Mother Africa

Last January, in a dusty West African city known to most
Westerners only for its grisly coups and AK-47-toting children,
women’s history took a giant step forward. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a
67-year-old former waitress, was sworn in as the president of
Liberia, becoming the first female ever elected head of state in
modern Africa. Liberian women had marched to the polls in
unprecedented numbers to propel ‘Mama Ellen’ to a 60 to 40 percent
victory over her opponent, former soccer star George Weah.

Liberian women aren’t the only ones mobilizing across
sub-Saharan Africa. In the past few years, females have ascended to
heights of power unimaginable just a decade ago. In 2004, Kenya’s
Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, became the
first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 2003,
Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has reined in
corruption where her male predecessors had failed. Both Mozambique
and the twin-island nation of S?o Tom? and Principe have women
prime ministers, and South Africa’s deputy president and health
minister are both female. Rwanda’s parliament is 49 percent female
(a higher proportion than in any other nation in the world);
Burundi’s is 30 percent female; and Tanzania’s recently sworn in
body is made up of 30 percent women.

How much difference any of this will make is yet to be seen.
Gender-specific issues such as domestic violence, polygamy, female
genital mutilation, and discriminatory land-ownership and
inheritance laws are likely to come under greater scrutiny, but the
more significant shift may be more subtle, according to Charlotte
Bunch, founding executive director of the New Brunswick, New
Jersey-based Center for Women’s Global Leadership. Women tend to
make the biggest impact, she says, in the areas of social cohesion
and infrastructure. ‘They tend to pay more attention to the things
that keep people’s daily lives together — to the water pump
instead of the trucks to go to market.’

The generation of women currently coming to power in Africa,
says Bunch, is likely to follow this paradigm, given the armed
conflicts so many of them have experienced firsthand. ‘Really
trying to think about peace and security,’ she says, ‘tends to call
upon the best of the traits that women have traditionally
exhibited.’ (Traits, she emphasizes, that have less to do with
biology than with women’s role in society, which has generally been
‘to bring people together and to move communities forward.’)

Given her history — a widowed mother of four, she spent a year
in prison under former dictator Samuel Doe-Johnson-Sirleaf can’t
help but approach her job from a new perspective, says Morris
Dukuly, a spokesman for the new president.

Pledging to ‘do away with the imperial presidency,’ as Dukuly
puts it, and to stamp out corruption, rebuild her country, and
reconcile its people after the 14-year civil war that killed nearly
a quarter of a million, the Harvard-educated leader has put
education at the forefront of her mandate. And this is paramount,
says Tshiya Subayi, a Washington-based health official for the
World Bank. When women are educated, she explains, they gain the
tools to assert themselves on everything from demanding property
rights to insisting that their partners use condoms.

Wangari Maathai, whose work with the Green Belt Movement has
focused on the connection between environmental stewardship and
peace, is hopeful that the new emphasis will extend to education
about the land. After all, she says, ‘it’s women who are the first
victims of environmental degradation.’ She is also looking to
Africa’s new leaders to provide ‘government that is devoid of
corruption and greed for power,’ and to address issues, like the
alleviation of poverty, that have gotten short shrift in the past.
‘We really have to right that history,’ says Maathai, ‘to
demonstrate that we are different, so that in the future we can say
that when women have assumed power, things have changed.’

In fact, there is already evidence of progress. In November, the
women of Kenya played an instrumental role in voting down a draft
constitution they deemed too vague in its time frame and specifics
for reform; far more significantly, the Protocol to the African
Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in
Africa went into effect that same month, after ratification by 15
countries. Beyond providing a comprehensive legal framework for
women’s human rights, the protocol guarantees a wide range of
gender-specific civil, political, economic, social, and cultural

The biggest challenge now, says Bunch, may be overcoming
unrealistic expectations. ‘When you get new political actors in
power,’ she says, ‘the problems are still fundamental and
structural, and the amount of space to bring change can sometimes
be disappointing to people. The fact that you have a woman leader
doesn’t mean she’s going to be able to solve everything right

Given the length of time they’ve been suffering, the women of
Africa may not mind a little wait.

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