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Experts Weekly: Africa's Leading Women

Never before have women held so many positions of political leadership in Africa. But how does this reflect broader social and political developments on the continent?
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Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma (right), chair of the African Union Commission. Photograph by GovernmentZA.

The role of African women in conspicuous positions of power has become increasingly prevalent. Africa saw its first female head of state in 2006 when Ellen Sirleaf Johnson assumed office as president of Liberia. This was matched by Joyce Banda in Malawi last year. And last month, the African Union held its first summit with a female chairperson – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

But what consequences will this have for African politics and society as a whole?

Think Africa Press asked a number of experts on the role of women in Africa whether individuals such as Dlamini-Zuma and other powerful women in politics and business across Africa represent an exceptional elite or reflect the growing participation of women in African societies more broadly.

Letty Chiwara, Chief of Africa Section, UN Women

Africa has come of age. And 2013 will be a landmark year: it is the 50th Anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity, now the Africa Union; it is a year Africa celebrates progress in liberating Africa from colonialism; it is the first year the African Union Commission is being headed by a woman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

It is also a year that Africa has to consolidate gains of the past 50 years while at the same time recognising the challenges that still remain, and carve out a vision and agenda for the next 50 years. Women have been instrumental in achieving the goals of liberating the continent from the shackles of colonialism.

As African leaders met in Addis Ababa for the 20th Ordinary Summit of the Africa Union under the theme “Pan Africanism and African Renaissance”, speaker after speaker shared their optimism for the potential growth of the Africa, and that the continent is ready to once more unite and collectively work together for a prosperous, peaceful and integrated Africa – with women continuing to take centre stage in shaping the vision for the continent.

The Africa Progress Report 2012 comments that Africa has suffered from extreme mood swings, with the pendulum moving from episodes of pessimism to bouts of euphoria. 12 years ago, The Economist wrote off Africa as the “hopeless continent”. But in 2011, the same publication ran with a very different headline: “Africa Rising: the hopeful continent”. Africa has now become a continent of economic “lions on the move”, blazing the pathway to prosperity.

Africa is on the rise, and so are African women. The past year or so has seen a series of notable successes for African women – with two Nobel Peace prizes (in 2011), a second woman president (Joyce Banda of Malawi), and the first female head of the African Union Commission. The numbers of women in political leadership continues to grow in Africa. At the same time women and girls are shaping the growth pattern of the continent. Rural women are producing the bulk of the food; women cross-border traders and women in the markets are contributing to the economies of their countries, women executives, women on corporate boards, women in the media are driving this economic growth for Africa.

Tola Onigbanjo, CEO/Founder, Women4Africa

Women in African leadership, still have a long way to go. The victory of our sister in South Africa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, came across more as a strategic victory for the Southern African bloc as opposed to a female Africa.

There are a number of key issues that still need to be addressed before we can clearly see the true nature of this emerging female leadership, including the need for equality in society. Women4Africa seeks to turbo-charge African growth using all available resources, particularly the under-celebrated "female gender".

Africa continues to chart its growth tapping into only half of its population (men) while excluding the other half (women). The sooner women are recognised as value-adding partners, more natural evolution of female leaders will emerge, with results that only benefit Africa.

Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

What one concludes depends on what we think participation entails. Women have always participated actively in all areas of African society. It is their degree of participation, whether or not they occupy official positions of power, the extent and effectiveness of such participation, and the impact of participation on improving the lives of women that one should consider.

All over the world, elites tend to dominate in accessing distributional gains, often justifying their privileged access as based on merit. Africa is no different; so it is hardly surprising that various kinds of social capital are successfully parlayed into both economic and political power. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma represents an elite group of women that conforms to this tendency. The same can be said about male elites worldwide. Of course, it becomes complicated because some of the people in question are from humble social origins, a fact not always reflected in their ideological commitment to social, economic, and political change.

It is clear that there are still not enough women in public positions of decision-making power worldwide. And material benefits still accrue disproportionately to men. Because of this continuing power gap, African women still remain relatively poorer than men. This is indicative of persistent discrimination against women, and makes urgent the need to achieve MDG3 [the Millennium Development Goal relating to gender equality]. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and other African women who have decision-making power should be commended. They also have a responsibility to advocate for more access for women, mentor younger women to engender effective participation, and to perform their jobs in an exemplary manner.

If we consider growing participation simply as reflected by data like the percentage of women in the national legislature, Rwanda leads, and Seychelles, Senegal and South Africa are also among the top ten. But such laudable accomplishments must be matched by concrete improvements in women’s socio-economic and political conditions. Even if we were to focus solely on political participation, effectiveness in decision making positions must be conceived as accomplishment of gender parity. It must also be conceived as involving significant cultural change that embraces and promotes women’s equitable access to decision making power and material gain.

No doubt, women such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and other powerful women in politics and business across Africa, represent an exceptional elite. They also reflect the growing participation of women in African society. But women have always participated despite such participation not being acknowledged or rewarded to the same extent as for men.

Finally, there are still significant challenges. Until gender parity is accomplished, and normalised, demonstrated by more women in decision making positions, more power, more effectiveness and more material gain in women’s day-to-day lives, the struggle continues because there cannot be meaningful development without full gender equity and equality.

Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition

The following responses are all from members of organisations under the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights Coalition (SOAWR), a coalition of 43 organisations based in 23 countries, which is working to advance women’s rights in Africa. Equality Now serves as the secretariat for the coalition.

Ensuring that African women can participate equally in political processes and in economic activities is among the priorities of the SOAWR Coalition. Articles 9 and 13 of the African Women’s Rights Protocol, which was adopted by African Union Member States almost ten years ago elaborate states’ responsibility to take action towards ensuring such equal participation. The coalition celebrates the steps taken in different parts of the continent. For example, legislative elections in Algeria in May 2012 left women holding slightly over 30% of National Assembly seats, and parliamentary elections in Senegal in July 2012 under a gender-sensitive electoral law led to women occupying 43% of parliamentary seats (FEMNET Update on Women in Political Leadership III).

SOAWR also congratulates the African Union on its election of its first female chairperson and on ensuring gender parity in the election of its commissioners. However, do these women simply represent an exceptional elite? Here are a few SOAWR members’ reflections:

Moreen Majiwa, Legal Officer at Oxfam GB’s Pan-Africa Programme, Nairobi

It is strange to me that in this day and age women who have reached a rarefied place previously only occupied by males have to justify whether they are part of the elite or not; similar justifications are not required of men in similar positions, or who have had access to similar opportunities. This question has not been asked of men such as Kofi Annan, Ban Ki Moon, and the former president of the AU Commission, Jean Ping. Just because women are part of the ‘elite’ or have had opportunities or accessed positions previously only occupied by men does not mean they automatically represent an ‘exceptional elite’.

On whether these women reflect growing participation of women in African society, women have always participated in African society. Women like Winnie Mandela, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, and Yaa Asantewaa, to mention a few, all participated actively in independence struggles. It is more a question of whether women’s participation has been recognised.

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma herself has said, “The African continent is increasingly seen as the continent of the future and we need to applaud the prominent role that women are playing in running the affairs and shaping the destiny of the continent.”

Osai Ojigho, Deputy Executive Director of Alliances for Africa (AfA), Lagos

The emergence of women in positions of leadership in Africa is a welcome development and should not be viewed only as a question of privilege or access. The idea of an elite group of women perpetuates the myths that women are not equipped to be leaders and must be exceptional if they are. The increased visibility of women in key positions is as a result of years of advocacy on gender equality, application of affirmative action policies or quotas systems in some countries, and better educated women.

Médoune Seck, Administrative and Financial Director of the Inter-African Network for Women, Media and Development (FAMEDEV), Dakar

Women and men are conscious of the fact that economic and social stability in Africa requires women’s participation. Women who preside over the destinies of states, pan-African and regional organisations – such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jennah Diarra (of the AU) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – cannot be considered exceptional elites but constitute the germination of women’s growing participation in business and politics. The elite is already often considered the exception. Now that women’s access to decision-making has become prolific, the fruit of the firm engagement and determination of African women.

Brenda Kombo, consultant at Equality Now, Nairobi

The call for women’s equal representation in political and economic spheres is not just about numbers, even though women represent more than 50% of Africa’s population. It is about women in particular spaces using their access to bring about positive change, not just for other women, but for society as a whole.

Regardless of their familial backgrounds – and it is important to recognise that one can be a member of the elite without being elitist – many women in leadership positions such as Dlamini-Zuma have committed themselves to advancing the rights and opportunities of women across all social classes and, in so doing, are contributing to the betterment of the African continent.

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