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But where are all Africa’s women?
Posted Thu, 03 Mar 2005

By Razaana Arnold

World Bank President James Wolfensohn recently commented that “empowerment of women is the secret weapon of development in Africa.” But he added a curveball: “The trouble is that you (men) beat them up. Gender violence has got to stop.”

Wolfensohn was speaking at a conference on governance organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), where activists asserted that violence against women and children was one of Africa’s biggest problems. The inherent implication is that women disempowerment and violence is inherently an African problem, and therefore African men need a Westerner to call them to order. This is ignorant of the fact that in the past decade, the traditional subjects of illegal smuggling including drugs, guns and endangered species have expanded to include human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of young girls in their teens or early twenties.

This new phenomenon is particularly acute in Europe. The International Centre for Migration Policy Development in Vienna conservatively estimates the number of people smuggled into the European Union each year alone at 400 000 – the majority of whom are young girls.

That said, in Africa’s case the question is whether this is an African woman’s problem or an African man’s quandary.

At the recent Eskom African Business Leaders Forum, a male delegate said: “I spend 24 hours of my time thinking about myself and how to make money. There‘s no room for me to think about how to empower women. Women must get up and do things for themselves”.

This just brought home the point that the globalised market is not about empowerment or women emancipation: it is largely in the business of recognising power already possessed. At the same conference, there were 28 speakers, of whom only 8 were female. Hardly half of the delegates in attendance were women.

Of the 146 Heads of State and Government who attended the 2000 Millennium Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, only four were women - and none of these came from Africa.

That is why in 2000, Irene Natividad, the director of the Annual Global Summit of Women, told delegates: “We meet because in the official international summits of the world, we are not yet invited in large numbers. We are not yet there, not in charge … but we are not going to wait for them to invite us, we are going to create our own summits”. Who is “them”?

On the sidelines of the Eskom African Business Leaders Forum, African men converged at various venues to network, exchange ideas, debate issues of leadership and in some cases cut business deals. It was not so for the women. They were either in the company of men, where they were the minority, or in lonesome corners by themselves.

In the years leading up to the 1994 elections in South Africa, women formed a strong National Women’s Coalition that cut across racial, political and social lines. This august body was instrumental in sustaining the peace accord and in the drafting of a democratic Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The organised political activism and grass roots mobilisation that existed in those days, seems to have dissipated.

There are a few African women making a difference on their own, with a little support and encouragement from their corporations. Dr Yvonne Muthien, Group Executive of Corporate Affairs at cellular giant MTN, launched the MTN VillagePhone in Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria and Cameroon, which has created sustainable employment in rural areas as well as providing a much needed service for women. But this is hardly enough. She warns that women are still looking through the glass ceiling. “Woman in strong leadership positions need to make their voices heard. They need to open doors for other women and operate like men do.”

In South Africa today, while women make up 52% of the adult population, they make up only 41% of the working population and constitute only 14.7% of all executive managers. Of the 3125 company directors on the JSE Securities Exchange and in state-owned entities, only 221 are women. Only 11 women hold chairs of boards out of a total of 364. The business case for fast-tracking women empowerment has gained momentum. As far back as 1993, Gertrude Mongella, now President of the Pan African Parliament, told women in Sydney, Australia that: “In your country (Australia), women worry about whether they can afford a dish washer or not. In my country (Tanzania), women worry about whether they can find water to wash the dishes.

“Yet in my country, we have more women politicians than you do, we have more women lecturers in our universities. It is not about the difference between affluence and poverty, the “haves” and the “have nots”. It is about the status of women everywhere, and raising that status until the difference between the “haves” and the “have nots” will disappear”.

Not much has changed since then. The International Planned Parenthood Federation says despite many international agreements affirming women’s human rights, girls and women are still much more likely than men to be poor, malnourished and illiterate. They are less likely to have access to medical care, property ownership, credit, training and employment. Of the 960 million illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are female. It appears than in order for women to take charge of their own destiny on the continent, they’d have to rely much more on their ability to take leadership positions, instead of waiting for handouts.

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, the founder of LEAP Africa, a leadership focused non-profit organisation based in Nigeria, believes that only women can push their own agenda forward. “Leadership is an act not a position, you do not require a title or formal role within an organisation or a community before you can exercise leadership. The only thing a title can buy is a little time, either to increase one’s level of influence with others or to erase it.”

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