When two African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011, women celebrated across Africa. Liberian President Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, a civil rights and peace activist, accepted the honor on behalf of all African women who brave the adverse conditions in their part of the world, including poverty, disease, the overexploitation of natural resources, lawlessness and violence, and the chaotic forces of war.
In April 2012, Joyce Banda, a former market woman, was sworn in as Malawi's president. Her most important objective is to fight poverty, which is especially prevalent among women and children. Her first official acts showed that she means business: Banda sold her predecessor's jet and the luxury limousines used by senior government officials.
These patterns are evident in politics as well with the advancement of women judges at all levels. African women judges are even making it into the international arena with Fatou Bensouda from Gambia holding the post of chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Court. Curiously, all but one of the current five African judges on the ICC are women.
Africa's business women are also on the move. They are establishing law firms, Internet companies and fashion labels. They are managing banks, securing seats on corporate boards and running their own farms.
In Tanzania, Masai women are fighting back against land grabbing and the forced displacement of their nomadic ethnic group. In Mali, Muslim mothers are rejecting the barbaric rituals of female circumcision that mutilate their daughters. In South Africa, tens of thousands of female activists are involved in an anti-rape campaign. All of these women are taking advantage of the faster communication offered by cellphones, text messaging and social networks.
More and more women are no longer willing to be treated like house slaves and unpaid workers. And more and more are rebelling against their husbands -- the abusers, rapists, drinkers and good-for-nothings who exploit their families instead of providing for them.
Mao said that women hold up half the sky. In Africa, they hold up at least three-quarters of it. The Washington-based International Center for Research on Women estimates that women in sub-Saharan Africa produce about 80 of all food products, and yet they own only 1 percent of arable land.
In chronic crisis and war zones, like eastern Congo, it is primarily women who fight for peace and, with their reconciliation programs, attempt to heal the wounds of conflict. International aid organizations prefer to employ women, because they are more reliable and less susceptible to corruption. Women-run projects are generally more sustainable. Microloans are more effective when entrusted to women, with a repayment rate of 95 to 98 percent. Development experts agree that the continent would be in far worse shape if it weren't for women.
In the United Nations Millennium Project, which aims to cut global poverty in half by 2015, fostering women's efforts in health and education is given top priority. When the education level among mothers increases, infant and child mortality decline. And girls who stay in school longer are likely to have fewer children later on. The African Union declared the period from 2010 to 2020 the "African Women's Decade," and vowed to strengthen its support of women-led efforts.
These changes in the African political/business terrain can be explained by three interrelated factors: 1) the decline of conflict in Africa; 2) the expansion of civil liberties, particularly in the context of shifts from authoritarian to slightly more liberalized hybrid regimes, along with the emergence of autonomous women’s movements that accompanied this opening; 3) pressures from international actors like UN agencies, regional organizations, donors and other external actors that influenced the state.
The marginalized position of Africa in the global context has often blurred the contribution of African women to many discourses of the global women’s movement. Also the international media has had little interest in African women, except to portray them as hopelessly mired in traditional practices such as genital mutilation or as helpless victims of war and famine.
The extensive documentation of the women’s movement in Europe and the United States has often overshadowed the contributions of the women’s movements outside these regions, creating the misinformed perception that women’s activism globally was a by-product of Western feminist movements. Women in Africa, especially after the mid 1970s, started protesting such characterizations and increased efforts to document their own movements.
African women’s movements continue to actively define their own agendas. They have helped influence the combination of the rights-based and development-based approaches to women’s advancement. Global feminism is a more South-centered movement than ever before, and African women leaders have significantly contributed to bringing about this transformation.
The increase of women in politics/business signifies that norms have changed and are changing, and it represents a step toward greater equality. If women are not represented politically, their voices will not be heard and their interests are less likely to be advanced.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: African Union Library- Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, African Union Commissioner-photo