African women’s restricted access to quality education, knowledge and resources is preventing them from gaining leadership positions on the continent, says Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson, a veteran West African women’s rights activist. Another problem is that women—especially rural women—are allowed only limited control over finances, means of production and land.
Consequently the pace of women’s empowerment remains slow, Ms. Adjamagbo-Johnson says.
In an interview with Africa Renewal, Ms. Adjamagbo-Johnson reflected on decades of women’s political leadership, gender activism and professional engagement in Togo, her home country, and West Africa in general.
Ms. Adjamagbo-Johnson works with Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), a pan-African women’s rights advocacy group with headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe. The group operates in 27 countries across the continent.
In addition to her work with WiLDAF, she leads the largest coalition of political parties in her home country. Four years ago she vied for the presidency of Togo, but failed to achieve the post.
WiLDAF’s mission is to empower women by promoting their rights and increasing their participation and influence at the community, national and international levels through initiating, promoting and strengthening strategies that link law and development. Ms. Adjamagbo-Johnson has over two decades’ experience working with national networks of women’s rights organizations on advocacy and empowerment.
On the current state of women’s rights and leadership in Africa, she says, “I like to think of stairs, if I may. Stairs because we have climbed a few steps, but a lot more steps remain to be climbed on the way up to the top.”
She believes that despite political advances such as women acting as heads of state or participating in government in a few countries on the continent, women’s rights are still not fully recognized, and their leadership is not promoted enough. There is currently no female head of state in Africa.
“There cannot be an alternative to access to education or knowledge,” she says, adding, “It is a very good thing that parents have recognized that both boys and girls deserve the same chance at formal education.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for half of the 130 million girls aged 6 to 17 who are out of school globally and half of another 15 million school-age girls who may never enroll.
“Getting girls into a classroom is not enough in itself; girls have to be able to stay in school and get proper education once enrolled,” Ms. Adjamagbo-Johnson says.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore echoed those same concerns: “When [a] girl reaches school age, will her family be able to afford to send her to school—and keep her there? Or will they keep her home to do chores, while her brothers learn?”
Ms. Fore continued, “If lucky enough to go to school, will she have access to separate toilet facilities and the information and facilities she needs to manage her menstrual cycle?
“And when the now young lady is thinking of entering the workforce, will she have access to skills training—including digital skills? Or science, technology, engineering and math-based skills? Or will she be left out of these opportunities because of her gender?”
Having made it closer to the top of political leadership in her country, Ms. Adjamagbo-Johnson considers herself one of the luckiest of her generation. On her experience in politics, she cites entrenched patriarchy. “None of my political colleagues thought of me as not being qualified enough to be a political leader,” she says. “They accepted me as an equal partner,” yet “they were oblivious to the fact that as a woman, I have specific needs that needed accommodation.”
Political and social participation in society require women to balance family and work life, she says. Together with the need for education, “That could be the single most challenging aspect of effective political leadership for women in Africa.”