African Women Breaking Barriers

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In order for African countries to achieve gender parity and end all forms of discrimination against women before 2030, there is need for governments on the continent to fully implement the 35 per cent affirmation programme, writes Ugo Aliogo

In January 18, 2006, Ellen Johson Sirleaf won the presidential election to emerge as Liberia’s first female President. The victory was greeted with great joy and cheers across Africa especially among the female folks. It was the opening of a new chapter in the women’s struggle for 35 per cent affirmative action. As the victory of Sirleaf reverberated and was being savoured in different quarters across the continent, Malawi opened a new narrative in its political history, with the election of the country’s first female President, Dr. Joyce Banda, on April 7, 2012.

Banda became the second democratically elected female president in Africa. Women rights activists were optimistic that the 35 per cent affirmative action was gaining momentum and breaking new grounds. The victories also re-energised the women’s rights struggles and put governments of nations in the continent on their toes regarding the place of women in the governance process.

In some countries, women began occupying top positions in public office. They became an integral part in the policy formulation processes, thus changing their social status. In other countries, the indices were not pleasant, women are not enjoying equal representations like their male counterparts. Today, the competition is very fierce and the level playing field is very challenging.

Since 2000, the United Nations Development Population (UNDP) and the global community have been working effectively towards empowering women and ending various forms of discriminations against them. The goal number five of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims at achieving gender parity. Experts are of the view that if it is achieved, this will create an even balance and a multiplier effect.

The National Policy of Women that was adopted in 2000 reserved 30 per cent for women under the affirmative action guidelines. In 2011, during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, 33 per cent of women occupied cabinet positions. Although, there were calls from some quarters for Jonathan to increase the number to 35 per cent as it is the case with other Africa countries. Under the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, there are 14 seats for women in the House of Representatives out of 360 and eight out of 109 in the Senate. These figures are just 5.6 and 6.5 percents respectively.

According to a media report, it was noted that the proportion of seats held by women in National Parliaments by percentage showed that out of 80 seats in Rwanda’s Lower House, 51 are occupied by women which represents 63.8 per cent, while the Upper House has 10 seats for women out of 26, and this puts the figure at 38.5 per cent. In Senegal, 64 women make up 42.7 per cent of the total 150 seats in the Lower House; and South Africa’ s Lower House has 166 women out of 396 seats and 19 out of 54 in the Upper House. These figures represent 41.9 and 35.2 per cents respectively.

Namibia has 43 women in its Lower House of 104 seats while 6 of the 26 seats in the Upper House are occupied by them; this represents 41.3 and 23.1 per cents respectively. In Ethiopia, 212 women are at the same level with their male counterparts in the Lower House as their seat represent 38.3 per cent of the total 546 seats while they sit on 22 out of the 135 seats in the Upper House, again this translates to 16.3 per cent.

Also in Burundi, 44 out of the in 121 seats in the Lower House are occupied by women, this is 36.4 per cent and they have 18 out of the 43 seats in the Upper House which brings the percentage to 41.9. In Zimbabwe, it has 85 seats for women out of the 270 in the Lower House, while the Upper House is made up of 38 women of its 80 seats. The figure here is 31.5 and 47.5 per cent respectively.
Cameroon has 56 women out of 180 in its Lower House while they have 20 out of 100 of the seats in the Upper House, a representation of 31.1 and 20 per cent. Kenya has 69 women of the 350 seats in the Lower House and 18 out of 68 seats in the Upper House. This is 19.7 and 26.5 per cents.

At the 2016 Women’s Power Launch conference in Lagos with the theme, ‘Women in Solidarity: A New Paradigm Shift for Inclusion’ organised by the Murtala Muhammed Foundation (MMF), African leaders were urged to ensure that the inclusive and affirmative programme of action for women is fully realised in the political and governance process.
Speaking at the conference, the former Malawi President Dr. Joyce Banda, explained that women leadership must remain the focal point of debate in national policy issues amongst government of nations, urging women to be committed to the safeguarding and preservation of women’s rights in Africa.

She challenged the women to work together with men in order to achieve resounding victories in the political space, stressing that the men are part of the challenges and solution to whatever successes they aspire for, “it is time we bring them to the table and engage,” Banda said.

Banda stated that fora of this nature create the enabling environment for women to network and proffer solutions on how the issue of women can become a priority issue among national and regional governments in the continent, stressing that women need to stand together in order to promote stronger power of solidarity and synergy.

“The preparatory point to drive women’s agenda whether in the areas of promoting social and economic rights, among other issues is to promote women leaders. It is time for women to sit at the policy table; decisions about women should not be discussed without the inputs of women. The biggest challenge before women now is how to promote and support women leaders. The first one is the implementation of affirmative action; this entails the implementation of deliberate policies aimed at promoting and appointing qualified women into key positions.

“During my tenure as the President of Malawi, I appointed women into deserving key positions in pursuance of the affirmative action. I promoted about 100 women into key positions. Affirmative action involves deliberate policies that seek to promote education for the girl-child, the formulation of legal instruments to remove unfair barriers to women advancement and opportunities.

“The African Union (AU) Protocol provides for the broad protection of women’s right including gender equality and justice. The adoption of the protocol on July 11, 2003 gave us a comprehensive framework for the protection, preservation and respect of women’s rights in Africa. It is pleasing to note that by 2013, it has been ratified by 36 member states of the AU and signed by 48, thus making it one of the highest ratified instruments in the AU. If women stand together, there is stronger power of solidarity,” she added.
She expressed dismay that women in politics are being abused and have come under severe attacks in the media, which have caused many of them to stay away from mainstream politics; “this has affected the representation of women in politics, as there are few women in the policy table. However, it is pleasing to know that initiatives to change the statuesque are in motion.”

On his part, former President Olusegun Obasanjo advised women who are interested in the governance process of the nation, to prepare mentally and physically, stressing that political leadership in Africa is challenging and filled with name calling and scandalising.

He added: “What I believe is important is your conscience, because it will help you to defend yourself before God and man. Name calling is an activity which is inseparable from politics. Even in the United States, which is the bastion of democracy, name calling and scandalising exists, the current pre-election campaigns between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump is a good example.”

The Women Power Launch is an integral part of the women in development programme. The goal of the initiative is to create an ambiance to stimulate quality engagement, rich discussions and networking opportunities amongst women in Nigeria and in other African countries.

In her remark, the Chief Executive Officer of the foundation, Mrs. Aisha Muhammad-Oyebode, stated that the mission of the foundation is to empower women by giving them the tools with which to surmount the obstacles in their path to self-actualisation, through promoting the education of the girl-child and enabling female professionals break new grounds in their chosen careers.

She remarked that though politics and governance appear to be the final frontier in terms of female achievement; but women have already broken so many barriers and debunked many mythical formulations about their alleged inferiority, adding that Nigerian women are already leading the drive for economic growth and progress.

Oyebode further stated that building inclusive societies which create spaces for women to take their place as productive actors in their national economies and politics is absolutely essential to promoting sustainable development outcomes.

She added: “Interestingly, we are in a significant historical moment that highlights the zenith of female possibilities. In the United Kingdom, Theresa May has just become Prime Minister. The United States is hopefully on the verge of electing its first female president, Hillary Rodham Clinton. These landmarks will resonate powerfully with a generation that is too young to have known India Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir.

“I believe that when women work together, we can generate more than enough force to shatter the barriers that still unfortunately hold us back in many parts of the world. These barriers take various forms. There are barriers rooted in ill-conceived policies and retrogressive traditions that restrict female access to qualitative education. There is the glass barrier that keeps eminently qualified women out of the highest levels of public service and corporate governance even when their talents and competence have been proven repeatedly.”