Sandra Pepera is the Director for Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute. Sandra is a British professional woman of African descent and a single parent. Integrity is at the cornerstone of her personality.
Sandra describes her pride in being the second generation of educated women in her family from the Ashanti region. This is not the norm, but her maternal grandfather was a passionate advocate for education. He was keen on providing his daughters with the same education as his sons – a progressive notion during the 1930s in Ashanti, Ghana.
Sandra received an early introduction to foreign policy, as her father was the first post-independence Ambassador of Ghana to France. Although Sandra did not talk about world affairs at home with her father, she gained an affinity for politics, justice, and world affairs at an early age. The advocate for justice was not born to parents who would have called themselves feminists: her mother embodied feminism as a West African Matriarch; her stepfather not at all.
Sandra has embodied feminism her entire life. She always believed in the equality for men and women but did not learn formally in an academic setting about feminism until much later. It was not until reaching higher levels of education that she learned about feminist theory in academia. While attending prestigious universities, it never occurred to Sandra not to be viewed as anything other than equal. She lives as a feminist not only because women’s equality is necessary, but because feminism rebalances the power dynamic in societies. For Sandra, societies are better with a broader range of voices in for leadership, conflict management, and peace negotiation.
Coming of age in a predominantly white society, Sandra was aware of her racial differences. Sandra recalls that her identity as a black female shaped her actions. For example, as a black female professional, Sandra was never given permission to arrive late and maintain the same level of respect and professionalism from her peers. In Sandra’s words, as a black woman routinely arriving late to meetings will lead to you being ‘branded’ as unprofessional, and reinforces the negative stereotypes often associated with black women. They are often not presented as unique or multi-dimensional. The backlash she has received as an independent professional black woman has come in both subtle and overt forms: she agrees with everyone who watched what happened to Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open Final, that misogynoir” (a particular negativity towards black women) does exist. Nonetheless, Sandra’s identity as a black female has not impeded her basic understanding of equality.
Sandra started her professional career with justice and equality at the forefront. She began her fight for justice in the UK by joining the Anti-Nazi league, was an early member of trade unions, and supported the divestment of Barclay’s Banks – a symbol of the struggle against apartheid. Similar to feminism, her intellectual understanding of justice issues has matured during her education and career. In 1993, Sandra worked on a program that supported the African National Congress Women’s League’s engagement in the transition from apartheid to democracy, specifically the writing of the new constitution. From this experience, Sandra learned there was no separation between women’s status and the health of a democracy. Women’s access to political power is integral to democratic values.
Early in Sandra’s career, she became a lecturer of political science and international relations at the University of Ghana, Legon. As the only woman on the academic staff, in the only university political science department in Ghana at the time, Sandra found that her identity increasingly framed her perspective. She remembers being elected as the Vice President of the Legon chapter of the University Teachers’ Association of Ghana (UTAG), which on a scheduled rotation assumed the national leadership of UTAG. Sandra and her colleagues successfully led industrial action (yes, a strike) for improved salaries across the board, and for less discriminatory promotion and career prospects for women in particular.
In addition to her experience at the University of Ghana, Sandra worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Office and at the UK’s Department for International Development. Four years ago, Sandra became the Director of the Gender, Women and Democracy program at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC. She remarks that she feels like she’s sat at every point of the compass as far as politics and international relations are concerned: university and national politics in the UK; in academia teaching and researching politics and international relations; working on political development at an inter-governmental organization; designing and implementing international development programs at a leading bilateral organization; and now working on international democracy support at an international NGO.
At NDI, Sandra works on supporting women to overcome the barriers to their equal and active political participation. NDI achieves this goal through developing analyses, tools, and campaigns – for example, NDI’s leadership of the #NotTheCost campaign to end violence against politically-active women. Under Sandra’s leadership, NDI recently launched think10, a safety planning tool designed to enhance women’s safety and security in politics.
Reflecting on her younger years, Sandra would have advised herself to be more patient with her peers. It took her some time to understand that her peers also came from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds – most of them quite dissimilar to her own. A colleague told her many years ago, that sometimes they also needed to be coached into new or different understandings.
Sandra does not know where her career will lead her next. However, she will continue building on her forty years of experience at senior levels of international policy and development to fight for equality and justice – for all.