My twitter timeline was on fire a couple of weeks ago, just as it was in April when Joyce Banda was sworn in as the commander in chief of Malawi, making her the second female president in Africa, 6 years after Ellen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia took the hopes of millions of African women straight to the top. Ellen Johnson would later go on to win the 2011 Nobel peace prize together with two other women, one of them being the indefatigable champion for non-violent struggle and women’s emancipation in the peace-building process, Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia.
On Sunday night, the women of Africa were celebrating Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s election as the first woman chairperson of the African Union Commission, beating incumbent Dr. Jean Ping of Gabon after two gruesome rounds of voting and months of caucusing that had threatened to bring the African Union to its knees.
Dlamini-Zuma is no stranger to battle or authority; after all, she was an anti-apartheid fighter as a member of the then banned African National Congress (ANC) in Apartheid South Africa and then went on to become the deputy president of the South African Students Association in 1976. A medical doctor by profession, the ex-wife of the very controversial president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, first joined civil service in the government of freedom hero Nelson Mandela in 1994, being appointed as the country’s health minister and later being appointed to Thabo Mbeki’s government as Foreign Minister. She has been serving in president Zuma’s government as the Home Affairs Minister and the lady without a doubt should be regarded as one heck of a super-achiever.
The African Women’s Decade
The extraordinary meeting of Ministers of Gender and Women’s affairs in Maseru, Lesotho built on the foundation of the idea of the women’s decade first hatched by the United Nations at the first World conference on in 1975 in Mexico City. Subsequent women’s conferences in Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995 always put high on their agenda the idea of a decade for women. The African Union’s general assembly adopted the proposal of the African ministers and declared that 2010-2020 as the decade for African women.
Gendering development and justice is what every woman in Africa seeks and it is my belief that the architects of the African women’s decade hoped that if nothing else comes from this decade, the above two would at least be achieved. One of the biggest issues that arise when issues to do with women being discussed are the disparities between male and female representation in boards, senior management levels in companies and especially in political office.
Perhaps one of the biggest fallacies is that getting women at the top of the leadership pyramid will magically rid us of our problems. I’m sorry but that could not be further from the truth at least in the simplistic form that this point of view has been put out to us women.
Srilatha Baltiwala, the renowned Indian scholar and feminist in her essay ’Putting power back into empowerment’, defines empowerment (especially for women) as a process of transforming the relations of power between individuals and social groups and shifting social power in three critical ways. The first is challenging the ideologies that justify social inequality such as gender, caste and ethnicity. Secondly, by changing prevailing patterns of access to and control over economic, natural and intellectual resources and thirdly by transforming the institutions and structures that reinforce and sustain existing power structures such as the family, state, market, education, and media.
The question then for African women in this absolutely crucial decade becomes how to move from practical approaches to gender mainstreaming, like getting more women elected to legislative assemblies to strategic approaches to like challenging neo-liberal ideologies that above all oppress women the most.
Plain empowerment will not just do, not while empowerment as a term has long been hijacked by institutions that continue to entrench inequality by giving us women piece-meal solutions to problems stemming from our history as a people in Africa: colonization, patriarchy and other socio-economic and political factors aka solving the problem by treating the symptoms rather than the cause. The empowerment approach has been argued by several authorities on gender to be gender mainstreaming adapted to a neoliberal ideological agenda.
On the surface, women’s empowerment is concerned with promoting equality of access to resources, and power in decision making for women, but in practice it works to conceal deep-seated social, political, and economic inequalities that need to be addressed to make real, meaningful change. Empowerment approaches tend to individualize gender equity, subject gendered interests to tests of market efficiency, and essentially re-privatize women through a marriage of “efficiency, productivity and empowerment” interests to tests of market efficiency, and essentially re-privatize women through a marriage of “efficiency, productivity and empowerment.”
Let it not be said that I am not happy at the rise of women in Africa, I however, want us to interrogate the quality of these positions and to realize that without a remarkable transformation of our institutions, these positions inadvertently end up benefitting the men. Who are these women beholden to when they get into office? Do they have the authority to make drastic changes or are the strings being pulled by others? Do these women leaders understand the role policies such as those employed by international institutions like the IMF and World Bank e.g. SAP’s and the pain they have brought on African women or are they blindly following their advice? Will it then be business as usual when at the helm or will we see a significant departure from the policies that can be traced directly to patriarchy?
As a young woman in Africa, I want my decade to translate into meaningful representation in boards, mid-level and most definitely senior level management. That my presence will not be used by people to show that they met the required gender quota but that my voice will be heard at all times and my thoughts and suggestions will be considered and used in policy formulation. Let me be able to have a say in economic policies, after all, research has proven that African women not only feed the continent, but also thanks to us, our children are healthier and getting more education. We have emancipated as the women of the motherland and we refuse to fill up spaces for the sake of them being filled.
Once more, I congratulate Madam Dlamini. Now we wait for you to begin the process of transforming the institutions that have for long justified social inequality for African women.