leading the way for African women

From Nobel prizewinners to presidents, women in the continent are having a wonderful year. What next?

This has been a great year for women in power in Africa with the election of a second female president, the appointment of the first female head of the African Union and not one, but two female Nobel prizewinners.

In April we saw the election of Joyce Banda as president of Malawi; in June, Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda was declared chief prosecutor of the international criminal court and in July Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma became the first female head of the African Union. This trio join Liberian president and Nobel prizewinner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (video), Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Head of Africa at the World Economic Forum Elsie Kanza and founder of the Ethiopian commodity exchange Eleni Gabre Madhin in the ARISE100 list of women shaping modern Africa launched in the US and worldwide this week. The magazine created the list to reflect the changes in relatively young states in Africa, where 16 countries have more female parliamentarians than the UK.

The Rwandan parliament is made up of 56% women, while in the UK parliament women are languishing at a measly 22%. Rwanda is not a one off, in fact 16 African countries including South African (42%), Mozambique (39%) and Angola (38%) have a higher proportion of women in parliament than the UK.

It remains to be seen whether the increasing visibility of African women in power translates to better prospects for women on the continent. “The fact that we’ve now had three female heads of state shows that we are making progress,” says Hadeel Ibrahim, executive director of the Mo Ibrahim foundation, whose annual Index charts good governance within Africa. “If you look at our index, the area in which the most progress has been made is gender, but there’s still clearly a long way to go,” says Ibrahim. Lack of equality of opportunity – be it education or employment, poor maternal health, particularly in rural areas, and the fact that rape is being increasingly used as a weapon in conflict are just some of the frontline gender issues on the continent. For all the gains, women lead only two out of 54 African countries.

It is too soon to say what difference their presence makes. A recent Gallup poll found that Rwandan women feel safer walking alone at night than UK women, for example, but in South Africa, where representation is also more equally split than in the UK, rape statistics are still shockingly high.

More women in positions of power may lead to these issues being pushed higher up the political agenda, but for these conversations to be meaningful they must also include men. “One of my frustrations in talking about gender on the continent is that it’s always women talking about women; there aren’t enough conversations about men, because in the end, women aren’t beating themselves, they’re not raping themselves, and we’re not going to deal with these inequalities unless we understand what is frustrating and holding back our young men,” says Ibrahim. There may be much more work to be done, but there are also many signs that the west should reconsider its image of what African power looks like.

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