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 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.
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.
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.
The majority of African women are poor, living in the rural areas and illiterate.
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.
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 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.
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.
* Jessie Kabwila is Malawian women’s rights campaigner
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?
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