Founder & Executive Director
Hero Women Rising & Synergy of Congolese Women's Associations
Neema Namadamu is a visionary game-changer. From a young age, she refused to accept the limitations imposed on her by society. Disabled by polio at age two, her prospects in life were considered nonexistent by many. But thanks to her mother’s dedication, and Neema’s own determination, she managed to surmount great obstacles to complete her education. In high school she began hosting a radio show advocating for the rights of children with disabilities.
Neema became the first woman with a disability from her ethnic group to earn a university degree, going on to serve in Parliament for South Kivu province, and then as Chief Advisor to DRC’s Minister of Gender and Family. Upon leaving government service, Neema’s frustration with the lack of impact she had been able to make through official channels led her to become active in Civil Society. The first organization she founded, in 2007, was an NGO to support disabled survivors of sexual violence in eastern Congo.
In 2012, Neema founded Synergy of Congolese Women’s Associations (SAFECO), a forum to foster collaboration among women-led NGOs to collaborate on their peace, rights, and development agenda. The group of women coming together decided to give their movement a name, and collectively began calling themselves the Maman Shujaa, or Hero Women, in Swahili.
On behalf of the Maman Shujaa members, Neema generated a petition that garnered over 100,000 signatures and resulted in an audience at the White House, helping to spur the appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy to DRC.
In late 2012, Neema was chosen as one of three speakers to participate in a US tour sponsored by World Pulse, an international forum to “amplify women’s voices for change.” The network of supporters that Neema began building at that time led her to found Hero Women Rising in 2014, with the goal of inviting the international community to support the women’s empowerment initiatives that her organization in Congo had begun to undertake.
Hero Women Rising and SAFECO have grown together since then, now operating multiple ongoing vital initiatives to increase women’s participation in Congolese society (see program page for more details).
In a Huffington Post article, peace activist John Dear said,
“She ranks with Leymah Gbowee, the Nobel laureate from Liberia, and Mairead Maguire, the Nobel laureate from Belfast — two of our greatest living peacemakers.”
“Impact is not measured by whether or not you are amassing followers, but whether or not you are inspiring leadership. We don’t want a world of leaders and followers, but leaders only – all of us together leading this world into the good of all that’s possible.”
As a result of her work, Neema has received numerous awards and accolades, including being named “Architect of Peace and Civil Society Activist,” by Vision Barza (a Great Lakes regional peace organization) (2013); “Africa’s Most Influential Woman,” by South African-based Celebrating Excellence in Organizations (2014); “1 of 14 Fierce Women’s Rights Advocates To Watch,” by Women Thrive Worldwide (2014); one of "100 Most Inspiring Women," by SALT Magazine (2015). Neema was spotlighted as an activist by Nobel Women’s Initiative (2014). She was featured in the “Unsung Heroes in the Face of Evil” exhibition in Rotterdam, Netherlands (2014), and became one of the faces representing Women’s Transformative Leadership in Africa, as depicted on the cover of MasterCard Foundation’s 2018 study. In 2018 Neema received the Meredith McRae Empowerment Award from the International Women’s Forum of Southern California.
Neema’s approach to enacting change is summed up in her words,