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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s Former President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, made history in 2006 as the first female head of state in Africa and the first black woman head of state. Since then, the world has witnessed a tremendous increase in female political leadership in Africa. This article examines the extraordinary progress in expanding women’s leadership in Africa, the importance of such leadership and the challenges that remain before full equality can be achieved. 

Increased Representation in Women’s Leadership

Rwanda now has the highest percentage of women in parliamentary positions in the world, along with South Africa, Senegal, Namibia and Mozambique in top 20, according to 2020 data from the IPU-UN Women Map of Women in Politics. Despite this relative success, Africa still needs to double representation rates to achieve gender equality. Contemporary scholarship regarding women’s leadership also underscores that increased representation does not necessarily mean increased influence: the types of role women undertake, such as the portfolios they oversee as ministers or the nature of their work in a company, often reveal more about their real influence.

African Women in Political Office

Recent successes of women-led nations in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted further investigation into the benefits of women’s leadership and political representation. A NYTimes article proposes that women leaders tend to value varied information sources and diverse perspectives, while The Guardian cites evidence suggesting that female leaders are more likely to employ risk averse strategies to protect their citizens. Regarding the success of African women leaders in handling the COVID-19 health crisis, Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf remarks: “Women leaders are better placed to draw on informal networks to mobilize rapid responses and community support. They are used to finding alternative resources and building ingenious partnerships to solve problems.” Indeed, given the outstanding challenges Africa faces––population density, limited health infrastructure and inadequate sanitation, to name a few––the containment of the virus in Africa is proof of talented, thoughtful, and compassionate leadership.

Rising female leadership in Africa reflects an encouraging global trend. The proportion of women ministers worldwide is at an all-time high at 21.3 percent, which is up 7.1 percentage points from 2005. However, only 14 countries in the world have 50 percent or more women in their cabinet, and Rwanda is one of them at 53.6 percent. Rwanda also has the highest percentage of women in parliament in the world with 61.3 percent. Other African countries with high percentages of women are South Africa (46.3), Senegal (43.0), Namibia (42.7) and Mozambique (41.2). The regional average for Sub-Saharan Africa is 24.4 percent, which closely follows the world average of 24.9 percent. However, this number masks wide disparities: some African countries rank at the bottom of the list, for instance Nigeria (3.4 percent), Benin (7.2 percent) and Gambia (8.6 percent). Further progress is necessary in expanding the range of portfolios held by women. Fifty percent of African female cabinet members hold social welfare portfolios while only 30 percent are in charge of finance, infrastructure, defense and foreign affairs – departments that have more political influence and more often lead to higher senior positions, such as head of state. Expanding women’s presence in these areas would ensure that women voices are heard at the highest level of decision-making and governance.

African Women in Business

Research has found a correlation between women’s representation and profitability. The Women Matter Africa report by McKinsey&Company found that the earning margin from companies with at least a quarter share of women on their boards was, on average, 20 percent higher than the industry average. Findings from a Peterson Institute for International Economics report, “Is Gender Diversity Profitable?”, show that moving from a no-women board to 30 percent representation corresponds with a 15 percent increase in profitability. Research has found that executive boards with more women tend to manage risks better, which directly improves finances. Experts agree that women’s participation in decision-making processes fosters openness to new perspectives, collaboration and inclusiveness, and strength in ethics and fairness.

In the private sector, Africa performs well globally with a higher-than-average proportion of women CEOs, executive committee and board members. However, statistics vary widely by region. At board level, African women held 14 percent of seats compared to the world average of 13 in 2016. However, this number was 20 percent in Southern Africa and 9 percent in North Africa. Women are most poorly represented at the highest level: A 2017 South Africa Census found that while 20.7 percent of Directors and 29.4 percent of Executive Managers were women, women accounted for only 11.8 percent of CEOs or Chairpersons.

Challenges & Outlook

Contemporary literature about women’s leadership in Africa underscores persistent barriers and systemic challenges such as early socialization, gender stereotyping, limited educational attainment, and discriminatory policies and procedures. Gender norms in Africa emphasize the primary role of women as mothers and wives, which discourages them from joining the workplace and ascending to higher positions. At work, recruitment and promotion procedures often work against women’s success, and normative perceptions of women as incompetent subject them to more rigorous standards of performance. Going forward, women’s leadership in Africa would benefit from continued theoretical research, advocacy and discussion that embrace the complexity and diversity of African women leaders. The African Women Leaders Network, the premiere advocacy group with the mission of elevating the status of women’s leadership in Africa, outlines key priorities in their fight: eradicate violence against women an girls; increase access to education; promote a women-driven care economy; and encourage young female leadership. In the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “Now is the time to recognize that developmental transformation and true peace cannot come without fundamental change in who is leading and the ways of leading.”

—Alice Nguyen
Photo: Flickr

Dr. Jill Biden

Dr. Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, promoted women’s rights, immigration and education during her recent trip to Africa. She visited Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger, where she focused on matters associated with economic empowerment and educational opportunities.

In each country, Dr. Biden met with local citizens in many different places in order to engage in government and civil society and focus on issues relative to each country. Here are some of the highlights of her three-country trip.

Ethiopia

  • Dr. Jill Biden’s first stop in Africa was Ethiopia. She first visited a transit center for refugees at the International Organization for Migration. There she learned about the refugee screening process for those hoping to resettle in the US.
  • With a focus on women’s empowerment and women’s rights, she attended an event in the high-tech center in Addis Ababa funded by the U.S. Embassy. There, she handed out certificates to girls who completed computer training.
  • Finally, she met with female members of Ethiopia’s parliament and cabinet, as well as entrepreneurs and other members of the community.

Malawi

  • First, Dr. Biden attended a reception for humanitarian aid workers from the U.S. Embassy. She addressed the El Niño drought by gaining information from the USAID Food for Peace Program about food security.
  • She traveled to primary schools, the first of which was assisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program. Biden learned about the USAID Girls Empowerment Through Education and Health Activity (ASPIRE) at a second primary school.
  • Finally, Dr. Biden met with local farmers learning about how the maize trade influences economic empowerment and with Malawi’s First Lady Madame Gertrude Mutharika to discuss their collective pledges on women’s empowerment.
  • It was Dr. Biden who announced that 20 million dollars have been donated through the World Food Program to assist food insecurity in Malawi.

Niger

  • Dr. Biden visited the Marie Stopes International Clinic to discuss family planning and reproductive health with Nigerien women.
  • She discussed with local residents the issues surrounding the Boko Haram conflict and the humanitarian crisis in the state. After meeting with President Mahamadou Issoufou, she talked to young Nigeriens about youth participation in local elections.
  • Dr. Biden discussed empowerment through job creation and its positive effects on the national economy, and she participated in a roundtable at the U.N. Development Program to discuss gender inequality, education and protection.

Dr. Jill Biden’s focuses on women’s empowerment and education are based on the notion that education is a tool that can be used to lift communities out of poverty. By developing self-confidence through education, girls and women in Africa can become active participants in their local communities.

Kimber Kraus

Photo: Voice Of America

Hippo Roller

Almost 1 billion people in Africa struggle for access to water. According to the Water Project, this is equal to one in eight of the world’s population. Water supplies are often many miles from the village. Women and children must travel to collect water and carry full buckets back home.

However, solutions like the Hippo Roller are helping revolutionize this process.

When water supply points are as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles) from home, water is often carried in 20-liter (5 gallons) buckets balanced on top of heads. The Hippo Roller is a simple solution that allows the people who collect water to collect up to five times more.

The Hippo Roller is a 90 liter (24 gallon) container that is rolled along the ground. The water collectors are usually elders, women and children. Instead of being carried on the head, as usual, the water is rolled–either pushed or pulled. This allows more people to access water, which improves food security and income generation.

Two South Africans, Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker, invented the Hippo Roller in 1991. They both knew the water crisis’ effects on daily life. The Hippo Roller Project was established in 1994 with the mission of “helping communities to improve access to water–90 liters at a time.”

As of Sept. 2015, there had been 46,000 Hippo Rollers distributed in 20 countries. This has helped 300,000 people in families where the average size is seven. The ability to roll the water instead of carrying it reduces injuries and gives more time for school and other activities.

Grant Gibbs, Project Leader for Hippo Water Roller Project explains that women in rural Africa can spend up to 26 percent of their time collecting water. This automatically includes the children. When women can collect more water at a time, they can spend more of their day on other important tasks. When children are needed less to collect water, they can go to school.

The innovation of transporting more water more efficiently makes more “time available for education, household tasks and food production.” The design allows for hygienic collection and storage of water and even irrigation of crops.

Rhonda Marrone

Photo: Hippo Roller

Potential of Women in AfricaOver 60 percent of women living in developing countries make a living from working in agriculture. However, only 10 percent of women in Africa own livestock and approximately one percent own their own land.

Women who work in agriculture do not generally receive training or supplies in return for their work. These disparities demonstrate that the potential of women in Africa isn’t fully recognized—although women are responsible for the majority of production, they are not able to influence the policies that affect them.

Kenya suggested a bill for political parties to attempt to reserve 30 percent of parliamentary seats for women, but the bill was not passed. Involving women in these political decisions could significantly improve the economy since the majority of work is done by women.

The economy of Africa could be improved by involving more women in policy changes or by investing in those who do agricultural work. Gender roles are not only hindering the potential of women in Africa, but they are also hindering Africa’s potential. About 90 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s food is tended to by women who have little say in the economy that affects their work.

While women in Africa do the lion’s share of work, they are not valued the same as men. The potential of women in Africa is great. Women will typically work a day that is 50 percent longer than their male counterparts and in less than favorable conditions. In a society that revolves around men, the women are the force of the economy, though they remain largely ignored.

These women not only deal with harmful pesticides and rudimentary tools but also suffer considerable abuses at home after their difficult days of work.

The violence against women in Africa includes rape, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, forced marriage, forced sterilization and much more. A cultural practice called female genital mutilation (FGM) causes infection, injuries, and death in women across Africa.

Approximately 130 million girls have already been subjected to this practice, though measures are being taken to prevent further mutilation. This violation of women’s human rights in Africa is illegal but often carried out in secret to continue the cultural tradition.

FGM is considered a way for women to be socially accepted and can only be ended by educating those who enforce it and stopping the stigma surrounding the tradition. Linah Jebii Kilimo, the chairwoman of Kenya’s Anti-FGM board, calls this “the worst form of gender-based violence.”

Those subjected to gender-based abuses are forced to stay with their husbands because women in Africa are not financially supported by the vast amount of work that they do. Husbands must provide the necessary financial security. Many of these women are illiterate and uneducated, though women who have received a secondary education are better able to provide for themselves and control their personal lives.

The 1979 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women assisted women and governments in changing abusive practices but has not been entirely successful.

Many cultures still practice FGM and forced marriages despite laws against such practices. Rwanda’s gender desks at police stations have provided legal assistance to women who are victims of any type of violence, a system that should be expanded to other countries in Africa. By expanding these gender desks, many women would be able to take better action to improve the situation of gender-based violence in their cultures.

Greater investment in the potential of women in Africa could equate to a significant boost for the economy. Countries could benefit by improving conditions for women and improving gender equality as well.

Amanda Panella

Photo: Flickr

African-Women-in-Agriculture
The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development program (AWARD) seeks to realize the untapped potential of women scientists in Africa. As a career development program, AWARD offers competitive fellowships to African women in agriculture.

These women have a common goal to eliminate hunger and poverty in Africa through agricultural research. Research areas are widespread, but have included plant pathology, water management and poultry science. Fellowships have been granted to women from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

So, why women? Why is it specifically important to support female agricultural scientists in Africa?

Most African smallholder farmers are women, but only one in four agricultural researchers is female. There are traditional and cultural barriers to women’s participation in agricultural science and to education in general. In this traditionally male-dominated field, women need support to develop leadership skills.

The AWARD program offers mentorship and development of science and leadership skills for women in agriculture. The goal is to provide women with a position where their voices can be heard in the field of agricultural science. 390 African women scientists have benefitted from this program.

Food security will require changes in field and laboratory work, and women have much to offer in this area of study. Dr. Jane Ambuko, supported by the AWARD program, started a project to introduce farmers to a cold-storage option for their food products. The CoolBot system is less expensive than traditional cooling systems and can preserve fruits and vegetables.

According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, “four billion dollars’ worth of food is lost annually due to inefficiencies across the agricultural value chain after crops are harvested.”

The CoolBot system and the work of Jane Ambuko offer a solution to combat food waste and improve the economic livelihoods of families in Africa. This is one example of a research innovation, developed by a woman, that can help save lives by reducing hunger. The goal to end global poverty is more attainable with the inclusion of women.

– Iliana Lang

Sources: African Women in Agricultural Research and Development, Agricultural Science & Technology Indicators, AGRA, Feed the Future
Photo: FAO

International Women Development Champion AwardThe International Women Development Champion Award honors exemplary women who have dedicated their lives and have committed their efforts to the economic development of Africa and African women. On 24th March, the President of UN Women National Committee Canada, Almas Jiwani, was awarded the International Women Development Champion Award in Paris. She is the first Canadian and the first UN Woman representative to receive this award. The initiatives she took in trying to connect the gaps between the corporate world and the humanitarian world made her a new face for humanitarianism. She has put tremendous efforts into establishing change through excellence and dedication to philanthropy.

Almas Jiwani expressed how this award promotes equality, “We must continue investing in African women and increase their involvement in the political structures in place and in everyday life.” Furo Giami, the Executive Director of the Center for Economic and Leadership Development said that it’s an honor to present Almas Jiwani with this award to recognize her efforts and achievements at contributing to the end of global poverty and “all forms of vices militating the development of African women.”

Some of the women who have received this award in the past include President Joyce Banda of Malawi, Vice President Joice Mujuru of Zimbabwe, Business Leader Wendy Luhabe of South Africa, Ida Odinga (wife of the Prime Minister of Kenya), Rt. Hon. Anne Makinda (the Speaker of Parliament in Tanzania) and others.

– Leen Abdallah

Source: Market Wire