Saturday, April 18, 2015

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Women in Africa: Entering, Fighting, Changing the System

As exemplified by Sierra Leone and Rwanda, African women's movements have made significant steps but have far to go.
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Women leading a march in South Africa.

International Women’s Day is a day not only for highlighting inequality but also for “globally recognising and applauding women’s achievements”.

In Africa – perhaps more so than any other continent – examples of gendered injustice and inequality are striking and need to be highlighted. Equally – if not more – striking, however, are the countless instances of determined activism and female heroism worthy of much applause.

Women burst onto the political scene in Africa the 1990s. Some have since made significant progress, others less so, but all these movements are united in not only the challenges and resistance they encounter but also in the tirelessness with which they struggle to better themselves and their countries.

50/50, at a minimum

As in most African countries, the number of women in Sierra Leone that hold public office is dishearteningly low. The Sierra Leonean constitution prohibits gender discrimination and yet approximately 90% of women are subject to female genital mutilation, only 48% of female youth are literate (compared to 68% male youth), and 1 in 8 women are at risk of death during childbirth.

These are statistics with which the women of the 50/50 group are all too familiar. The 50/50 group was founded with the conviction that “a woman’s place is the House of Parliament”, with the hope that more women in positions of responsibility and power to craft policy will lead to greater gender equality across society.

50/50’s primary goal therefore is to help place women in positions of power. Working to close the gender gap in Sierra Leone’s political arena, 50/50 organised workshops in 2002 to train prospective female candidates, invented issue-based campaign strategies, and conducted an extensive media campaign. That year, a total of 18 women were elected to parliament, compared to just 6 in the1996 elections.

Following this success, 50/50 and the newly elected parliamentarians authored the Sierra Leone Women’s Manifesto. This manifesto, enhanced in 2007, demands that women be encouraged to partake actively and equally in governance and politics, that post-war reconstruction be gender neutral, that access and control of resources be equitable and just, and that gender parity remain at the forefront in the national agenda.

Ensuring these demands are met will undoubtedly take much effort. To begin with, there is institutional oppression that must still be systematically deconstructed. Even when women reach positions of power, male legislators are often fearful of being “dominated by a woman” and are frequently hesitant to support legislation proffered by their female counterparts.

Furthermore, women in Sierra Leone in general must struggle against what N’deye Fatou, a Sierra Leonean female legislator, characterises as “a sociocultural context where women are relegated to inferior roles [and] face major obstacles in their profession, politics and family obligations owing to sexist stereotypes”.

The challenges are there for all to see, and 50/50 is fully aware of the hurdles they face, but through incremental progress and favourable shifts in the landscape, 50/50 is hopeful of what they can achieve.In 2012”, predicts 50/50 representative Eshun-Baiden, “we will have a woman as head of state. We are getting there.”

A minority no longer

In Rwanda, the issue facing women is no longer one of numerical presence but of substantive change.

As of 2010, 56% of Rwandan legislators were women. The speaker was a woman and there were eight female ministers. In October of 2003 Rwanda had already made history by ranking first in the world in terms of numbers of female parliamentarians. Worldwide, an average 17% of national legislators are women.

The level of gender parity in parliament is at least partly thanks to the Rwandan constitution which was crafted in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide and, believing women were less war-prone and violent, guaranteed that the national parliament would be made up of at least 30% females.

Rwandan women have since enjoyed a degree of political representation their counterparts in most other countries can only dream of, but female Rwandan politicians have not become complacent after gaining entry into the country’s hallowed halls – far from it. Rwanda’s female parliamentarians have successfully overturned a law outlawing female landownership, made contraception readily accessible, and ensured that whether married or not women control their assets.

Women in positions of responsibility do not only deal with “women’s issues”, however, and the benefits of gender equality in parliament are not isolated to Rwanda’s females. As a Rwandan woman explains, “men used to think that women are there to be in the house, cook food, look after the children... but the real problems of a family are known by a woman and when they do it, they help a country to get much better”.

Women are now at the table but the plight of the masses remains with women still disproportionately affected. The rate of impoverishment for female-headed households is at 62% (compared to 54% of male households), more than 250,000 women are HIV-infected and isolated, and many women are still vulnerable to discrimination.

Rwanda has a long way to go in tackling these inequities and injustices, but with women represented at the highest levels of power, Rwanda perhaps finds itself better placed than any of its African counterparts in dealing with these issues.

More progress, more work

Of course it is not just the women of Sierra Leone and Rwanda pushing unapologetically for gender equity. Throughout the continent there are women who, understanding that empowerment is self-proclaimed and not bestowed upon, refuse to succumb to the interlocking system of oppression that immures women across the globe. And signs of progress can be seen.

Women in South Africa now constitute 44% of the parliament (the third highest proportion the world). Female legislators in Nigeria have called the first Women in Parliament Summit to demand that more seats be held for women in the two house of Nigeria parliament. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the fact that poverty is essentially feminised and sexual violence endemic, groups such as the Permanent Framework for Dialogue for Congolese Women are consistently pressuring the government to address the paltry 8.4% of women in the national assembly.

In the face of stark difficulties, it is easy to assume that those most vulnerable are inevitably disempowered. But while the picture is not pretty, the women of sub-Saharan Africa are far from powerless. And throughout the world – and exemplified in much of Africa – women are realising that, while systems have been created to exclude them, they can be reconstructed to ensure not only a female presence, but perhaps leadership.  And with this, the possibilities for human progress become limitless.

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