Fe­male lead­er­ship in Africa, past and fu­ture

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL - By Shona Bezan­son &Peter Materu

Africa has a long his­tory of fe­male lead­er­ship. Yet lead­er­ship can be a chal­leng­ing as­pi­ra­tion for the con­ti­nent’s young women, ow­ing to en­dur­ing bar­ri­ers to suc­cess. If African coun­tries – and Africa’s women – are to meet their po­ten­tial, this must change.

Women were lead­ers on the front lines of Africa’s de­col­o­niza­tion strug­gle. Queen Anna Nzinga, the monarch of the Ndongo and Matamba King­doms in what is now An­gola, spent decades fight­ing to pro­tect her peo­ple from the Por­tuguese and their ex­pand­ing slave trade. In 1900, Yaa Asan­te­waa, queen mother of the Ashanti Em­pire (part of mod­ern-day Ghana), led a re­bel­lion against Bri­tish colo­nial­ism. Nearly three decades later, women in south­east­ern Nige­ria or­ga­nized a re­volt, known as the Aba Women’s Ri­ots, against Bri­tish colo­nial poli­cies.

More re­cently, Pres­i­dent Ellen John­son Sir­leaf – a No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate – led her coun­try to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and re­cov­ery fol­low­ing a decade long civil war, man­ag­ing a dev­as­tat­ing Ebola epi­demic along the way. For­mer Rwan­dan Health Min­is­ter Agnes Bi­nag­waho has ded­i­cated her ca­reer to achiev­ing eq­ui­table ac­cess to health care in her coun­try and be­yond. As a young teenager, Kak­enya Ntaiya agreed to un­dergo fe­male cir­cum­ci­sion (a tra­di­tional Ma­sai rite of pas­sage) in ex­change for the op­por­tu­nity to get an ed­u­ca­tion. Af­ter earn­ing a Ph.D. in ed­u­ca­tion, she founded Kak­enya’s Dream, which fo­cuses on ed­u­cat­ing girls, end­ing harm­ful tra­di­tional prac­tices and up­lift­ing ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in Kenya.

Yet bar­ri­ers to women’s lead­er­ship in Africa to­day re­main sys­temic, wide­spread and they be­gin early. They start at home, where girls are ex­pected to take on more re­spon­si­bil­ity, in­clud­ing chores like child care, cook­ing and laun­dry. This, and other fac­tors, un­der­mines African girls’ ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment: 47 per­cent ei­ther do not com­plete school or never at­tend at all.

Girls’ paths are no eas­ier when they grow up. From lim­ited land rights to the en­dur­ing ex­pec­ta­tion that they per­form the ma­jor­ity of un­paid house­hold la­bor, women in Africa face ma­jor eco­nomic, le­gal and cul­tural bar­ri­ers to ad­vance­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s Gen­der Gap Re­port, sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa has closed the dis­par­ity in eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment by only 68 per­cent, with women still far more likely to be un­em­ployed, un­der­em­ployed or hold pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment in the in­for­mal sec­tor.

But while the bar­ri­ers to women’s lead­er­ship are for­mi­da­ble, they are not in­sur­mount­able. Whether in pol­i­tics or health, law or en­gi­neer­ing, African women are show­ing the world how to un­leash their fel­low women’s lead­er­ship po­ten­tial.

In Uganda, Fa­vorite Regina is keep­ing refugee girls out of early mar­riage and preg­nancy, as part of an ini­tia­tive led by CIYOTA, a youth-led, vol­un­teer-based or­ga­ni­za­tion es­tab­lished in the Kyang­wali refugee set­tle­ment. In Nige­ria, Bloom­ing Soyinka em­ploys a half a dozen eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged and dis­abled ar­ti­sans at Africa Blooms, cre­at­ing con­di­tions for those em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies to thrive and ed­u­cate their chil­dren.

In Kenya, Fan­ice Ny­atigo is de­vel­op­ing Mam­maTips, an app that will pro­vide timely in­for­ma­tion on preg­nancy, breast­feed­ing, im­mu­niza­tion and other im­por­tant health mat­ters to new moth­ers. These are young peo­ple – all Master­card Foun­da­tion Schol­ars – to watch, as they are only just be­gin­ning to demon­strate the breadth of their po­ten­tial as lead­ers.

Africa needs more such re­mark­able woman lead­ers. And, though re­search on how to cham­pion fe­male African lead­er­ship is sparse, early find­ings from the schol­ars pro­gram sug­gest that there are sev­eral path­ways that young African women can take – and that we can sup­port – to as­sume their right­ful place among the con­ti­nent’s lead­ers.

For starters, while ed­u­ca­tion plays an im­por­tant role, ex­pe­ri­ence shows that it is not enough. De­lib­er­ate in­vest­ment in lead­er­ship pro­grams for young women are also es­sen­tial.

Young women need op­por­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice lead­er­ship, whether in school, the work­place or the com­mu­nity. And they need sup­port­ive spa­ces where they can hone these skills, build net­works and ob­tain sup­port.

More­over, recog­ni­tion of young women’s tal­ent and po­ten­tial is needed to nur­ture their con­fi­dence and self-es­teem and to raise their pro­file be­yond their im­me­di­ate com­mu­nity. Men­tors and role mod­els – es­pe­cially fe­male ones – are also very valu­able.

This is a job not only for African gov­ern­ments or lo­cal NGOs. All global pol­icy dis­cus­sions con­cern­ing ed­u­ca­tion, the en­vi­ron­ment, science and health must ex­plic­itly ad­dress how to de­velop woman lead­ers.

Africa’s as­pir­ing young women are of­ten mo­ti­vated by the de­sire to give back to their com­mu­ni­ties. We should em­power them to do just that.

If we pro­vide young women with the right sup­port, they will trans­form their com­mu­ni­ties, their con­ti­nent and the world. They will pro­vide eth­i­cal lead­er­ship in­spired by shared val­ues, pas­sion for com­mu­nity and a com­mit­ment to a brighter fu­ture.

For those of us who be­lieve in their po­ten­tial, it is a priv­i­lege to ac­com­pany them on this jour­ney.

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