Awake to the challenge: African women's leadership at Beijing+20

If you randomly pick a person on the street in a remote part of any African country and ask them what they know about women’s rights, whatever the tone of voice - angry or excited, they are likely to mention “Beijing”.

Ndana Bofu -Tawamba
12 March 2015

The world has changed significantly for women’s rights and gender equality since the fourth  World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The conference was an epic global process that delivered an agreed ‘roadmap’ to gender equality. The Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) was adopted by government delegates from 189 states, and remains a reference point for governments and for women’s movements alike today. The gathering was a kaleidoscope of magical visions and the single galvanizing force of its time. It was a watershed moment that brought together the concerns, sufferings, hopes, aspirations, and demands of women from different divides in such a comprehensive manner. It was unforgettable to the extent that today, after 20 years, if you randomly pick a person on the street, in a remote part of any African country and ask them what they know about women’s rights, whatever the tone of voice; angry or excited, they are likely to mention “Beijing”. They might not even know where Beijing is, whether it’s an obedient or rebellious woman, an ideology or dream, but they have heard about it, it represents either women’s liberation or transgression.

Dare I say that since the conference, the world has changed in important ways for women’s rights. The BPfA has been instrumental in initiating many key activities related to women and decision-making. Changes have been uneven at best, mirroring the complex path that social transformation requires and the call to action for a more holistic approach. Taking an opportunity to quickly steep us into the operating environment today, we are all agreed that the world is struggling with various manifestations of fundamentalisms that have a direct impact on women’s rights and autonomy. Ebola continues its path in West Africa and has killed over 9000 people to date, many of whom were women.  Climate change is threatening livelihoods, including in the African region where many women still earn a living and feed their families through subsistence farming.  So how do we ensure that the gains of Beijing are sustained as we confront these new and persistent challenges for African women?

Women’s leadership makes the difference

The operating environment for gender equality has certainly shifted for the positive, albeit in variable degrees. Feminist activism and coalitions of the willing have resulted in more than 125 countries enacting legislations criminalizing violence against women, more than 178 countries with laws requiring paid maternity leave, and more than 40 countries with electoral quotas for women. Numerous action plans and policies to advance gender equality have been developed and are at different stages of implementation.

Reverting to BPfA specifically, Africa has made tremendous strides in developing progressive frameworks to advance the rights of women on the continent. Since 2000, Africa has seen the fastest growth in women’s representation in parliament in the world. Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania all rank in the top twenty countries for percentage of women in parliament. There are a number of countries with women who have dared to run for presidential elections; Kenya, Egypt, Uganda and Tanzania to name but a few.

Not even the most optimistic delegate at the Beijing conference would have said that by this decade, the continent would have in office three formidable women presidents. The election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman president in Africa was the license African women needed, and we can see the effect: more women have followed suit and have occupied high-level positions on the continent. From Rwanda, Africa’s most successful story where women account for over 50 percent of the legislature, to Senegal where past elections have seen an increase in women’s representation into parliament; in South Africa also progress has been made with women rising to key positions, and for the first time, a women, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is the Chairperson of the African Union Commission. Behind each of these individual women are of course large numbers of women who have mobilized for inclusion in African politics and decision-making processes. 

Notable improvements have also been celebrated in some North African countries that have been traditionally associated with low rates of women’s participation in politics. In 2013, the Inter Parliamentary Union revealed that with 31.6% women MPs, Algeria is now the first and only North African country to have more than 30% women holding parliamentary seats. The Algerian case is a great and inspiring example of the evolving trends in African women’s political participation.

The surge of African women leaders has also contributed to the promotion, protection, and advancement of women's rights. Women in the region are becoming more active, in pressing for legislative and constitutional changes through participating in political reform movements, processes and defying government oppression. For instance, it took a Kenyan woman politician, Njoki Ndungu, to ensure the enactment of a Sexual Offences Law. In Rwanda, the high numbers of women in their parliament facilitated the passing of gender sensitive laws, such as stricter punishments for those committing violence against women.

We haven’t got there yet

In spite of the progress that has been made more needs to be done to get women in equal or more numbers at decision making tables. There was increased democratization on the continent between the mid-80s and 2009, and today over half the nations of Africa have become democracies, yet only 7 African countries have met the 30% international minimum target of women in parliaments. Eleven countries have less than 10% women in their parliaments. This lack of appropriate representation of women points to failure to invest in girls and women, which in turn limits women’s contribution to development and undermines Africa’s ability to reduce poverty, which invariably impact on women and children the most.

The presence of women in politics has normalized women’s status as political actors, but has not eliminated uneven and unimpressive legislation for women’s rights and gender equality. The socio-political, economic, legal and environmental position and condition of women and girls is still far from satisfactory, raising broader questions regarding the context and parameters under which sustainable gender equality is, and ought to be, pursued. There needs to be more systematic integration, empowerment and participation of women in all spheres of society.  There also needs to be far greater financial investment in implementation of policies and plans.

Though in many African countries women constitute over 50 per cent of the population; and contribute 60-80 per cent of the agricultural labour force they still hold only one-fifth of parliamentary seats and ministerial positions. And today, only two out of 54 African countries are being led by women. This imbalanced proportion needs to be rectified.

Understanding the challenge

Why are women still under-represented as heads of African states?. The reality is that African women are still marginalized from the political sphere as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, patriarchal societal structure, low levels of education, and the disproportionate effect of poverty.

If we are going to sustain the gains of Beijing then we have to stay awake. Increasing women’s role in political leadership is possibly the most urgent task for the African feminist agenda. If women are not determining the future of Africa then the future will continue to handicap women. Real progress in development, democratic governance, natural resources governance, security and climate change can only occur where women’s rights are fully recognized, protected and actively implemented; this can only occur with women’s full socio-political participation.

Women's equal participation in decision making is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but is a smart condition for the inclusive economic growth we are being told is taking shape in Africa. Systematic integration of women augments the democratic basis, the efficacy and quality of the activities of governments. Women are proven catalysts for economic growth and an emerging force for leadership. From Oxfam International, Reserve Bank of Botswana, the International Monetary Fund, the African Union to Liberia, women are assuming superior leadership positions in organizations with internationally significant mandates. An investment in the development of a critical mass of women leaders and the communities they lead, would result in a global spread of peace and prosperity. 

It is vital for us to reflect on the 20-year review of the BPfA because this process  gives us the opportunity to regenerate, reaffirm and strengthen political commitment, and charge up political will while mobilizing old and new actors to advocate for the investments required to realize gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment. Nonetheless the review has to be grounded, realistic and contextualized, because there is the risk of achieving a statistical success and moral failure.

Strategically there could not be a better time for these kinds of discussion. Numerous factors are aligned to support the need for increased political impact and influence of women, including an African context in which women are advancing to senior leadership positions; a shift in some institutions including the United Nations and African Union about the importance of equality for women and girls; growing influence of young and rural women as innovators and leaders in their local, national, regional and international spaces. Africa also has an impressive and growing number of women with emerging financial strength.

African women have traditionally been part of the political process at the grassroots level where their political support has been a major determinant of local elections. However, this influence has not often translated into political power for women at the national level. It is important that we continuously support women leaders in acquiring fundraising and campaigning skills.. We also need to raise awareness and increase organised pressure for  gender quotas as an instrument to increase political representation of women. There is also a need to shift the emphasis from a quantitative to the qualitative participation of women in politics and decision-making. Occupying a seat in parliament is already a great achievement, but there is now the need to also enhance women’s effectiveness in political positions and strengthen their impact in decision-making processes.


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