Sunday, February 24, 2008

Iron Ladies of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

There is a growing trend on the African continent and that is women in leadership.
In America for the first time we are seeing the great possibility of the first female President in the name of Hillary Clinton. I am personally surprised that gender is still such a profound issue when it comes to leadership in America.

In Africa we have the impression that women in the western world have full equality with men. This is due to the glamorised impression of the western world that we receive. It was therefore a shock to me on arrival especially in America to learn how long it took for women to get their right to vote. Then upon interraction and being myself I realised how highly insecure American men were. Many I encountered still held onto the traditional gender roles and reminded me of certain African tribes that have specified roles of women, "how possible is this" I thought, "in a first world country?"

Attitudes towards women in Africa vary across tribes. In mine, it is expected of women to be strong anything less is not respectable. They are expected to pursue positions of leadership in the community and on a national level and they are encouraged to be highly educated.

Still, inequalities did exist especially in my parents generation. Due to minimal resources it was preferred to educate the boys than the girls but those who could afford it, educated all. The reasoning was that a girl could ge married to an educated man that could take care of her. The national attitude today is that if you educate a woman, you educate a nation so there are aggressive programs to cater for the girl child.
There is a woman's seat in parliament for every district. ( Over 50 seats).
So did African men just wake up one day and acknowledge that women need to progress or was this always the case in the pre colonial era?

My suspiscion is that it always was that way but new religions and cultures changed the natural course of things. The history immediately before colonialism shows that women in my region led the biggest rebellions against the coloniszers, Germans and British. Some of these women are now dieties one of whom is Nyabingyi who is also worshipped by Rastafarians.

Also when the British established the first schools in Uganda, they were meant for the sons of the Royal clans. It was the Leaders of those clans that donated land and insisted that girls' schools be built on them.
So the continental trend of more and more women taking up positions of power may be a resurgence of old trends and the best solution to Africa's problems.

When I worked in the media in Uganda, I followed some women leaders around and I was amazed at the work they did at the grassroots level. Real change was effected. In my own district where there had been a perenial shortage of malaria drugs, one woman managed to change that around by influencing the women to vote out the district head out of office.

Women are the backborne of Africa's agricultural sector. Its no surprise that in places like Zimbabwe where Agriculture was removed from their control there is a food shortage after the dismissal of the white commercial farmers. Any setup where agriculture is removed from their control is bound to create catastrophic problems and that is why there is food shortages in politically unstable regions.
The impact of AIDS has also seen a loss of food production in hard hit areas.

So with their central role in the economy shouldn't it be natural that they too take the positions in leadership? The Africans tend to think so and that is why one's womanhood seems to matter very little when it comes to vying for leadership positions.