Viewpoint: Are Africa's women on the rise?

Supporters of Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (file photo) Does having a female president benefit ordinary women?

The past 12 months have seen a series of notable successes for African women - with two Nobel Peace prizes, a second president and the first female head of the African Union Commission. For the BBC's Africa Debate programme, Malawian women's rights campaigner Jessie Kabwila asks if Africa's women are on the rise.

It is easy to believe that women are on the rise in Africa, especially when one considers that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and Joyce Banda that of Malawi. From July 2012, South Africa's Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma took over the leadership of the African Union. Indeed, the list of women occupying spaces of power is growing.

Africa's powerful women

  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - president of Liberia, Nobel Peace prize laureate
  • Joyce Banda - president of Malawi
  • Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court
  • Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma - head of the African Union Commission
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - Nigeria's finance minister, failed in bid to head World Bank
  • Liberia's Leymah Gbowee - Nobel Peace prize laureate
  • Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula - South Africa's defence minister

However, a few questions need to be asked before we can say women are on the rise or not.

Firstly, what is the main source of oppression for women of Africa and can they rise from it, by becoming president of a country?

What constitutes women being on the rise in Africa? Who are the women of Africa? More specifically, are the women who are "rising" representative of women in Africa?

Research clearly illustrates that the principle of male supremacy is the engine of the oppression of many African women.

For women to be on the rise, the ideology of seeing men as people who are superior to women has to be brought to an end.

In the context of such gender relations, one wonders if one woman's joining of the nation state - especially given its sexist character - really makes a difference?

I would argue that unless one changes the male-privileging structure that has produced that woman, both in and outside the state, the one she has have risen through and become master at, her joining of the state is often a cooptation, a process that demands her to become a "man".

In fact, her very survival in the position depends on her ability to perform this manhood and assure the status quo that she will continue to privilege men and manhood.


Another factor that is crucial to remember is that right now, only two out of 54 African countries are being led by women.

This pathetically imbalanced proportion is being read by some as women being on the rise.

Africa's gender gap

Map of northern Africa

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report, 10 of the 21 countries with the highest inequality between men and women are in Africa.

1. Chad, world rank: 134

2. Mali, world rank: 132

3. Ivory Coast, world rank: 130

4. Morocco, world rank: 129

5. Benin, world rank: 128

6. Egypt, world rank: 123

7. Algeria, world rank: 121

8. Nigeria, world rank: 120

9. Cameroon, world rank: 119

10. Ethiopia, world rank: 116

Out of 135 countries

This is laughable, particularly when one remembers that women constitute over half of the population in most countries in Africa.

Imagine if after the independence struggles only two out of the 54 countries were being led by Africans - I do not think that would be read as Africans being on the rise.

For women to be on the rise, whatever the woman leader does must trickle down to the other women.

This means we have to change and transform the colonial structures imposed on the African social landscape such as the modern state, organized religion, global capitalism, reinvent male privileging institutions that oppress women at personal and communal levels such such as marriage.

When we say African women are on the rise, we need to be sure if we are talking about leadership or structure.

What needs to change is the structure to enable women to emerge from the base, instead of being appointed.

Transformation is needed but this can only occur with the transformation of the whole system.

Political power has a lot to do with the people who surround the leader, it comes from the structure. The women in power are often surrounded by men in a system that is constructed to serve men.

It is also sad that many times, women are appointed into positions stereotyped to be for women.

A good example is Joyce Banda's choice for minister of gender.

In order to change the patriarchal gender ideologies and show that women are fit to be leaders, it would be good to appoint them into ministries such as defence.

This can help contest the political culture and tradition.

Elite women

The majority of African women are poor, living in the rural areas and illiterate.

Aiming for the top

Zainab Ibrahim Jilbril

Zainab Ibrahim Jilbril, 22, student in Kaduna, northern Nigeria

I can't say where I see myself 10 years from now, but I pray to be a minister or a first lady.

The biggest challenge we face at school is lack of materials for studies. From our lecturers and mates, we don't face any problems.

I don't have any challenges at home because my father and my mother do support and challenge me to study hard so that one day I can find myself in a better place.

The problem we have in Nigeria is that leaders don't want women to be leading them. They believe that women can't do anything in government or leadership. That's the only thing that can prevent me but I know insha allah [God willing]I will be there one day.

I have the prayers of being a president one day so that I will change Nigeria totally.

I think the women presidents in Liberia and Malawi are really trying, because their countries like how they are treating them. I will learn and will try to improve on what they do.

When I become president of Nigeria, I think I will encourage women to study. They say women are the mothers of the nation. So being a women at president level, you know the nation will totally change. It will change everything.

You see here in Nigeria we now have ministers that are women, professors, a lot of things that women are involved in.

So the thing is starting gradually. I know one day it will reach to the top. If you want to start something you have to start from the bottom; by having councillors, chairwomen, house of representatives, ministers and all the rest.

The bulk of the women who are "rising" are not from this class.

Ms Zuma, Sirleaf and Banda are card-carrying members of the ruling elite, socially and politically.

One could ask how do we ensure women truly rise in Africa?

This is where one needs well-researched, effectively implemented and monitored affirmative action programmes.

These need to be home-grown and owned.

Botswana and Rwanda are examples of African countries that are registering significant gains in women's participation in political power.

Affirmative action is what addresses structural imbalances, not having one woman running government.

Women need to be in leadership positions in various board rooms, political parties and spaces of knowledge production such as the university, just to mention a few.

If we can get 50% of boards and parliaments to be "womaned" by women, then you have opened space bottom up, instead of just having one woman up there, in a structure that is hostile to women.

A female-friendly state

A female president can make a huge difference in her country and this can be in increasing women's participation in democracy, making sure that the state is accessible to women.

She will make sure that their voices, especially that of the uneducated, the rural illiterate, are taken into consideration and not belittled by being assumed or spoken for.

A woman president can champion issues concerning women.

But the woman leader has to remember that the male supremacy principle is used to control resources and power and when threatened, it mutates and reinvents itself, reminding the woman leader that she will be punished by those peddling and benefiting from this male privileging, if she does not maintain and reproduce it.

So the woman president has to be an organic leader - one who takes gender justice as a principle.

She has to be someone whose political capital resides in having integrity, truth and justice, not populist loyalty.

Because of the globality and interconnectedness of indigenous, colonial and capitalist male privileging ideologies, an African woman president must be prepared not to be voted back into office but focus on standing for what is right.

Woman mourning in DR Congo Would a female president be less likely to engage in war?

Such a stand will most likely be costly politically and its fruits take time to be registered.

They are not short term, yet politics is built and thrives on short term results.

Such a leader knows that change is not an event, it is a process and the benefits of a woman-friendly stand will most likely be harvested in the long run and by other people.

This kind of a woman leader is committed to the greater good, the collective vision, not the next election or the ability of her post materially benefiting herself and those surrounding her.

Such a woman president would not use and depend on recycled politicians as they are clear products of a "boys club" that has survived on mastering and playing the political field, an entity that has historically been modeled on corrupt male forms of power.

The Africa Debate

Tune in to the BBC World Service at 1900 GMT on Friday to listen to The Africa Debate broadcast from Lilongwe, Malawi: Are Africa's women on the rise?

Or take part in Twitter - using #bbcafricadebate - Facebook or Google+

The woman president would handle issues of the economy in an astute, mature, meticulously informed manner because she knows that poverty informs issues that produce and propel women's oppression such as gender-based violence, maternal death, HIV and Aids, and the impact of adverse climate change.

This woman would demonstrate that she is aware that many African women are in the informal sector and they live in situations rife with power relations skewed against them locally and globally at race, gender and class levels.

The way she handles issues such as devaluations would illustrate that she knows that such things are lethal to the poor, uneducated and those living with HIV and Aids, the majority of whom are women.

One could ask what a non-male dominated state would look like.

Firstly, the state would prioritise female participation in various institutions, bottom up, top down and horizontally, especially in issues that concern women.

Structures that produce political power would be reconfigured to invite and accommodate women in their large numbers, starting by deconstructing ways of running the state that favour male forms of power.

Such a state would adopt a feminist approach to development and fighting poverty, maternal death, HIV/Aids and climate change.

Senegalese female protesters (file photo) Women are often seen campaigning but the men end up in power

In such a state, a woman would not be a second-class citizen and women's empowerment and personhood would be an issue of priority.

Issues that oppress women would take centre stage in state-sponsored programmes.

Women's labour would be recognised and rewarded, including what is done at home and in private and informal spaces.

It is good that the number of women in positions of authority in Africa is increasing but for this to constitute a rise in the definition and lives of women in Africa, the structure that produces what is called a person, man, woman and power has to change.

After that, you can begin to ask if the emergence of women like Joyce Banda means a rise for women of Africa.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    In my opinion, women who had powerful positions in the past actually overpowered men around them at that time. Being at a certain position is all about power; strength, cunning, intelligence, etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    8. Graphis - Ancient Egypt actually had four female Pharaohs, Cleopatra to name one.
    Women shouldn't be promoted to positions just for equality sake. Only those who are truly qualified should even if it means waiting a further 5+ years in some places. If people are serious about change then this would give time for education and training systems to be properly reformed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Gender inequality is influenced by culture & degree of democratization and economic growth of countries. Developing Nations still believe Man as the protector of the family and provider of food on the table resulting in keeping women as house wives to provide service at home. Naw the gender gap is narrowing with Man helping woman at home & the later sharing the expense to run the Home

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    "There are a handful of women"! BBC, your command of the English language gets worse.
    Peter D

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    One might think that women had secured their equality in other regions of the world. Not so. Men will never willingly totally relinquish their power over women - if we want it, we have to take it - and we have to persevere instead of stopping the fight after minor victories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Societal attitudes in Africa are still very much colored by tribal traditions and religious beliefs. It is hard for women to rise above them when they have to face down official decrees, laws, restrictions, and in many cases their own husbands and families. Africa does not have liberal western views on these matters. Progress is a matter of persistance for when an idea finally becomes accepted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Let's be honest. It is still a man's world. Even the US which pride itself as bastion of democracy, is yet to elect a woman president. While there are a few women governors, women in Congress is still far, few & in-between.Africa need more women in politics & to run the countries, 'cause the men have done a woeful job. Africa has all the resources the rest of the world need. But lacks leadership.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    This articles applies to not only Africa but the world itself. Why do women still earn less than top male executives? Why do most of the global powers still have male presidents? Why do a majority of executive positions go to men? Is it because women have to take time for childbirth, or are less intelligent or capable?
    The antiquated male power structure has to change globally. Africa included.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Forget blaming colonialism on african social structures in this regard Jessie. Smacks of passing the buck here. Reading another book about Africa, 'African Trilogy' and I can't believe how brutal African culture was back in the mid 20th century. Women have always been hugely subservient on this continent, way before there were any white settlers. Still it continues from top to bottom. Jacob Zuma??

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Women need to earn thier place whether its in government or corporate boardrooms. Here in Botswana, there is an equal opportunity for education for all children and of late women have begun to dominate the middle-management positions and in 10yrs from now, they will be top. But their leadership credentials make me uneasy as they tend to be petty and bring issues into the workplace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Feminist ideology gone wild, lets ignore for a moment your utopian feminist leader for a moment and talk about affirmative action/positive discrimination, while we do need to improve the lot of women in Africa (especially regarding violence) what you are angling for is a power grab. I'm a also strongly opposed to Any form of Affirmative/ positive action as you say because it is discriminatory

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "we have to change and transform the colonial structures imposed on the African social landscape ... that oppress women"

    Once again we see Africa's problems blamed on colonialism. Africans already had male-dominated societies before we ever came along. The Egyptians only ever had one female Pharoah, Hatshepsut, and even she had to wear a false beard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The gender of the president does not solve problems automatically. True, there may less wars. But nepotism still continues. Takes the case of Liberia. Three of Presidents Johnson Sirleaf's sons were appointed to top government positions. Nepotism is bad, whether committed by a man or won.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm sure a lot of African men (in the next few decades) will have the same attitude as quite a few UK men: 'woo as me - I'm male and everyone is against me'
    (An impressioned given by recent BBC Have Your Says)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    There are so many issues in African Nations, that I don't think having a female President will change anything unfortunately. Short term results often end in long term problems

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The BBC has got it mixed up. The gender issue, as it turns out is not political. If it were, then Africa should be higher than America or Europe. Britain has has 1 woman PM, Germany 1, France none, etc. The US has failed twice to elect a woman even for VP and last time they could not even nominate a woman to run for President. In Liberia's last elections there were 3 women running for President.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    This article is exactly the question I asked Auma Obama in Nairobi on Sept 15. You can hear her answer on the New Security Foundation's facebook page tomorrow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    A female President would also be required to represent men. I fully support the sentiment in this piece, and would point out that women are under-represented throughout the world, but the language is a little aggressive and paints man as the bad guy. Remember too that males also see those in power as a barrier to meritocracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Gender inequality is right up there on the list of things African nations really shouldn't worry too much about right now.


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