Turning points for women and social change in Africa

Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Photo by Harry Wad.

The election of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the first woman to lead the African Union (AU) since its formation has raised high expectations, not only in terms of the urgent need to unite Africa, end internecine war and under-development, but also in terms of gender equality and women’s leadership. As a leading grassroots activist in her younger years — Dlamini-Zuma was deputy president of the South African Student Association in 1976 — she serves as a symbol of so many women who struggled in African civil society and now are beginning to assume “official” positions of formal power, responsibility and decision-making. Women’s leadership can bring a shift to the style and values that are needed now, after decades of post-independence patriarchal leadership with an abysmal track record for progressive social change. Despite various efforts at renewal, Africa remains a divided and war-torn continent — and one in which women have very few opportunities.

Dlamini-Zuma showed her courage and determination at the founding of the AU, in which she was involved as South Africa’s foreign minister. When the African heads of state gave inadequate reasons for not nominating women to serve on the AU commission, she challenged them to go and find the women, which they did. As minister of health, she drew up legislation against smoking in public places, despite considerable opposition from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. In taking this stand she highlighted the dangers of smoking and passed a law limiting individual choice for the greater good of public health.

Another inspiration to African women in all walks of life was the awarding of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female African head of state, who is now serving her second term. Sirleaf has demonstrated her commitment to integrity and good governance, advocating for the rights of women and the importance of education to provide a better future for her country and its people. She follows in the footsteps of the late Wangari Mathaai of Kenya, the 2004 Nobel laureate who went from local peace and justice work to become a standard-bearer for responsive and responsible government. These examples show that outstanding African women leadership in civil society is beginning to be recognized.

Gbowee’s award bears special significance. Despite her youth, Gbowee developed ingenious ways of ending the war in Liberia. She led women in taking on both rebel groups and the ferocious regime of dictator Charles Taylor. And she was committed to using peaceful tactics — including public protests and withholding sex from their husbands until the fighting ended. From simple acts of nonviolent resistance to influence on the world stage, she has shown the truth to the idea that (as the title of her book suggests) “mighty be our powers.”

Another historic landmark for African women is the constitutional installment of Joyce Banda as Malawi’s and southern Africa’s first woman president, upon former President Bingu wa Mutharika’s sudden death in April 2012. The announcement of her intention to sell the presidential jets and the ministers’ luxury vehicles deserves praise and acknowledgement. It demonstrates her commitment to putting her people first. One of her dreams, as a fellow Malawian told me recently, is for Africa to have seven female heads of state by 2015.

Seven out of 54 heads of state in Africa is far too few, but the record of older democracies in the West is even more dismal when it comes to the representation of women in positions of political decision-making. Regardless, we need to go beyond numbers and focus on the quality of leadership women bring. We don’t want women leaders who follow the herd or the head of state, but women who stand up for the truth and show the particular qualities women bring to leadership.

Take the South African situation, for example, where women have been overwhelmingly the greatest sufferers of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, while their voices are sadly lacking in the shaping of governmental policy. One such South African, former Constitutional Court Judge Kate O’Regan, was one of only two women appointed when that court was established in 1994 following the transition to democracy. In the years of struggle against apartheid, she also worked on the grassroots level, specializing in labor and land rights issues. She has since served as chairperson of the United Nations’ Internal Justice Council, a body established to help ensure the independence, professionalism and accountability of the U.N.’s new system of internal justice as well as to identify suitable candidates to serve as judges of the U.N. Dispute Tribunal and Appeals Tribunal.

O’Regan, now again supporting grassroots democracy as a board member of the newly-formed Corruption Watch, asserted that “corruption is antithetical to the deep values of our Constitution: that public power should be exercised in the interests of all South Africans and not for the enrichment of a few.” She continued:

Corruption breeds distrust and disaffection and has the capacity to destroy all that our Constitution seeks to build. The best way to stop corruption is for civil society to stand firm and make clear that our shared public values deplore corruption and that it is not acceptable for anyone ever to give or take bribes in either the public or private sphere.

In July, I attended an exchange of African nonviolence trainers, from Egypt, South Sudan and Eritrea in the north to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa in the south. (Women helped lead the reform movements that swept across North Africa, but now women are once again being shoved aside.) It was amazing what these trainers had to share about how the power of nonviolence is bringing about change. At the meeting, we formed the Pan African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network to support individuals and organizations at the local and regional level; we will be preparing for the War Resisters International (WRI) conference to be hosted by South Africa in 2014.

One major concern of the network, as discussed in detail at our meetings, is the violence and discrimination faced by African lesbians, and all women and LGBTI people. We have been shocked and saddened that in the short time since we met the Zimbabwe government has again intensified its harassment of our affiliate Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ). GALZ leader Miles Tanhira, a steering committee member of the new network, described her short time in detention as “a night in hell,” and WRI recently issued a formal condemnation of the efforts to end people’s right to “freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment.”

What, in all this, is the role of men? Also in July, to name one promising example, men marched in Durban to end violence against women. Dr. Sibongiseni Dhlomo, Kwazulu-Natal’s health official, addressed the march and said, “Real men must come out in the open and say that those who rape, those who abuse women and children are not doing it in our name.” Dr. Dhlomo has been outspoken about the need to end exploitative transactional sexual relations across the generational gap, the so-called “sugar daddy” syndrome.

In South Africa, we have just concluded another series of Women’s Month activities, as August has been officially designated since the end of apartheid. How then must we proceed, balancing governmental and non-governmental efforts?

Paraphrasing Gandhi, women must courageously be the type of leaders in our families, communities, civil societies, businesses, governments and public offices that we would hope and dream to see in the world and in our daily lives. Men should not be afraid of this leadership, and we need them as allies. We want their partnership and participation in the struggle to end domination, patriarchy and violence.

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