Africa’s women are pushing their way to the top, from courageous political decision makers to cultural trend setters and hard-nosed bankers to pioneering activists: this is their century
Women are our best hope for the continent, says Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah in her introduction to our list of the 50 women shaping Africa. Porgress has been slow, but many women are showing the art of the possible, inspiring a new generation to take control of their destiny
I first became aware that I was a woman when a group of rowdy male students at the University of Zimbabwe attacked a young woman because she wore a short skirt. Until then, I had believed that all students at the university were the same.
We were there by merit and fuelled by ambition. The only real difference that I saw between my fellow male law students and I was that I happened to beat them in every subject.
My illusions were shattered when a group of men attacked a young woman outside the students’ union. They were shattered further when, during a march to protest this outrageous act, a stone thrown from Baghdad – the nickname for one of the male hostels – almost hit me in the face.
I had to remind myself that I was at university, among the brightest of the bright. But if this could happen among young people at a university, what was happening at factories, in homes, at farms.
That attack in 1993 awoke in me the agony of knowing that my country, and my continent, was an inhospitable environment for women. As soon as my eyes opened, it became hard to ignore the evidence that was all around me of the inequality, discrimination, negligence and hardship suffered by Africa’s women.
In 2010, the Economic Commission for Africa completed a review of progress, 15 years after the landmark Beijing UN Women’s Conference in 1995.
Its subsequent report paints a gloomy picture of the status of women across the continent. Africans are among the poorest in the world, but according to the Commission, the continent’s women are poorer than its men, and women bear the brunt of poverty. Less than 20 percent of women are in paid employment in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN. As the global economic crisis hit sectors such as textiles and horticulture, it left women with fewer employment opportunities.
Sharpen those pencils
The Commission found that two of the touted tools of economic emancipation for women – microfinance and small-scale business – have been ineffective. Microfinance may be useful for addressing immediate household needs but it does not lead to women’s economic empowerment in a transformative manner.
Small-scale women’s businesses, focused on traditional jobs such as embroidery, sewing and the sale of food produce, provide limited opportunities for growth. Women are not always able to access resources like land and there is still wage discrimination against women, who also dominate seasonal employment.
Women’s poverty is further compounded by the lack of opportunities for education. Governments have made significant progress in availing education at primary level, but the Commission concludes that the attainment of gender equality at secondary and tertiary levels is yet to be achieved and is even worsening.
The number of girls per 100 boys in tertiary education dropped from 67 to 63 between 1999 and 2009. Alarmingly, in many countries illiteracy rates among women remain high.
It is dangerous to be a poor woman in Africa. Maternal mortality in Africa remains the highest in the world, with 640 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2008.
There is a clear link between health and literacy: illiterate women have no access to information and services related to sexual and reproductive health. There remains a high prevalence of violence against women.
When women are not the victims in armed conflict, they face domestic violence at home – which is in some societies culturally entrenched – and sexual harassment at work, which has received little attention in most African countries.
The disparities between men and women are most visible in the political process. Despite women being represented at record levels in African parliaments, fewer women than men stand for election.
The Commission notes that the main impediment to women’s participation in politics in Africa is “the murky nature of the political terrain, often tainted by cut-throat and ‘dirty linen’ attacks on political figures”. On top of this, women have both less money and time than men to build a political career.
Against this bleak background, The Africa Report’s list of 50 women shaping Africa, presents a shining beacon of possibility. On this rich and varied list are women whose fame, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s character Okonkwo, rests on solid personal achievement, such as Asha-Rose Migiro, UN Deputy Secretary-General, and scientist Rashika El Ridi.
There are activists for social change like Ory Okolloh, Ghizlane Benomar and Mona Seif. There are women who have blazed trails in the world of business and finance like Bola Shagaya, Wendy Ackerman and Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita.
The Africa Report showcases African women of talent and enterprise, of hard work and visionary thinking. There are clearly more than 50 women changing and shaping Africa. Ordinary women are changing Africa in small, unheralded ways.
Civil servants reporting to work for very little money, workers striving in an uncertain economic climate, small-scale subsistence farmers – ordinary women are changing Africa by working hard, paying their taxes and making small sacrifices that mean their children can go to school.
They are changing Africa by turning up to vote in elections where the political elites they vote out conspire to make their votes count for nothing. They are changing Africa by dreaming of a better future for themselves and their children.
Individual efforts will be lost without greater institutional support and social change. African countries need to fully implement the obligations they have undertaken in international law for the advancement of women.
Governments need to review, enact and enforce legislation against gender discrimination; they need to allocate a higher portion of their budgets to the poor and thus ensure a more equitable sharing of national resources.
They need to address religious and cultural practices that prevent girls and women from achieving their full potential and, above all, they need to make a concerted effort to change social attitudes in countries where women are still regarded and treated as lesser beings than men.
Without this enabling social, political and economic environment, individual change makers like those identified in the following pages can only go so far. For as long as African countries fail to provide such environments, the loss will be felt by their women, and by all their people.
Read our full list of the 50 women shaping Africa in the August-September 2011 edition of The Africa Report, on sale now via print subscription or digital edition.