Khadijah Abdul-Samed is a communication practitioner with nearly ten years’ experience in broadcasting, advocacy, and research. After obtaining a BSc in Agricultural Economics from the University of Ghana, Khadijah went on to study public relations and journalism, earning her master’s degree in Communication and Media Studies, and realizing her ambitions to lead change through the power of communication.
Khadjiah now works as the Communication & Gender Officer at the Savannah Women Integrated Development Agency (SWIDA), an organization working to empower communities and individuals in Northern Ghana through socio-economic opportunities, and she is also the Project Lead for SWIDA’s Women-LEAD development project. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Khadijah was central to her organization’s development of an innovative media sensitization initiative that featured children as the main communicators on issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to communities across Northern Ghana.
We spoke to Khadijah about her work with SWIDA during COVID-19 as part of our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” initiative, which highlights African women who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and dedication to their communities through their COVID-19 response efforts. Khadijah also shared with us her wisdom and insights about the power of women, communication, and representation.
Read our interview with Khadijah below.
Q: Since your student days you have been active in broadcasting and journalism, and your career path has led you to gaining significant media and public relations experience. Could you talk a bit about your career and leadership journey? How does your experience inform your advocacy goals?
I really love this question because it’s something that surprises people, especially those who don’t know me very well. I was a science student for a long time, and even studied science at university. But while I was at secondary school, people kept telling me I’d make a good broadcaster. It was at that point I realized there was something inside me that I should embrace. So, after secondary school, I worked at a radio station for three months. I never told my family—it was someone else who told my mother that they’d been hearing my voice on the radio. Anytime I sat behind the microphone, I felt so free. It was at that point that I felt like I had found my place, so I practiced journalism for a year before moving on to university.
My university had a campus radio station, and because of my previous experience I was able to fit in quickly and move straight into hosting a program. By the time I completed my course—in agricultural science—I had also hosted four different radio programs and had been able to interview influential and distinguished personalities. Throughout this time, people continued to tell me that I didn’t ‘look’ like a science student. But what was important to me was how I felt anytime I did anything communications-related: free. It was then I realized that I had found my home: that I was communications, and communications was me. And I was able to begin to embrace it.
It was then that I broke away from science, going on to pursue a certificate course in PR and further to complete a master’s in Communication; the first time I sat in a communications class was the first time I felt like I could really breathe—I was finally studying what was truly me. It was also during this time that I connected with and embraced my love for anything women and gender-related. Both my undergraduate and master’s theses were women-focused. After my master’s program I began by using my new skills as a volunteer with several NGOs. I also taught at a journalism school where I currently serve as the Dean of Students. The opportunity to work with SWIDA eventually came along, and that’s when I really moved into my role as a communications leader and gender advocate.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your role at SWIDA, and tell us a bit about what the organization does? Could you talk about the goals and objectives of the Women-LEAD project specifically?
When I talk about my work, I say I’m the face of SWIDA. My job is to ensure that when people see us on social media, they see a living, breathing organization. Communications, and particularly social media, has the ability to magnify the work we do as an NGO and bring people closer—to make them feel like they’re a part of what we do. In everything I do I am representing the SWIDA brand—people should be able to see the link between our actions and our organization, which has women and girls at its heart. And it’s not just me of course, but the whole team. Everybody really contributes to SWIDA’s positive reputation and image.
At SWIDA our work is focused on the empowerment of women and girls. But that doesn’t mean we don’t include men; we support projects such as the United Nations’ ‘HeForShe’ movement, and work with men and boys to show them their role in ensuring the women in their families have equal access to opportunities. We also work to improve the socio-economic lives of women and girls where we operate. An important aspect of this is natural resource management. We want to help women gain access to land, and we work with traditional leaders to manage this access so that women can cultivate and profit from the land around them. Additionally, through establishing shea parklands for the protection and conservation of shea resources, we help women maintain access to shea trees which can be an important source of income.
Women-LEAD (Women Empowerment for Leadership and Action for Development) is a three-year development project funded by Plan International Ghana and Global Affairs Canada, and it is being implemented in five communities in the Tamale Metropolitan Area and five communities in the Sagnarigu Municipality in the Northern Region. Its aim is to empower young girls and women with strategic leadership and advocacy skills. We want them to have the confidence to be actively involved in the public sphere—too often they are made to feel like their role is only in the domestic space.
We work with girls from the primary school level to build their confidence, as well as encourage them to run for leadership positions in their schools. We want them to see themselves as equally capable of contributing to decision making, wherever they find themselves. Some women have leadership roles in their own communities, but don’t know how to maximize their impact. We work particularly with rural women to help them understand their responsibility and ability to effectively contribute to decisions at the local level that will affect their lives. We show them how they can attain economic empowerment and participate effectively in decision making, beginning in their own communities.
Q: As part of the efforts to fight COVID-19, SWIDA embarked on a media sensitization project together with World Vision. Can you tell us about this campaign and the scope of this project? What were some of the challenges you faced during this project, and what were some of the project’s resulting successes?
This was a project that arose from creative thinking. COVID-19 had shut down almost everything, and it became very difficult to connect—at SWIDA, we don’t work in the office; we work in communities, we’re out in the field with women. As this was no longer possible, we had to find a new way of reaching people.
In the Northern Region, radio drama has been an effective tool for behavioral change through its dramatization of everyday life situations. People really connect with it and learn a lot from it. We realized this should be our vehicle for communication, but instead of featuring adults in our drama we decided to feature children. Children have an innocence that people easily connect with. Their dramatization of the topics for discussion also provided a great balance alongside more serious conversations that we held together with health practitioners, agricultural extension officers, and officers in the education sector. The objective of the project was to increase behavioural change in favor of the observance of COVID-19 preventive protocols.
We brought the idea to World Vision, who agreed to fund it and then connected us with a school that had a drama club. The children involved also loved the idea, and so we then developed programs that covered different aspects of COVID-19 and its impacts, from prevention and protection protocol, to raising awareness about and combating misinformation. We also used these programs to communicate different perspectives that would be relevant to our audiences, such as the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture. The project ran for about three months, both on television and radio.
We did also experience some challenges. We had to ensure the children were safe, and we had to ensure that, in making the programs, we weren’t breaking rules about gatherings of people. Ultimately, we had to stop making the broadcasts when policies prevented us from bringing children into TV studio spaces. But we were successful in reaching people. And the reason we know we were successful is the number of calls we got from people who had seen or listened to our programs. The number of different dialects in which we were receiving calls showed just how far-reaching our efforts were.
Q: How would you describe the response efforts of other women in your community, in Tamale, and in Ghana more generally, to COVID-19?
In many communities, and especially rural communities, women are caretakers not only of their children, but of their wider families. We’ve seen women doing what they can to contribute to the fight against the pandemic, but at the same time, it can be difficult, because it’s so important that they protect their own health, and follow and respect directives about where they can and cannot be.
In order to be able to connect with these women, they need to have representation. They need to be able to see themselves in the media, and know that their challenges and experiences are being heard and understood. Then they, in turn, can connect with their responsibility to keep their community safe. During COVID-19, traditional and social media has been critical not only to staying connected, but also for sharing life-saving information. I’ve seen that the pandemic has led more and more women to harness tools like social media for communication, which has been one positive to emerge, despite all that the pandemic has put us through.
Q: What advice would you give to young African women–especially those who are embarking on their career and leadership journeys? And, as an advocate for women, is there anything you would like to share?
My advice to young women who are just embarking on their leadership journeys, if they are students pursuing higher education, is this: try to think of university as a “universal city,” where people go to explore. For the first few years of your life, you may be following the path that your friends and family say you should be taking. At university, you will have more interactions, more experiences, and many more opportunities for growth and development. It is an important time to figure out who you really are, and what you want—that’s what I did.
As women, we have to understand who we are and embrace it. It’s one thing to know yourself, and another to embrace your own ‘chaos’. It is power. It is a fire that can transform the world. If you read up on women throughout history, you start to get the sense that a woman is a very powerful person. And until young women begin to understand themselves and embrace the fire of their own personal mission, they cannot move forward to transform the world. Too often women think their voice doesn’t matter. But it does. You have a dimension that no one else has, and so you have a responsibility to come out and speak for those people with the platform you have.