African women leaders have come a long way

From freedom fighters like Kenya’s Mekatilili wa Menza who opposed forced labour in British plantations, to Ghanaian queen mother Asantewa of Ejisu Yaa who led the War of the Golden Stool, African women have gone the extra mile to protect the dignity of their people since time immemorial.

As the African Union celebrates its 50th year, women across the continent should be lauded for braving the rough political terrain and the stigma associated with it to rise to the helm of leadership.

Though women make up 50 per cent of the world population, their chances of making it to the top in the political arena are slim. Africa, with 54 countries, has just two women presidents.

However, more women are now joining politics. Notable is Nigeria’s Finance Minister and renowned economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who also served as the World Bank’s managing director. Former Senegalese prime minister Mame Madior Boye’s appointment in 2011, marked a new chapter for Senegalese women in an Islamic country.

Some women have made it to the top at their country and continental levels.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

The former South African home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the chairperson of the AU. She was elected in July 2012, and is the first woman to lead the organisation. She is also the first person from the Southern African Development Community bloc to occupy the seat. West Africa has held it seven times, Central Africa thrice and East Africa twice.

Dr Dlamini-Zuma now has the opportunity to use her position to improve the lives of women across the continent, especially because the AU has adopted a policy on gender parity. She is likely to support the AU Decade for Women (2010-2020). The initiative aims to create conditions which the participation of all African women in the continent’s socio-economic development can be guaranteed.

Given that she has held powerful Cabinet positions and sat on several boards in South Africa and beyond, she is armed with the skills and competencies needed to transform the AU into an efficient and effective organisation.

Joyce Banda
Once referred to as mayi wa mandasi (woman who sells pancakes) by former first lady Callista Mutharika, Joyce Banda, who was once a vegetable vendor, rose to become Malawi’s president following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012. She was named one of the world’s most influential leaders by Time magazine.

She has since sold the presidential jet, reduced her salary by 30 per cent, and resumed aid from Western donors to bolster her country’s economy. Her austerity measures prompted the IMF last year to okay an Extended Credit Facility to the country for an amount equivalent to $156.2 million.

With 74 per cent of the country living on less than $1.25 a day, President Banda has become the face of hope.

Getting her party’s endorsement to be their torchbearer for the country’s 2014 election is a sign that she is doing something right.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

When Liberians elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf president in 2005, many across the continent, including political analysts, did not know what to make of her. She had an active political life in the fight for freedom, justice and equality in the West African nation.

Being the first African woman head of state, she came to power at a time when Liberia was riddled with graft, divided by warring factions and the country had gone through two civil wars that had crippled the economy.

She had to rebuild the country. Construction projects are going on especially in the roads, housing and education sectors.

In 2011, Sirleaf-Johnson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, and was elected for a second term.

These successful African women signify the dawning of a new era, and are an inspiration to others.

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