African women are ready to lead

But social beliefs and attitudes hinder their quest
From Africa Renewal: 
page 6

When the young Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika was sent off to an all-girls boarding school in Zambia renowned for its academic excellence and sporting discipline, she had no idea she was laying the foundation for a career in leadership. She had plenty of time to concentrate on her studies, unlike many other girls her age who had to divide time between school and household responsibilities. Today she represents her country as ambassador to the US, has served in parliament, and in 2001 became the first woman to run for president in Zambia.

Celebrating International Women's Day in Côte d'Ivoire Celebrating International Women's Day in Côte d'Ivoire.
Photograph: UN / Ky Chung

It was as if her environment conspired to get her to where she is, she says. She grew up with parents who supported her dreams and who were always available. “We spent a lot of time with our parents,” says Ms. Lewanika, who was in New York in February to attend the 50th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). “My parents created an enabling environment, and sent all of us [both boys and girls] to school.”

Among her achievements has been taking part in the women’s lobby that pushed the continental political organization, the African Union, to adopt groundbreaking rules in 2004 requiring a 50–50 gender balance among officers in its highest ranks. Ms. Lewanika also lobbied for the adoption in 2000 of UN Resolution 1325, which promotes equal participation by women in conflict prevention and resolution, peacekeeping and peace building.

But she represents the exception rather than the rule. In Africa, only three countries (Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa) have attained the goal of having at least 30 per cent of the seats in national parliaments filled by women, in line with the UN target of 30 per cent for women in decision-making bodies. Globally, only 12 other countries had reached that level in national parliaments by 2004.

Multiple roles

Getting into and staying in positions of power is difficult because of the roles traditionally expected of women, Ms. Lewanika told Africa Renewal. If one wants to be a parliamentarian as well as a wife and a mother, and the husband does not support her, then it is hard to continue. “When you have young children, you have to rush home while your male counterparts carry on with discussions in the bars or in the chambers” of parliament, she said.

All across the world, women in leadership positions are hampered by numerous obstacles, including pervasive and often subtle attitudes and beliefs that women are unequal to men at home, at work and in government. Feminists argue that regardless of race, class or ethnicity, women are consistently defined as political outsiders whose participation in public life is conditional upon their maternal roles.

Many cultures view the raising of children as primarily the job of women, with men not expected to have domestic roles. In countries where such beliefs are deep-seated, women who go against the grain are often required to perform double duty. Professional women, for instance, are obliged to manage the household and family while also performing their professional tasks. This often leaves women at a disadvantage in relation to their male colleagues.

Liberian voters: Many Africans are finding that getting women into high office is only the first step Liberian voters: Many Africans are finding that getting women into high office is only the first step.
Photograph: Reuters / Claire Soares

Activists also note that because women are often viewed as out of place in professional environments, they are subjected to more scrutiny at work than are men of the same rank, which slows down women’s advancement into management positions.

“I was always, always being watched by my colleagues, at all levels,” says former Mexican Ambassador to the UN Rosario Green. “Men who were above me watched me to see if I would make a mistake. Men who were at the same level would watch me to see if I could do things as well as they did. And of course my bosses, who were men, were always scrutinizing me and other women, because they were fearful of history’s judgment: ‘You made a mistake. You selected a woman!’”

To gain positions of authority, women frequently have to be overqualified just to be noticed, says Ms. Lewanika. That, she says, is a direct reflection of how societies view women — as not as good as men. And when women do get appointed, “you hear people say, ‘She is just like a man.’ In other words they relate to you as a man if you are an achiever.”

Women ambassadors

In the US capital, Washington, DC, Ms. Lewanika is among only a handful of women ambassadors. Out of 16 female ambassadors to the US, eight are African and, she adds, it is not a coincidence that seven of them are from Southern Africa. In 1997 the member-states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) adopted a declaration on gender and development that required each country to reach at least 30 per cent female representation in decision-making by 2005. Although only three countries have achieved the SADC target, on average women comprise 20 per cent of the region’s legislators, second only to Scandinavian countries, where the average is 38 per cent, notes Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental group.

Since the First World Conference on Women in 1975, the women’s movement has taken significant strides towards achieving full participation of women in all areas of society. In February 2006, gender activists and policymakers convened in New York on the 50th anniversary of the UN’s CSW to take stock of progress. Established in 1946 by the Economic and Social Council (one of the five organs of the UN), the commission has the task of advancing women’s interests.

When the CSW was first established, women could vote in only 30 of the original 51 UN member states. Now, across the globe, women have secured the right to vote and, in most countries, to stand for election. The frontlines of the battle have now shifted. Gender activists are focusing increasingly on raising the levels of women’s representation in political and economic decision-making posts and helping women to become more effective.

Turning point

“Progress has been slow and uneven,” says CSW Vice-Chairperson Adekunbi Abibat Sonaike, from Nigeria, noting that many African countries have not yet reached the international UN target of 30 per cent female representation in positions of power. She argues that poverty is one of the main obstacles for women on the continent. Africa continues to “lag behind other regions in terms of poverty alleviation, and those most affected by poverty are women.”

The UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) concurs, observing that women in poor countries are often held back from politics because, for starters, campaigning requires money. In Africa, many women lack adequate access to productive resources, such as land, water, energy, credit, means of communication, education and training, health and work with decent pay. The number of people living in extreme poverty (on less than one US dollar a day) increased from 217 million in 1990 to 290 million in 2000, notes the ECA, and the majority of them were women and girls.

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1994 was a critical turning point in the struggle for gender equality. For the first time, governments adopted an international agreement committing them to concrete actions towards advancing women into positions of power. In Beijing, governments agreed that in order to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development, “women and men must participate fully and equally in the formulation of macro-economic and social policies and strategies for the eradication of poverty.” They set an international benchmark for women’s participation — 30 per cent of posts in decision-making positions. It is thought that this percentage will give women “critical mass” — the minimum level of representation required for women to make a difference in policy-making.

In Beijing, governments also agreed to review “the impact of electoral systems on the political representation of women” and to propose reforms to improve representation. Gender monitors report that those countries that enacted such electoral changes have made the most progress. All 15 countries that had at least 30 per cent women in their national parliaments by 2004 had also adopted electoral measures specifically to empower women.

Those measures included taking affirmative action by adopting female quotas in political parties and national parliaments. Many countries showing progress have also used proportional representation in their electoral systems. Under such a formula, a political party wins seats according to the proportion of its overall vote, as opposed to systems where the winning party takes all seats. Because this system makes it easier for smaller parties to win seats, they are often more likely to “risk” fielding female candidates. In addition, some of these countries have also enacted laws that grant subsidies to women to help them run for election.

In Africa, Mozambique and South Africa use voluntary party quotas, to guarantee that a certain percentage of women are selected as political candidates. Rwanda uses legal quotas, under which the targets apply to all political parties.

Breaking into leadership

Despite the challenges, a growing proportion of women are breaking through the glass ceiling. Women who have entered into leadership positions attribute their success to factors such as access to education and work opportunities, good mentoring by both men and women, support from family, employers, supervisors, teachers and colleagues, and successful lobbying by gender activists.

The world average for women in parliament rose from 11.7 per cent in 1995 to 15.6 per cent by 2004. In Southern Africa, where the proportion of women in parliament, at 17.9 per cent, is much higher than the African average of 11 per cent, three countries selected female deputy speakers during the last decade. In addition, Mozambique appointed a woman prime minister and Zimbabwe and South Africa named women deputy presidents.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state.
Photograph: UN / Evan Schneider

In January, Liberians swore in Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa’s first elected female leader. Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist and UN official, was seen to have been elected on the basis of her perceived ability to do the job better than her male competitors.

But the advancement of women into positions of power does not, by itself, resolve the need to create an environment that allows them to make a real difference, notes Ms. Pumla Mncayi, director of the Gender Advocacy Programme, a South African lobby group. “It is a reality that traditionally women have always been given positions as deputies to men, without any real power or significance.” Regarding South Africa’s first female deputy president, Phumzile Gloria Mlambo-Ngcuka, Ms. Mncayi adds: “The question remains — does she have the power to improve women’s lives in South Africa?”

According to Ms. Mncayi, it is time for countries such as South Africa to start thinking beyond numbers and to campaign for the reform of government institutions to allow women to participate effectively. Government institutions, she says, should be “gender sensitive” in the way they operate, by taking into consideration sex and gender roles. Parliaments, for example, should be reformed to allow mothers and fathers to share the responsibilities of parenthood so that both may attend sessions.

Because historically women have had fewer opportunities and exposure to leadership positions than men do, women often feel intimidated by the political system and are hesitant to participate, says Ms. Mncayi. Deliberate programmes to train and equip women when they enter the corridors of power are therefore needed.

Enhancing participation

Some of Africa’s women politicians also have to deal with political systems that promote patronage. Under such systems, politicians are beholden to the party hierarchy rather than to their constituents, which renders elected officials less effective in policymaking.

Shireen Hassim and Sheila Meintjes, in a paper commissioned by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, note that proportional representation, an electoral system widely assumed to be more favourable to women, carries costs that are not often cited, allowing “political parties to establish mechanisms of control over women.”

Studies in Uganda, one of the first countries in Africa to adopt quotas for women, show that the effects of women’s participation have been mixed and that allegiances to the ruling party often hinder women parliamentarians from supporting legislation favoured by women’s movements. Similar concerns have been expressed in Mozambique and South Africa, note Ms. Hassim and Ms. Meintjes. The question facing women members of parliament is how to balance their commitment to the party with what many of them see as their commitment to policies that push the interests of women.

In Mozambique and South Africa women are represented in record numbers in parliament, due to affirmative action policies. However, like their male counterparts, they are elected to represent the party and not necessarily to represent the interests of women. “The challenge is therefore whether and how women’s gender interests can be articulated in a way that is distinct from their party interests and identities,” Ms. Hassim and Ms. Meintjes write.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, write Ms. Catherine Makoni and Ms. Tsitsi Matekaire, the women’s lobby was at a loss about whether or not to celebrate the appointment last year of the country’s first woman deputy president, Joyce Mujuru. Her appointment was seen in some quarters “as one of the games that political parties play,” they note in a study for the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international women’s lobby group. “It was viewed as expedient … [to appoint a woman] at that point in our history.”

In addition, they note, she was named to a government that has enacted laws that are increasingly viewed as intolerant of dissent. Hundreds of women who have demonstrated against deteriorating living conditions in the Southern African nation have been arrested.

Post-conflict countries do well

Although armed conflict has been very disruptive in Africa, says Ms. Doris Mpomou a New York-based researcher for WEDO, it is also paradoxically “opening up opportunities for women to change gender relations and to enter positions of leadership.”

Over the last decade, more than a third of armed conflicts worldwide were in Africa, producing more than 6 million refugees and 20 million internally displaced people. The wars have destroyed infrastructure, stalled development and exposed women in particular to rape and abuse.

But conflict has created occasions for women to transform their lives and redefine their gender roles. Conflict often results in significant demographic changes, as men go to war and are killed in combat. While this does not automatically alter the balance of political and social power between men and women, it can provide some opportunities for women when they greatly outnumber men. In Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide, there were four men for every six women. Women stepped into roles in areas traditionally dominated by men, such as politics, agriculture and the formal economy. Rwanda holds the current record for the highest level of female representation in national parliament.

While Rwanda is an extreme case, other African countries in conflict have seen major migration into the cities, away from fighting in rural areas. Such mass migrations have pushed women to become heads of households and to take on other traditional male roles.

In some conflicts, such as the Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia and the liberation wars in South Africa and Zimbabwe, women fought alongside men, asserting their equality and winning some bargaining power in post-conflict settlements. Once the wars ended, women felt empowered to claim positions of power in government, as in South Africa.

Over time, Zimbabwean women suffered an erosion of the initial gains they won following the end of armed conflict. However, they subsequently undertook a renewed drive for equal participation in leadership through the impetus provided by the Beijing conference. Zimbabwe’s example shows that women’s movements need not rely only on domestic support, but can also gain leverage through help from the international community.

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has been very active in promoting women’s participation in peace processes and in training women for leadership in many African countries, including Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Independent organizations such as the London-based International Alert, established in 1985, have also played important roles. The group works with women’s networks and has facilitated the participation of women in the peace processes in Liberia and the DRC. Activists say that deeper research is needed into how the gains women have made in war and transitional situations are often pushed back during peacetime, to help figure out how such gains can be secured.

Finally, activists are also working towards the day when politicians of both sexes push for policies that empower men and women. At the end of the day, positions of leadership need to be filled by “both men and women who are gender sensitive,” says Ms. Lewanika. “We are striving for a positive partnership between men and women.”

Women in international agencies

Gender activists are increasingly setting their sights on getting more women into high office in international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Out of all policymaking areas, women are least represented in economics and finance, notes the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international women’s lobby group.

Around the world there are only 28 female ministers in charge of economic portfolios. The consequence, WEDO reports, is that women’s interests, experiences and concerns are either absent or inadequately reflected in economic decision-making. Over the last few decades, the World Bank and IMF have been designing economic reform programmes in poor countries. The absence of women in the formulation of those policies has meant “that the majority of the monetary, financial and trade policies being implemented worldwide … are gender blind, resulting in serious economic costs to society as a whole,” reports WEDO.

At the Bank and IMF, female representation among leadership staff is around 20 per cent, and fewer than 10 per cent of the members of the organizations’ boards of governors are women. While those institutions have the authority to alter the gender composition of their staffs, they have little control over the boards. Governors are appointed by individual member countries.

A woman has never occupied the top post at either the Bank or the IMF. The IMF currently has its first woman deputy managing director, Ms. Anne Krueger.

One of the outcomes of this year’s meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), says Ms. Doris Mpomou of WEDO, “is that activists have managed to push for the inclusion of the international financial institutions and academia in the 30 per cent quota target.”

The African Women’s Caucus at CSW has charged that even the UN is still lagging behind. In its 60 years of existence, “no woman has ever been Secretary-General of the UN,” they noted in a statement, urging the UN to promote the rise of women to the top post, especially at a time when the organization is undertaking reforms.

A report on women in global leadership by the International Centre for Research in Women, a Washington-based non-profit group, recommends that international agencies such as the UN publish gender-disaggregated statistics on progress in advancing women up the organizational ladder. The institutions should also set timetables and concrete plans to promote gender equality at the highest levels.

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