At a time when some of the world’s biggest problems largely boils down to lack of balance, equity and equality, everyday events shows that it is difﬁcult to become a woman than anything else, especially in Africa
From contending with social bias and patriarchal perceptions to bearing the brunt of conﬂicts that defy logic and commonsense, women in Africa continue to contribute to social, economic, and political development against all odds.
Gender has now become a top and cross-cutting priority for policy makers, political ofﬁce holders, advocates and civil society around the world and when it comes to women, dates and declarations haven’t helped so much in recent years, depending on who you ask.
For instance, the African Union declared 2016 to be “The Year of Human Rights with a Special Focus on Women’s Human Rights.”
Gender was a priority in the Millennium Development Goals and continues to be so in the new Sustainable Development Goals.
In 2003, the AU adopted the Maputo Protocol under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to boost the protection of women and went on to declare the years between 2010 and 2020 as the African Women’s Decade, adopting the African Union Gender Policy and creating a fund for African women.
But today, the violation of women’s rights is still widespread across the continent. From acts of violence against women, to child marriage, gender-based discrimination and exploitative widow rites. The reasons for these range from culture, to tradition, ignorance, lack of education and patriarchy.
Every year, March is largely dubbed ‘the month of the Woman’, where the 8th day of the month is marked as International Women’s Day to celebrate the accomplishments and highlight the struggle for equality that millions of women around the world face every day.
But experts say it fails to account for the diverse grievances, needs, and expectations of women in varied contexts. Some criticize it as an occasion that turns the recognition of women and their achievements into an exceptional circumstance and a day-long celebration. After that, normality resumes – a normality in which the patriarchy dismisses issues affecting women, and in which women are discriminated against, harassed, and marginalized on a daily basis.
At face value, gender equality in the political, economic, and social sense is indeed a worthwhile goal. However, policies aiming to implement this can and have often overlooked and vehemently dismissed the aspirations of women from diverse contexts. This results in policies that become an added layer of oppression for many women.
It is perplexing, if not deeply depressing that, in 2019, misogyny, sexism, and racism continue to plague women on so many levels worldwide.
According to the United Nations, about 1 in 7 adolescent girls end up as a child bride, and 1 out of every 3 women will be the targets of sexual or physical violence in their lifetime.
In 2016, millions around the world joined the ‘Pledge For Parity’ , at a time when it was believed that only 19 heads of state out of a possible 196 were women, with just about 55 ladies among the 500 richest people in the world.
For a continent, rich in cultural heritage and traditional values, Africa ﬁnds itself at crossroad between preserving inherited practices and rejecting barbaric rituals that continue to defy logic and commonsense.
Often victims of religious taboos and cultural conventions, millions of women and girls ﬁnd themselves at the centre of age long barbaric customs that involves the altering of the female genitalia for non medical reasons.
According to statistics, an estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to female genital mutilation across the world.
In Africa, it is thought that 3 million girls are at risk every year, a narrative known to be prevalent in about 27 African countries.
In carrying out female genital mutilation, traditional cutters often use anything from razor blades to scissors, broken glass, tin can lids or ceremonial knives for partial or total removal of the external genitalia.
The erroneous cultural justiﬁcation of such inhumane act is said to reduce female sexuality and libido, and this ritual, is practiced in countries like Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Mali and Guinea.
Everyday, Women are sexually harassed, assaulted, discriminated against in the workplace, and excluded from key political decision-making. Even women who ‘have it all’ can’t seem to get it right. Working mothers are reprimanded for not being present enough for their children or at work, with life becoming a never ending struggle.
Male dominated society continues to deprive women of the wealth they could be, exclude them from the well being they should have, and misconstrue the wonder that they are.
It’s a society where girls are taught to shrink themselves, ladies are inspired to compete for men, and women are forced to limit their ambitions.
The Case For More Representation
Already the World Economic Forum predicts that the existing gender gap, driven by pay disparity and social inequality wouldn’t close up entirely until 2186 and while the next 167 years is a long wait, ﬁxing the pieces of the puzzle would include challenging cultural bias and taking consistent actions to ensure that gender equality is of topmost priority, in an environment where everyone can thrive.
In fact, that environment is slowly becoming a reality.
Women are gaining ground in politics around the world. Last year, the so-called “pink wave” saw a record number of women elected to Congress in the US’s mid-term elections.
There are signs of progress in Africa, too.
Last October, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was praised for his “transformative leadership” after appointing a new set of ministers – half of whom were women.
Last February, Egyptian lawmakers proposed amending the constitution to guarantee women 25% of the seats in the national parliament. If approved, this change would signiﬁcantly increase the political representation of Egyptian women. At present they make up just 15% of the legislature.
Many women around the world have already held the honor of head-of-state or head-of-government, including the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher, Israel’s Golda Meir, and Liberia’s Nobel Peace Prize winning Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was celebrated worldwide for breaking a double glass ceiling: She became both the ﬁrst female head of state in Africa and the ﬁrst black woman head of state.
In the past 20 years, Africa has achieved some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in the world. The number of female legislators on the continent rose from 9.8 percent in 1995 to 23.2 percent today and Rwanda, with 63.8 percent female representation in the legislature, is the world frontrunner. While the Nordic countries lead the pack with a 41.1 percent female legislature, sub-Saharan Africa’s 23.2 percent is within striking distance of Europe’s (excluding Nordic countries) 24.3 percent and the Americas’ 27.7 percent.
Today, six out of the top 15 countries are African: Seychelles (43.8 percent), Senegal (42.7 percent), South Africa (41.7 percent), Namibia (41.3 percent), and Mozambique (39.6 percent). By contrast, in the 114th United States Congress, a mere 20 percent of the legislature are women. In fact, 24 African countries have better female representation than the United States of America.
Not all is rosy though: Women in Nigeria, the Comoros, Swaziland, the Republic of the Congo, and Benin still have less than 8 percent female representation in their legislatures.
In the previous administration in Nigeria, two notable women were truly inﬂuential in Nigeria’s political landscape: Diezani Allison-Madueke, former minister of petroleum and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former minister of ﬁnance, were at the heart of the Jonathan presidency. Unfortunately, while the 2011 Jonathan administration was credited with appointing women to one-third of cabinet positions, the Buhari administration only gave six ministerial slots to women, only 16 percent of the total. This is part of a disheartening trend for Nigeria: whereas women represented 9 percent of the National Assembly in 2007, the ﬁgure fell to 7 percent in 2011 and 5.6 percent today. While Nigeria slides down the global rankings, the rest of Africa continues to rise.
Rwanda and South Africa have successfully used quotas to increase their female representation in the legislature: Rwandan law stipulates that 30 percent of all parliamentary seats should be held by women while South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, voluntarily upped its female quota for government positions from 30 to 50 percent in 2009. Following South Africa’s lead, the majority of African nations now have some form of quota to encourage female representation in the legislature.
There has been good news on the less-publicized fronts too.
In 2013, a report showed that all over the world gender gaps in primary and secondary education have largely been closed, with the ratio of female to male primary and secondary enrollment rates reaching 94 percent and 97 percent respectively in 2010, and women are now more likely to be enrolled in tertiary studies than men.
As a result, over half a billion women have joined the world’s labor force over the last 30 years, with the greatest increases in women’s participation in paid work happening in the developing world, according to a World Bank report in 2012.
The truth is, with more women actively a part of policy making and implementation, it is easier to address the issues at all levels.
The Way Forward
Despite these achievements, we still have a long way to go and cannot be satisﬁed as women in many parts of the world continue to suffer from exclusion in so many dimensions of their lives, especially when it comes to access to economic opportunities.
According to a 2015 report, Gender-based legal restrictions, such as limitations on property ownership without a husband’s consent, are signiﬁcant in a number of countries: Almost 90 percent of the economies the world over have at least one such restriction; some of them have numerous legal restrictions, with some 28 countries having in place 10 or more restrictions on women participation.
Also in 2015, records showed that men’s and women’s jobs continue to differ greatly, with more women hired for low-productivity and low-paying jobs. At the higher levels, there are only 22 women in ministerial and parliamentary roles for every 100 men worldwide.
Fortunately, the tides of history are underway to make recent electoral, educational, and other successes translate into permanent gains for women empowerment and equal opportunity.
Indeed, overcoming occupational gender bias requires public policies aimed at lifting economic and social constraints, increasing access to ﬁnance and productive inputs for women, and addressing market and institutional failures.
Despite progress over the last decade, Africa is still a part of the world where women face challenges that go beyond those faced by women in more developed other continents, but the upside is that this means there are wider opportunities for positive changes, which could lead to enhanced economic productivity and better development outcomes for African societies as a whole.
There is a need to design gender-sensitive working environments for women to meaningfully participate in productive sectors outside the home and in political decision-making to ensure their voices are being heard and that they are able to participate in the design of policies that are serving the needs and challenges of women.
Inclusive growth in Africa is impossible when Women are missing at the ‘Table of Men’ so let’s not forget to include men as partners in the gender equality agenda for a balanced division of labor and for effectiveness of gender-sensitive policy interventions.
Although effective and speciﬁc solutions to bridging the gender gap vary from region to region, the answers are largely dependent on sustained empowerment inspired by a paradigm shift, and the political will.
In a continent where the relationship between legislation, human rights and the movement to end female genital mutilation remains complex, history and experience has shown that the law alone, can’t change social behavior.
Today, the call is louder for groundbreaking action and purposeful collaborations for women to take control of their lives, unleash limitless potential and advance across new frontiers.
Ultimately, it would take a collective effort to shift the social norms that sustain the practice, where women are empowered to make informed decisions, protect themselves and better their lives, knowing that the key to national prosperity and sustainable development in Africa lies in the way women are treated.
In the course of my life as a young man, I’ve had the chance to learn the essence of existence mostly from women, some of them, my sisters, my daughters, my female friends, my wife, and my mother, all of whom are a blessing to me.
I remain in awe of how the Woman is everything good rolled up in one.
I have come to realize that a woman is a system, a structure, a ﬁrecracker, a jesus, a saint, a god, a church, a mood, a color, a livewire, a humbling thunder, an architect, part magician, half planet, a glitter, a galaxy, a monsoon, an earthquake, a sunshine, an ocean, a lion, the matriarch, the standard, the queen, the crown, a sword, a diamond, the alpha, the ark.
My wife (Mrs. Ese Ayaebene) is nature, nurture, made to love and be loved. Soft, strong, classy, sassy, beautiful, nation builder, homemaker, caregiver.
She’s the holy book, all Dominican, all Caribbean, coconut juice and palm tree, beach sand and coral reef.
She’s everything until the food is done, until the moon comes back, until heaven and earth chat by the ﬁreside, until the second coming, until revelations, until church bells.
I saw my mother once lift a plane, slay a dragon, sail a cloud, ﬂy a star, move a mountain, save the world, push her children, feed their dreams, shine the light, show the way, cry a rainforest, grew men out of her watered seeds, planted a nation and made Mars habitable.
There are more than a billion reasons why everyday should be ‘happy women’s day’ and You and I must ensure we become the contributing factors that make it count.