Which Way for African Women in Politics?

“I don’t want to be a compliment to anybody else. I want to be me. I am not an entertainer. I do not want a borrowed rib!” So came the impassioned statement by Malawi presidential candidate Jessie Kabwila, a woman toughened by a strangely unapologetic anti-female prevailing political tradition in a country already headed by a woman president.

Finding herself in the unusual position of running against a fellow woman in majority male-led Africa, Kabwila speaks sternly against a system seemingly engineered to lock women out of the political process. “Doing woman in politics is a big challenge. You have to speak in such a way that you do not look partisan to women. You will be asked what it is you have done yet it is by doing nothing that you get anywhere.”

Kabwila, a former university professor, seems to have a personal difficulty with doing nothing. Having been married and divorced three times (by her own volition) and facing a decreasing platform through which to work productively in Malawi thanks to the vocal nature of her political associations, this giant of African women’s history seems to embrace controversy at every turn.

It is therefore an understandable task to imagine that one so fearless and determined can concede to the general troubles of other women in the political process. Perhaps it is this concession to the unusual vulnerability of women in politics that brought her to Nairobi to meet women from all across the continent active in the political settings of their nations, just a month to the Malawi elections.

At a workshop organised by the Urgent Action Fund and the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet), women from 15 countries came together to highlight challenges faced by women in politics, among the most prominent of which were violence, funding, patriarchy and a lack of knowledge and information.

It is an open secret that the road to political greatness for women in Africa is long, cold and lonely. Oftentimes women, by being women, are cut out of the systems whose decisions most affect them and their lot, creating an atmosphere of inferior reliance on the goodwill of men to achieve gains on their behalf.

Questions remain on the wisdom of such continued dependency. In the past, quotas and affirmative action have been used as tokens and gifts to women and other groups that suit the establishment’s ideals of representation.

What this has achieved is high numbers without the expected increase in volume for minority issues. In fact, silence seems to have been bought by the assurance of a name slot on a valid ballot paper come election time. This in turn has heightened frustrations within the women’s and civil rights movements whose gains, while appearing on paper, hardly translate to any real change, a danger in itself.

The reality remains that while parliaments, cabinets and presidents make collective nationwide decisions, it is to the mostly poor women on the ground, who form a majority of Africa’s population, that these decisions become personal. To a continent that is extraordinarily prone to war, nowhere is the personalisation of political decisions — of which disagreements and declarations of and calls to war are a part — more readily felt than in Africa.

Lona Lowilla, a women’s and human rights campaigner in South Sudan, knows all too much about the costs women pay for ill thought out political decisions. Often the last to leave their homes and consequently among the last to arrive at safety camps, women and children have suffered the heaviest casualty in the recent violence in South Sudan. Only in April were hundreds of civilians massacred at a United Nations Camp in Bentiu.

With information that Southern Sudanese men from the Diaspora arriving in the country are receiving military training to join in the fighting, Lowilla foresees a worsening in the condition of civilians in South Sudan.

Though it may appear that there is a leaning towards the essentialising of women, in areas of conflict and in rural villages across Africa, women are most often left to cater to their own persons and security and that of their children, livestock and homesteads while their men go off to fight and/or make a living.

Lowilla suggests that it is this responsibility or expectation to take responsible action at the danger of their own life that leaves women most vulnerable. “It is in the way we are brought up. It is in our nature as mothers. When a problem comes you go running after two, three children. The men they just run by themselves. Even if he calls he will call to ask if you have taken the children.

“Also, we are not trained in the battlefield. Must we be trained to pay back and revenge?” Lowilla poses an important question. With the increase of targeted wartime violence towards female civilians and the failures of the judicial courts and social and cultural systems to get justice for the aggrieved, should this be the next step?

Will the involvement of women in battle and the arming of women alongside their training for military action provide a solution, no matter how temporary, or will it only escalate the prevailing continent-wide orphan pandemic of Africa?

In cases of belligerent parties that are not state actors, how will the condition of habitually voiceless mentally-colonised women improve by military involvement if those that are engaging with them in battle subscribe to the super-traditional view that women are not only unfit for battle but should primarily concern themselves with the nurturing of their homes when they are away?

What is the role that the economic suppression of women plays in all this? The economics of war are often negotiated away from the prying eyes of the media and the general public. No campaigns are done to fund belligerent parties yet trucks of guns and ammunition arrive, often just moments before hostilities break out.

Strangely following behind these trucks and the hostilities they facilitate are the markedly humanitarian tents that should serve as temporary housing for the duration of the conflict. An entire shadow economy appears to exist around conflict with those left behind providing the market to which goods are supplied.

Because everything is political and because anything can be made advantageous to those seeking high office, those caught up in conflict, once the dust settles, now find themselves the unknowing constituents of a wily smooth-talker hunting for votes. It is not unusual for refugees and internally displaced persons to find themselves as the subjects of a wager that regularly begins with “… if I get into office…” Of course when votes are cast and the seat is won the same smooth-talker turns into a round-talker, political will having evaporated somewhere between the constituency and parliament.

Naturally, the first to go are women’s issues. Yet the blame cannot entirely be put upon men or a system generated to suit them. This is not a battle of the sexes. Men have been known to stand for, champion and support women’s rights just as women have been known to stand in the way of the women’s movement.

Women in politics face innumerable challenges, not least of which is the fear of loss of office to one younger, smarter, more adventurous, braver or simply more willing to go to greater lengths for political office than she

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