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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  • Comment number 39.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Back in 1979 when I worked in Botswana there was a general election. I remember at least one female minister. She was elected because she was good at the job not because she was female. Back then I had a lot of respect for the Batswana. They elected their parliament as people who would do the job well not due to bribery and corruption. One candidate offered people the earth. He did not get in!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an inspiration to all women not just in Africa. I have read Infidel. Caged virgin and a sequel. Infidel my favourite. I am aware of elderly women carrying out FGM on young girls. My question is why the obsession with the womens virginity as Ayaan rightly points out at the end of the book. Cut out, sewed back tight just to satisfy a mans price of a virgin in marriage

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Anyone who can govern a Country should lead the Country. if he or she has talent. Gone are the days when it was men's society. Entire World is changing. By the way you guys have marked Libya on Africa Continent and you guys are naming Egypt in your report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    If having two female presidents at this time is not good then what is? Unless the West will led by the US will march into every African country and forcefully replace the male presidents with females. You forget that most African countries elect their presidents through a democratic process. If a woman wants to be president she has to convince voters to vote for her.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @29 Greeno

    It is women who carry out female genital mutilation. It is women who enforce the practice. Read Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    After reading this article all I could do was laugh my head off. Writers of articles like this are those who just sit in the comfort of their homes and do some searches about Africa on Google and then just start typing without going to Africa themselves. How many continents can boast of 2 female presidents at this time? Unlike other continents African men do not fear to put women in power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Chris what the African man needs least is leniency and most a class room. I work with African immigrants everyday here in the UK. What is prevalent is African single parent mothers either educating their children here or financing their schooling back home. The husband is estranged cause he is intolerant to culture change and simply can't hack it. The world waits for African men to embrace change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    A well written article.I am Malawian now living in the UK and there is nothing i want more than the development of Africa.
    There is only one way to develop Africa and thats the education, empowerment and participation of women. .Look at the Scandinavian countries, who are the most equal societies in the word. They have female participation in all aspects of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @ 29. Greeno
    it is women who carry out FGM in Africa!... How about addressing them and being a bit more lenient on the African man?...

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Female genital mutilation is performed in 28 out of 54 african countries! What kind of barbaric middle aged customs do african cultures subject their poor women to? Males drive on these vulgarities and are ignorantly slow to accept culture change. I love african women but there counterparts generally speaking are lagging behind. As an african man we need to look at ourselves in the mirror!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I wish there was a female version of Julius Malema

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Shame this lack of female leadership. Africa is a continent ripe for female leadership. Men make war; that's how the settle differences; women talk. And this makes all the difference!
    I do not say that men fail to respect their mothers, sisters and wives; but I will say that fail to respect females as leaders - persons they are pledged to follow, rather than lead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    A feminist ranting.... us African men were all raised by our mothers and we love them as much as our equal partners, our wives! Why should we all of a sudden be misogynists?.. As an African man I feel insulted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Africa is not perfect. Nor is she the worst abuser of gender equality.

    African women can drive. They can stand for parliament. They can go into any profession. They can wear what they like.

    African men don't murder their own daughters and sisters because they have fallen in love with a man they don't approve of.

    African women are freer than women are in other parts of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.


    Majority of cases of female genital mutilation in Africa are among moslems. This practice is most prevalent in the northern half of the continent.

    A whole continent is, once again, being tarred with the same brush.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    A very disappointing article by one who is obviously a feminist male-hater. Justice at all times for all human beings (man, woman or child) is the only way gender equality will be achieved. Most 'males' really don't care who is in power, so long as lives are improved. But you do, you obviously prefer female political domination under the guise that it automatically translates to good leadership.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The issue of gender inequality in Africa needs to be viewed holistically, the problems that women face are also similar to men : we have problems of resources, material , finacincial, and human. These problems are the same across the board be it male or female.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    This article is absolutely absurd. For the world to get better its not about ignoring one gender for another. Technically, by their definition, this is what has happened so far in human history. So now this should continue but the roles would be reversed. Its not logical at all. Its not going to end anything. We all live one life and have the right to live as freely as we possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    This article failed to mention the worst thing that happens to African girls and women: female genital mutilation. This is the world's most widespread form of terror. It targets little girls by the millions. For more information from the World Health Organization and the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report go to:


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