Another Year for African Women
While African women are not to be represented as a close-knit homogenous group of people who are jointly oppressed and subdued, they are a very important foreground of any African landscape. Thus, as we celebrate small and monumental successes on the continent, we would do well to also celebrate the successes of women and acknowledge challenges on the gender front. As far back as the days of anti-colonial struggle – and even farther back – women played a key role in the enhancement of African societies, showing their strength and resilience. Today, in light of post-colonial disappointment and setbacks, they continue to strengthen their resolve.
In 2005, the African Women’s Movement launched a campaign titled Gender is My Agenda as a follow-up to the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA) which was adopted by the African Union at its Summit meeting in Addis Ababa. The purpose of this agenda was to rally both civil society and the national and regional communities towards a recognition, understanding and implementation of the declaration. The movement has since spawned and strengthened women-focused initiatives across the continent and has led to gender politicking in many countries. Past widely-circulated myths that women roles and responsibilities are rooted exclusively at home have now been debunked, paving way for the known fact that women contribute significantly and often majorly to the development of many African economies especially in the field of agriculture.
One of such civil-society movements is the Femmes Africa Solidarité movement which for the past two decades has worked tirelessly to empower African women and, following the ratification of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security, lobbied actors to increase the participation of women in peace and security efforts. Tostan, another pan-African initiative predominantly based in Senegal has, through its community-led strategies, worked to protect and promote the dignity of women. In addition, the Mano River Women’s Peace Network a regional network of women in the ECOWAS and Mano River region works to promote women’s participation in peace building and conflict resolution. Elsewhere on the continent, many other women-focused groups have joined in the race towards equality.
In spite of these efforts, women continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty and especially in the agricultural sector, continue to have poor access to credit. They produce 80% of the food but still own only 1% of the agricultural land. Furthermore, pursuant to MDG 3, much is left to be desired in terms of educating girls and ensuring that their educational achievements translate into an ability to enjoy employment opportunities commensurate with their level of skill. Perhaps the biggest challenge lies in the issue of healthcare as indicators continue to show high rates of maternal and child mortality and poor access to reproductive healthcare. In the social sphere, women continue to fall victim to corrupt practices in administrative, religious, economic and academic spheres where sexual favours are demanded in exchange for legal and technical assistance. In many parts of the continent, domestic violence is still an under-discussed issue. Female Genital Cutting is another area on which we would need to tread softly, contextually, and respectfully but surely. Last week, as I listened to Monique Kandé from the DRC at the UN Commission on the Status of Women argue that rape in Congo was not just Congo’s problem, but the problem of international peace keepers and the problem of Central Africa and the Great Lakes Region, and indeed the problem of all Africans and African women, I knew she was right.
Today, we celebrate another International Women’s Day. Between last year’s celebration and now, I have become more of a womanist, understanding the uniqueness of that being that is called woman and understanding the various lens through which she is viewed in societies. I have penned pieces and read books on gender-based discrimination. Recently, I watched Moolaadé a beautiful film about local women’s agency set in Burkina Faso and directed by Senegalese Ousmane Sembene. As I fight all traces of discrimination in my daily life, I am empowered by these experiences and the tenacity and sheer intelligence of women in my various familial and non-familial networks. One of these networks is the very resourceful Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), whose founder was recently recognized as a White House Agent of Change. Two others, based in Ghana, are the Network of Women in Growth and the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment which are both involved in advocacy work to end violence against women and to promote economic initiatives that financially empower women. Women of Kireka, based in Uganda, is another emerging women-focused enterprise. In my immediate life, role models in the person of mother, aunties, friends and mentors have made this day a cause for celebration.
Last week, I also got the chance to meet the next generation of African women leaders all under 25 who had masterminded initiatives for the enhancement of women in their community or the improvement of gender relations. They were all past fellows at the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa, a fellowship program which helps young African women leaders to exploit their passions, leverage their interests and fully develop their skills. As they shared their life stories and passions, from working internally displaced women to empowering mothers with albino children in Kenya, I was infused with a renewed sense of hope and challenged to continue trudging along this path to justice and equality. Today, I also celebrate these daring women and the many feats they will accomplish in their lifetime.
Between now and next year’s celebration, many steps will be taken in the right direction and discriminatory norms and practices will continue to come under attack. As policies continue to target and include women, there remains cause for hope. Years ago, the great Burkinabe revolutionary Thomas Sankara said, “I can hear the roar of women’s silence”. Today, it is their rude awakening, the sound of their thunderous march that is clearly audible.
Happy International Women’s Day!