Ann Cotton OBE

Ann Cotton OBE

23rd May 2022 by Lindsay Toone

Back to Ann Cotton OBE

Ann Cotton founded CAMFED in 1993. She is the President of the international non-profit organisation, which tackles the cycle of poverty and inequality by supporting marginalised girls through education, empowering them to step up as leaders of change.

Tell us about your Women of the Year Alumnae talk
I spoke about the historical context of the work I started. I went to Zimbabwe ten years after independence and what shocked me was the colonial history of the area that I was in, in the north of the country, on the western side where the Tongan people were forcibly resettled when the Kariba Dam was built in 1956, and where they had lived in an impoverished state ever since. I hadn’t realised the depth of the iniquity that was perpetrated and I was emotionally very affected by the poverty and by discovering the culpability of the British in the state of affairs.

It was a very diverse audience, there were women with many different cultural and national backgrounds and afterwards, a number of them came to speak to me privately to say how it had resonated with their own experiences growing up in India and other parts of Africa. I felt I’d touched something that remains quite hidden and I was happy about opening up that dialogue.

What does community mean to you?

I was brought up in Cardiff, but I spent my holidays in Aberdare with my grandparents, where the sense of community was extremely powerful and very unifying. I learnt the power of caring for other members of the community from the behaviours of that community. My grandmother was a kind of one-woman social worker, but she wasn’t alone in that. She would make much more Sunday roast than for just the family and she would send me up and down the street with a plate for Mrs Griffiths who’d just come out of the hospital, or Mr Jones who was on his own. When I went to Zimbabwe there was also a very powerful sense of community and I related to that through my own experience. I really felt the connection.

Who are the women who have most influenced you in your life?

The people that I’m most influenced and impressed by are those who show personal courage, who stand out from the crowd and are willing to challenge the status quo. And the people I admire are the people who are not looking for accolades, or recognition. Who do things because they are the right things to do, who have integrity and compassion. My paternal grandmother would be one of the women. Her memory continues to have an influence on my life. She left school when she was 12 because her father was killed in a coal mining accident, but she was passionate about education, about social change and about equality and justice. Looking back that was quite remarkable for someone of her background. In my work, the person who has most influenced me is a young headmistress called Judith Kumire. She died when she was 39. She became a headmistress at 22 because they were short of trained teachers and she worked in a very remote and poor rural area. She dedicated her life and energy to transforming the educational experience of children in that community. She was intelligent, philosophical, and a great thinker but never sought any recognition or praise, yet was transformative in the way she worked and transformative in her influence over me.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from another woman in your life?

It’s more from women in general, and that is that nothing is more powerful than love. Whether or not we are mothers, there is a maternal strand running through us all which is about being protective and compassionate and giving, to both people and the world.

What advice would you give young women starting out in their lives and careers now?

Never compromise your principles. Ever.


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