Esther Mwema

Founder, Safety First for Girls Outreach Foundation (SAFIGI)
Nationality: Congolese
Living in: Lusaka, Zambia
Fields of work:
gender, human rights, media/journalism, internet governance, safety

“Growing up in Mbala, a small town in Zambia, I walked over an hour to get to school. At six years old, the rain, sun, and dust were my biggest adversary. I did not have to consider I was female, black or an immigrant. These long lone walks opened my mind to imagination and questions about the fabric of the world. They drove my curiosity.

As I got older and wanted to contribute to society through volunteering, I faced many closed doors. I was too young to give back. I did not have the skills. No one wanted a teenager on their team. The rejection sparked more questions in me than it hurt me, although it hurt me a lot. I wondered why most civil societies were not inclusive or open, even though young people are the majority of the population. It made me curious as to why society’s institutions were using outdated, closed systems and expecting innovation.

At 17 years old when I started Safety First for Girls, there were three paths before me. The first: conform and develop an organisation in a tried and systematic way. The second: quit, because I did not have the money even to take a taxi home, let alone build an organisation. The third path was a ridiculous one: creating a whole new grassroots-led model, without experience, without money, and without structured support. But by taking the third path, the curious path, I had nothing to lose. Maybe I could find the answers I was looking for.”
— Esther Mwema

Esther Mwema sees safety as essential for a healthy society. At 17 years old, she founded Safety First For Girls Outreach Foundation (SAFIGI), a feminist, youth-led organisation focused on safety education, advocacy and research. Using the internet as a platform to connect and build communities, at 23 years old she became founding president of Digital Grassroots, which works to increase the representation of underserved youth in internet governance through the multi-stakeholder model.

In 2017 she was named an Internet Society Youth@IGF Fellow, and attended the Internet Governance Forum held at the United Nations office in Geneva, Switzerland. The following year, Digital Grassroots was invited to give a keynote speech at the closing ceremony of the Internet Governance Forum at Unesco’s offices in Paris, representing the youth stakeholder group.

Work Open, Lead Open (WOLO) has been a guiding principle for Esther’s work since she became a Mozilla Open Leader in 2018. She has served as a guest expert on open leadership, digital inclusion, and personas and pathways on the Mozilla Open Leaders programme, and has mentored young people on community-building for open and sustainable projects. She curated a communique on youth resolutions in internet governance, and as a Mozilla Festival Facilitator, co-created Digital Rights Monopoly, an adaptive game focusing on digital rights issues.

In 2019, Esther became an Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) Community Development Fellow, and curated the IFF’s Next Net theme. Also in 2019, she was named to a Kumvana Fellowship by Engineers Without Borders Canada, a programme that provides African innovators with a platform to network, collaborate and develop skills.

Esther is the recipient of a scholarship to attend Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on gender equality, where SAFIGI presented a poster on its research on issues affecting the safety of girls in the developing world. In 2018, she was invited by the Graça Machel Trust to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s centenary year as part of the Africa Youth Network.

Esther graduated summa cum laude in multimedia journalism at the Institute of International Studies at Ramkhamhaeng University in Thailand. In the 2017-18 academic year, she served as a journalism tutor in the School of Humanities at the University of Zambia.

Esther is writing her debut fantasy novel. She took part in the Regional Residency for African Women Writers 2018 held by Femrite in collaboration with Karavan and the Swedish Institute. She was the only woman of six African novelists selected for the Mawazo Africa Writing Institute’s “Writing the Novel 2” course in 2018-19. Updates on her latest adventures can be found at 

Twitter: @hadassahlouis

“Being a young black female immigrant means facing a different battle every day. It is a difficult way to live. It is an easy way to die. The very fabric of hope is tested with each waking day, with each injustice we have to accept, ignore or grow numb to.

My hope rests in the fact that I am able to shape my future much more than in the past. As marginalised communities, we defend our human dignity by creating solutions for ourselves, telling our own stories, and being allowed the independence to embrace our cultures. Although there are challenges, the future appears more open, inclusive and innovative. It is a world where a girl like me can become an Atlantic Fellow.”
— Esther Mwema