African women are ready to lead

But social beliefs and attitudes hinder their quest
From Africa Renewal: 
page 14
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf taking the presidential oath in LiberiaEllen Johnson-Sirleaf taking the presidential oath in Liberia, after her election: Partly because of the social traumas of war, several post-conflict countries have seen new openings for women’s advancement.
Photograph: Reuters / Jason Reed

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 was laying the foundation for a career in leadership. She had plenty of time to concentrate on her studies. Since then, she has represented her country as ambassador to the US, has served in parliament and in 2001 became the first woman to run for president in Zambia. She is currently Zambia’s ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands and the European Union.

Ms. Mbikusita-Lewanika grew up with parents who supported her dreams and who were always available. “We spent a lot of time with our parents,” she says. “My parents created an enabling environment, and sent all of us [both boys and girls] to school.”

Ms. Mbikusita-Lewanika 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. She also lobbied for the adoption in 2000 of UN Resolution 1325, which promotes equal participation by women in conflict prevention and resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

But she represents the exception rather than the rule. By 2008 only seven countries in Africa (Rwanda, South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi) had 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 for women in decision-making bodies. Rwanda holds the current record for the highest level of female representation in a national parliament.

Multiple roles

Getting into and staying in positions of power is difficult because of the roles traditionally expected of women, Ms. Mbikusita-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.

Activists 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 women’s advancement into management positions.

To gain positions of authority, women frequently have to be overqualified just to be noticed, says Ms. Mbikusita-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.”

A polling station in NigeriaA polling station in Nigeria: From voting to holding elective office, Africa women are pressing for a bigger voice in political affairs.
Photograph: Reuters / Akintunde Akinleye

Turning point

Since the First World Conference on Women in 1975, the women’s movement has taken significant strides. In February 2006, gender activists and policymakers convened in New York on the 50th anniversary of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (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.

“Progress has been slow and uneven,” said then CSW Vice-Chairperson Adekunbi Abibat Sonaike, from Nigeria. The UN Economic Commission for Africa concurs, observing that 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 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1994 was a critical turning point in the struggle for gender equality. In Beijing, governments set an international benchmark for women’s participation — 30 per cent of posts in decision-making positions.

Breaking into leadership

Despite the challenges, a growing proportion of women are breaking through the glass ceiling. The world average for women in parliament rose from 11.7 per cent in 1995 to 19.3 per cent by July 2011. 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.

Because historically women have had fewer opportunities and exposure to leadership positions than men, 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.”

In Zimbabwe, write Catherine Makoni and Tsitsi Matekaire, the women’s lobby was at a loss about whether or not to celebrate the appointment in 2004 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.

Post-conflict countries do well

Although armed conflict has been very disruptive in Africa, says 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.”

During the previous decade, more than a third of armed conflicts worldwide were in Africa. The wars destroyed infrastructure, stalled development and exposed women in particular to rape and abuse.

But conflict 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. 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.

UN Women, a UN agency on gender issues, has been very active in training women for leadership in many African countries, including Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia 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.

Women in international agencies

Gender activists want more women in 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 WEDO. 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.

One of the outcomes of the 2006 meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, said Ms. Mpomou, was that “activists have managed to push for the inclusion of the international financial institutions and academia in the 30 per cent quota target.”

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. In June 2011, Christine Lagarde of France became the first woman to head the IMF.

The African Women’s Caucus at the CSW has charged that even the UN is still lagging behind. In its more than 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.   

Women storm onto Rwanda’s political stage

Women in Rwanda now top the world rankings of women in national parliaments, with 56 per cent representation in the lower house compared to a world average of about 19 per cent. Rwandese women not only head about a third of all households, but have also taken up many jobs that were formerly the preserve of men, as in construction and mechanics.

However, their most notable achievement has been in politics. Thanks to a new constitution, 24 out of 80 seats in the lower house of parliament are reserved for women. In the upper house, 6 out of 20 seats are reserved for women. To attain this, Rwandan women lobbied heavily, helped to draft the new constitution and developed voting guidelines that guaranteed seats for women candidates. They were also able to push for the creation of a government ministry of women’s affairs to promote policies in favour of women’s interests.

“It will be interesting to see what the entry of so many women in the national assembly will do for politics in Rwanda,” says the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based organization representing 138 parliaments worldwide. IPU President Anders Johnsson observes that the European Nordic countries have an established history of women’s participation in decision-making, but that Rwanda now overtakes the long-time leader, Sweden, where women constitute 45 per cent of parliamentarians.

Rwanda’s success in bringing women to the political table mirrors that of a small, but growing number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, Angola and Mozambique, for example, women hold at least 30 per cent of the seats in parliament — matching the international target.