despite its challenges, she continues to document. She feels passionate about telling Afghan women and girls’ stories in the most authentic way possible.

Her photo series focus on Maryam Sama, Laila and Enjila Naseri.
Ms Maryam is an MP in Kabul. She successfully ran as a candidate in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election in 2018, making her one of the country’s youngest MPs.
Ms Maryam was born out of her country as a refugee in Iran, but returned with a dream to live and work in Afghanistan after the Taliban regime suffered defeats.
Ms Laila runs Kabul’s only drug rehabilitation centre. Throughout the past nine years she has helped to rehabilitate some 5,000 people with addiction-related issues.

Ms Laila partly funds her clinics by running some of Kabul’s most famous cafés and restaurants, as well as a shoe shop. However, she still finds it a struggle to generate enough money to sustain the vital community work. She has faced huge challenges in her work; running her own businesses in the male-dominated society has not been easy.

Ms Naseri practices Kowat Alrami, an Arabian martial art. Kowat Alrami, which translates as ‘power of throw’ is a fighting style combining elements of boxing, kicking, holding and throwing.
Ms Naseri is on the Afghanistan Olympic team. She was born in Iran and lived as a refugee in Iran, Pakistan and India before moving to her motherland, Afghanistan.

Tahmina Saleem
Ms Tahmina Saleem is an award-winning freelance photographer with a masters Degree in Visual Art from Kabul University.
Her documentary-style photography expresses the lifestyle, achievements and challenges of women who succeeded in Afghan society, and she has participated in exhibitions exploring the elimination of violence against women and female empowerment.

“Being a woman photographer is a very big challenge in Afghanistan,” Tahmina says. “If men see you with a camera, they are shocked; they think ‘how can a woman be doing photography?’ It is difficult but we do it for ourselves and we do not give up.”
Ms Tahmina’s photo series focus on Rahiba, Shamsia and Fakhria Momtaz.

Ms Rahiba is president of a fashion house in Kabul. She seeks to pioneer a modern style of clothing, reviving the traditional embroidery associated with Afghanistan.
Ms Rahiba heads up a team of more than 30 employees at the Laman showroom in Taimani Square in north east Kabul. Women are hired to do the intricate embroidery and some work from home.

This flexibility is crucial for women from conservative families who may not be able to leave home to get to work each day.
Laman’s first fashion show was covered by international media, but sparked criticism in Afghanistan, with some people accusing Ms Rahiba of ‘Westernising’ their culture.

Rahiba avoided using Afghan women as models and instead involved women working at the American Embassy. Despite this, the Laman seamstresses still received threats and some refused to work for the brand again.
Ms Shamsia is a street artist who sprays murals depicting powerful women on the walls of Kabul. “When people see me outside doing graffiti, they say bad words, they curse and some call it a sin. People in Afghanistan are not against art, but against women doing activities,” she observes.

“My paintings have a character. Since women have more restrictions than men in our society, I choose my character to be a woman,” Ms Shamsia adds.
Ms Momtaz opened Momtaz Yoga Centre, Kabul’s first yoga studio in 2015. Now, more than 50 women a day come to the centre – despite religious criticism.
The outdoors is very important to Ms Momtaz’s practice of yoga, so she often takes her classes outside. She believes her students “must immerse themselves in nature, and experience the changing seasons.”

Miora Rajaonary


Ms Miora Rajaonary is a documentary photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Originally from Madagascar, Ms Rajaonary has worked with publications including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Vogue US and Everyday Africa.
“As a female photographer, you are considered different to a male photographer,” Ms Rajaonary observes.

The main subject of Ms Rajaonary’s photo series are Khosi Nomnqa, Jamilla Madingwane, Gugulethu Nomthandazo Xaba, Hazel Dube, Millicent Shungube, Nkeletseng Tsetsane, Nontsikelelo Khunju and Thato Emily Mphuthi.
Ms Khosi Nomnqa is a member of a group that supports women from mining-affected communities. She has received gender equality and women’s rights training and is helping women in her community to stand on their own feet.

Ms Madingwane is a member of the Rainbow Activist Alliance Project, which seeks to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people living in townships. She is passionate about speaking out on behalf of people who are unable to advocate for themselves.

Ms Xaba, 27, was diagnosed with HIV seven years ago. She is campaigning to raise awareness about living with HIV and uses her status to empower and inspire others.
Ms Dube is a full-time student and activist. She has been involved with the ActionAid-supported Young Urban Women advocacy project since 2014. The project aims to influence decision-makers about issues that concern young women, including sexual and reproductive health.

Ms Shungube is a member of the Greater Phola Women’s Forum, an organisation that advocates on behalf of communities affected by mining. She educates the women in her forum on their rights and helps raise awareness about the dangers of mining for local communities.

Ms Tsetsane is the founder of MB Teen Lifestyle, a platform and safe space where teenagers can interact, share information and discuss topics including teenage pregnancy, underage drinking and living with HIV/Aids.
She is also part of an initiative which engages traditional and religious leaders in topics which affect young people, for example sexual health services.
Ms Khunju works in child and youth development. She is passionate about ensuring social justice for women and children across South Africa.

She currently sits as the chairperson for a Leading African Research Institute focusing on HIV and sexual and reproductive health. Ms Khunju also advocates for the rights and protection of women and children through creative writing, poetry and spoken word.

Ms Mphuthi, 24, is a women’s rights activist and an advocate for the rights of young people. She is the president of Young Urban Women Active Citizens, a women’s advocacy group that addresses the social challenges faced by young women, including lacking reproductive health rights.

Women Campaign

Women by Women is a unique photographic campaign that champions the inspirational stories of women and girls, as well as the incredible talent of women photographers in the Global South.
Throughout the year-long project, ActionAid exclusively works with local female photographers. “This is just the beginning of a longer journey we wish to take in profiling trailblazing women and girls worldwide and sharing their untold stories,” MsTaahra Ghazi, a director at ActionAid UK, says.
With support from ActionAid the women, who are the subject of the photographic exhibition that is improving the lives of women and girls in their communities every day, they are championing women’s rights and transforming their communities, and fighting for economic and social justice.

Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is working to improve the quality of life for tens of millions of people around the world. Amongst the 1,000 or so AKDN programmes and institutions that operate in 30 countries, primarily in the developing world, many date back over 60 years, and some over 100. The Network employs over 80,000 people. Its budget for non-profit social and cultural activities is approximately $950m.
The Network’s economic development arm, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, generates annual revenues of $4.3b, and all surpluses generated by its project companies are reinvested in further development activities, usually in fragile, remote or post-conflict regions.

Pamela Tulizo


Ms Tulizo started her career as a journalist, but now works primarily as a documentary photographer based in Goma, DR Congo.
She has led two photography exhibitions in Goma, both focusing on women and their role in society.
“I love my work, even though most of the time I am in danger… But because I am so passionate about photography, I always tell myself that it is worth it,” Ms Tulizo says.
The main subject of Tulizo’s photo series is Marcelline Budza. From Bukavu in DR Congo, Budza is the founder of Rebuild Women’s Hope (RWH). RWH is a non-profit coffee making business that was setup in 2013, with the aim of economically empowering Congolese women.
There are now nearly 2,000 members who grow high-quality coffee on Idjwi Island and earn an independent income.
The coffee is sorted by the members in Goma before it is exported and sold around the world, including in the UK and US.
In 2017, Budza won the prestigious Robert Burns Humanitarian Award for founding the collective and transforming the lives of women in the DR Congo.