These stories are a part of a continuing series that features women leaders at USF during Women’s History Month.
Some people may see difficult times as obstacles in the way of goals, but for Dr. Marlene Joannie Bewa, 30, her biggest challenge turned out to be her biggest opportunity.
Born and raised in Cotonou, Benin, West Africa, Bewa discovered her passion in the health field at a young age after almost losing her life during an asthma attack. Grateful for the doctors who saved her life, she was inspired to join the field.
“I decided to become a physician very early on, because of a public experience that I have faced myself and I witnessed,” Bewa said. “At 9 years old, I had this respiratory attack that broke suddenly. So from that moment, I decided that I will give back, you know, it was like a key moment in my life.”
A breakthrough moment in Bewa’s life was when she was a teenager, and one of her best friends passed away due to complications following an abortion. In shock after losing one of her closest friends, Bewa was determined to become a doctor and advocate for women’s reproductive health.
“I realized, well, I want my medical practice to be focused on sexual reproductive health to also help my community work to reach girls and boys to educate them,” Bewa said.
The early episodes in Bewa’s life led her to set up a nonprofit organization to address sexual and reproductive health in her community — and also around the world.
Bewa started the Young Beninese Leaders Association (YBLA) while she was in high school through volunteering while doing preliminary work. However, it was only when she started medical school that the nonprofit was in full operation.
With the mission to develop young people’s capacities to address key issues — including reproductive health, gender equality, leadership and entrepreneurship — Bewa has been actively growing YBLA for the past 10 years across the world.
“With leadership and entrepreneurship, we don’t think someone can be healthy if he or she does not have access to economic opportunities or opportunities that keep [them] focused on developing [themselves].”
Her passion for reproductive health led Bewa to spread awareness of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV through communitywide initiatives.
In 2010, the year she founded the nonprofit, Bewa and her team organized the Red Ribbon Campaign, which included an event that discussed young people’s opinions on HIV protection and sought to combat stigma surrounding the disease.
“Young people are the most affected everywhere in the world while women are two times more likely to be affected by HIV everywhere in the world,” Bewa said. “And so because of that, we brought them together.”
With each participant sporting handmade red ribbons, more than 300 people marched together in the streets of Benin for about an hour.
After the march, eight committees were put together to continue to address issues related to HIV in Benin.
Through the Red Ribbon Campaign, Bewa has trained 10,000 young people on HIV/AIDS prevention.
Years later after launching the nonprofit, Bewa collected more than 2,000 signatures to lead the Benin government to adopt the anti-gender-based-violence law. In 2012, she received the former first lady of the U.S. Michelle Obama’s Young African Women Leaders Grant.
With the nonprofit’s 10-year anniversary rapidly approaching, Bewa said that she never expected they would reach this point.
“From 2006 to 2010, I started preparing myself by getting involved in other people’s nonprofits, international leadership roles and volunteering from bottom to top,” Bewa said. “So I knew what could help such a movement be built and successful.
“I didn’t expect that level of interest from the national to global level. You know, having the Bill Gates Foundation invite us to share our experience in 2018 and Melinda Gates introducing our nonprofit as if she was part of it and highlighting it in front of 500 people. We didn’t expect that in 2010.”
Bewa attributes her success in part to the culture of her home country.
“Being from Benin is a blessing,” Bewa said. “Benin is the type of country where we are, I will say, progressive on several things. It’s okay for a 20-year-old, young girl to set up a nonprofit, talk to ministers, claim space and organize things, but also is a blessing because it’s one of the most peaceful countries on earth.”
While Bewa’s love for her country can be reflected in her work and advocacy for reproductive health, family also played a role in her growth and success.
Bewa said that her mother’s resilience and her father’s support in the feminist movement from settling the first women’s soccer team in West Africa helped build her strength and values.
Bewa comes from a generation of strong women which she said directly shaped her life and work. The Republic of Benin was previously the kingdom of Dahomey, which created an all-female African military corps known for their fearlessness.
“They were fierce and they would fight when they go to war to protect the territory,” Bewa said. “I think for me, this shaped the person I am in that I can do anything I want. If my ancestors did it, then I can too.”
Despite living in Benin for most of her life, Bewa said that she always saw herself doing things beyond her continent.
“I’ve always been an avid traveler, willing to discover things and work around,” Bewa said.
Bewa’s American journey began in 2012 when attending an international program. During the three-week program, she had the opportunity to discover more about youth engagement and civic participation as well as bring her research to America.
Once she returned to Benin, she was elected by her peers to become the president of the first youth council to help shape the U.S. embassy, U.S. government policies and partnerships in Benin.
After traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Benin, she received a Fulbright scholarship in 2015 from USF that convinced her to stay in the U.S.
“USF chose me, that’s what I always say,” Bewa said.
In 2018, she graduated with her master’s in public health at USF and is currently pursuing a doctorate in public health at the university.
Besides conducting research, Bewa said that she also focuses on outreach with student organizations as well as community-led organizations to develop programs and training in the field.
While being away from her home country, Bewa carries within herself the culture and values that shaped the person she is today.
“Being from Africa, I will also say it’s a blessing because there are some core values, you know, that I don’t think any other continent will have been able to talk or teach,” Bewa said. “The values of a common and shared sense of what a family is, of what solidarity is, of what working for social good is.”