A procession for President Joyce Banda at Kamazu Airport in the Republic of Malawi, 2013. Credit: Flickr/GovernmentZA. Some rights reserved.When Joyce Banda became the first female president of Malawi and the second woman to ever lead an African country (after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia) many commentators — including Banda herself — saw her appointment as a tipping point for women in the region. In an interview Banda said: “You ask how I feel to be the first female president in southern Africa? It's heavy for me. I feel that I'm carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women.”
Banda, a recognised women’s rights champion, was justified to feel under pressure. According to the Gender Index, “women in Malawi generally fare worse than their male counterparts on most social and economic indicators including wage equality, political participation, secondary and tertiary education enrolment and literacy.” The veteran politician was aware that her leadership was expected to change the lives of women. Of that expectation, she said: “If I fail, I will have failed all the women of the region.”
But the logic that just having women in politics will itself serve to challenge patriarchy and negative social norms is flawed. Firstly, being a woman doesn’t make you a feminist. In fact, as women are in most societies the custodians of culture, it is usually them who seek to protect the norms that are detrimental to women. Secondly, as Dr Aisha Abdullahi, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, puts it: “Women’s participation is not simply about a certain number of female representatives, but about the ability of this participation to affect meaningful policy change and improve the lives of all women and girls around the continent.”
Today there are three African women heads of state — small but still impressive if you consider that the United States, which prides itself on being one of the oldest democracies in the world, has yet to elect a female leader. Added to that, of the top ten countries with the highest percentage of female representatives in parliament, four are in Africa. The number of women in politics is growing, slowly but steadily, but precious little headway has been made in terms of women’s economic, social and cultural parity.
African women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water.
A girl born most anywhere on the African continent is likely to be considered less ‘valuable’ than a son. As a result, she will be less educated than her brother. If part of the labour force, she is far less likely to reach a senior managerial position than her male counterpart (1 in 26 for women compared to 1 in 6 men according to the World Bank’s 2010 enterprise survey). She will be exposed to high levels of violence (be it ritual harm like FGM, domestic abuse or corrective rape), and be expected to marry and maintain the household — African women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water.
Faced with such challenges, women’s political engagement is an insufficient change agent, and there’s evidence to prove it. Research conducted by the Overseas Development Institute in Malawi found that “in a patronage-based political and electoral system women are at a distinct disadvantage, with fewer economic resources and less access to male-dominated clientelist networks. Together, electoral rules (first-past-the-post, no quota), party systems (weakly institutionalised and fragmented) and prejudice against women’s leadership significantly influence whether parties nominated women and do so in seats they are able to win.”
Efforts to increase representation through quotas (as has been achieved in all the African countries that feature on the list put together by the Inter-Parliamentary Union) needs to be matched with context-specific training and financial support. As Banda put it in her keynote address during the Sheroes Forum in May: “When you don't have the money, you can't stand for elective power, not in Africa."
This is the work of deconstructing narratives and building new ones
Training and financing will only go so far if public perceptions of the role of women do not also begin to change — this is the work of deconstructing narratives and building new ones. It is work that organisations like the Graca Machel Trust have taken up with the introduction of their new initiative, Women Advancing Africa, but it is also work that a new generation, including myself, has taken on.
READ MORE: Gender, politics, and parliament in Rwanda
This year I left my job at the Guardian to set up a digital publication and event called The Nzinga Effect. Named after the formidable Nzinga Mbandi, the 17th-century queen of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (in modern-day Angola), our ambition is to change the narrative about Africa by changing the narrative about African women. It is about recognising that storytelling is just as important a weapon in the fight for gender parity as political representation is. When the site launches this month it will plug the gap in the stories of Africa’s many female innovators, thinkers, doers and leaders, past and present.
The point is obvious, but one that bears repeating. As UN Women’s representative to Ethiopia, the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa, Letty Chiwara, put it: “The women have been trailblazers in Africa but who knows about it? Who’s talking about it? Not many people. Now is the time that we take centre stage as women and we make the world know our contribution to Africa and to development.”
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.
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