African women have much to celebrate. We have historic and recent examples of women’s leadership at the highest levels of the state and international organizations. Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria is the current deputy secretary-general of the United Nations (UN). She succeeded Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania in that role. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa is the current executive director of UN Women. She was also the first woman deputy-president of South Africa from 2005 to 2008. From 2012 to 2017, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa was the first woman to chair the African Union Commission (AUC). Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf served two terms (2006-2017) as Africa’s first elected female president. Joyce Banda was Malawi’s vice-president (2009-2011) and became the first woman president (2012-14). From 2015, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim has served as Mauritius’s president. Luísa Dias Diogo was prime minister of Mozambique from 2004 to 2010. Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila has been Namibia’s prime minister since 2015. Agathe Uwilingiyimana served as prime minister of Rwanda from 1993 until her assassination in 1994. Maria das Neves Batista was prime minister of São Tomé and Príncipe from 2002 to 2004. Mame Madior Boye was prime minister of Senegal from 2001 to 2002. As much as we should celebrate; this remains a small number. Some of these women, for example, Rwanda’s Agathe Uwilingiyimana, were subjected to ordeals that are better imagined than experienced. Many were put through the wringer in the hurly-burly of politics. Some were charged with malfeasance in situations where the intense scrutiny applied can only be attributed to their being held to higher standards than their male counterparts. President Gurib-Fakim of Mauritius, who is now facing impeachment, is only the most recent of these.
Significant gains have also been made in other aspects of women’s participation in politics. This can be seen in national parliaments, where according to the International Parliamentary Union’s data, Rwanda tops the list in percentage of women in national parliaments (61.3 percent in the upper house and 38.5 percent in the lower house). South Africa is seventh on the list, Senegal is ninth, Mozambique is twelfth, and Ethiopia is sixteenth. Tanzania comes in at twenty-third, Burundi is twenty-fifth, Uganda is thirty-second, Zimbabwe is thirty-fourth, Tunisia is forty-first, Cameroon is forty-second, with Angola and Sudan tied for forty-sixth. These countries have surpassed the thirty percent benchmark for women’s political participation established by the Beijing Platform for Action. However, continent-wide, women make up only 23.2 percent of national parliaments.
We also see African women’s leadership in the economy and in social relations, but their leadership is accomplished at great personal cost and sacrifice and is not always acknowledged. Many African women suffer from underemployment, employment discrimination, and the gender wage gap. Although countries like Rwanda have made significant strides in closing the pay gap, according to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, there is a thirty-two percent gender wage gap on the African continent. This has serious economic and social implications. The UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in the Africa Ministerial Pre-Consultative Meeting on the sixty-first session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 61), underscores the massive economic costs of gender disparity in Africa’s labor market, which has led to an average annual loss of 95 billion dollars since 2010.
Education is a basic human right, but African girls and women are still highly disadvantaged in this respect. According to UNESCO, “The female literacy rate is under fifty percent in +12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In several cases, it’s under twenty percent.” Girls face threats to personal safety and security in schools, as seen for example, in the mass abductions by Boko Haram in Chibok and Dapchi, Nigeria; in Aboke, Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, and in other conflict-affected countries where such abductions never make the news.
Armed conflict, natural disasters, and huge budget cuts that increase the cost of education for parents all cause increases in dropout rates. School attendance is particularly low in “remote and rural areas” and among “those with disabilities, refugees and internally displaced people, working children, ethnic minorities, and those with HIV/AIDS,” as well as those affected by “conflict and other emergencies.” Given the tendency to favor males over females in family decisions on economic resources, the majority of those affected are girls and women.
I have great optimism for the future, but it is not yet Uhuru for African women. Even as we celebrate the accomplishments of women at the highest levels of social, economic and political power, we should decry the marginalization and extreme levels of deprivation that militate against most African women. A majority of those experiencing violence and severe trauma in conflict, and those who become internally displaced or are forced to migrate under very difficult conditions, are women. Many African women are grievously affected by gender-based violence during peacetime. Grinding poverty, human trafficking, child marriage, domestic violence, and lack of decent work are clear and present dangers facing many African women—so are maternal and infant mortality. Manifold uncertainties created by these problems challenge African women’s well-being and human security.
Africa needs a continent-wide women’s movement to advance women’s rights and interests. We need equity in access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and basic human needs for women. We need affirmative action to increase women’s representation in national parliaments in countries that have not yet attained the thirty percent benchmark. We need more women to take charge in businesses and political parties, and laws that protect women against gender-based violence. Consistent action by coalitions that include, but are not limited to women’s organizations is required. Internationally, we need to build, and insist on a culture of respect for the rights of women—but above all, African countries can do much of what is required if they diligently implement the international agreements to which they are party. These include the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.
Practical strategies for ensuring women’s victory include pressuring governments to respect international, regional, and domestic commitments to implement pro-poor and pro-women, equitable policies, strategies, and laws. These commitments include social protection as embedded in gender-equitable budgets, increased budgetary allocation for education (at least 30 percent of the national budget), safety and security for students in schools, an end to rape and sexual violence as instruments of war, respect for the rights of–and provision for–internally displaced persons and refugees, and equitable access to jobs, promotion, and leadership opportunities for women. There is also the need to collectively struggle to ensure the implementation of the Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which commits to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
Given the huge challenges that we still face—including the double burden of combining work with household responsibilities, without which families would flounder and suffer—I ask: African women, what are you doing to foster the cause of justice? We ought to celebrate our accomplishments but realize that A LUTA CONTINUA VITÓRIA É CERTA! “THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. VICTORY IS CERTAIN.” Given what we have accomplished thus far, I believe that the future belongs to African women.