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The better half

BY BASHIR GOTH / 23 January 2006

DOWN the years, African women have been powerful in all realms of life except in leadership and decision-making positions. They have been powerful breadwinners, inexhaustible child bearers, patient mothers, dutiful wives, family hut builders, relentless farmers and firewood collectors.

The picture of the African woman hauling heavy loads of carriage on her head, water container on her back and a child on her chest; while trekking miles and miles under rainy weathers or simmering heat and dusty environments, with her man shamelessly strolling beside her with only a stick in his hand, reflects the epitome of her servitude.

Since time immemorial, African women have also been the glue that bound the society’s fabric and extended bridges between feuding clans. As daughters of one clan and wives of another, they always have been goodwill ambassadors and peace messengers at times of war, sometimes at the risk of losing their own life. Even in today’s urbanised African societies, women constitute the backbone of the family income and the national economy. Women vendors selling all kinds of merchandise, foodstuff and animal products dominate the African open markets. Many of them also work as domestic servants to earn a few more bucks to send children to school and keep their vagabond and spendthrift men at bay.

The World Bank Report 2006 cited that: “African women play an increasingly important role in the economy, both as paid workers and as care providers. African women’s contribution to food security on the continent accounts for about 70 per cent of agricultural activities, 50 per cent of livestock care taking, 50 per cent of agricultural storage activities, 100 per cent of food processing, 80 per cent of water fetching, 80 per cent of fuel and wood gathering, 100 per cent of food preparation, and 60 per cent of food commercialisation.”

Notwithstanding their revenue generating power, women in Africa still remain the symbol of misery. Their men not only rob their hard earned pennies and waste them on drugs and satisfying their unfettered libido, but also bring home sexually transmitted diseases, thus making African woman the face of Aids as commented by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in an article in 2002.

According to UNDP’s Millennium Project Report of January 2005, more than 40 per cent of women in Africa do not have access to basic education, a woman living in Sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth compared with a 1 in 3,700 risk for a woman from North America, while 60 per cent of adults living with HIV in southern Africa are women. Despite such insurmountable suffering and obstacles, African women have come of age and thanks to international support and recognition for their magnanimous role in society have taken very bold strides in approaching the echelons of power.

It was “a political coincidence of the rarest breed” according to one commentator, that Africa has celebrated the election of its first woman President the same day that the German Bundestag had inaugurated Angela Merkel as its first chancellor in history on November 23, 2005. The overwhelming victory of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (66) as Liberia’s and Africa’s first woman President must have stirred the souls of the millions of toiling African woman and inspired the more millions of African school girls dreaming of a life better than that led by their mothers.

In South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka drew smiles from many African women when she was appointed as the country's first woman deputy President, raising hopes that she could be South Africa's first woman president in 2009 if President Thabo Mbeki decides to steps down. The most tangible step for women’s political empowerment in Africa, however, came when the African Union (AU), made the decision to narrow the gender gap in its top decision-making positions and elected five women and five men as AU commissioners in 2003. This was followed by the election of Ms Gertrude Mongella as the head of the AU’s Pan-African Parliament, which boasts 25 per cent women membership. Ms Marie-Angélique Savané also leads the African Peer Review Mechanism, an offshoot of the AU, which oversees standards for good governance.

Women’s snail movement to the continent’s political leadership started with Elisabeth Domitien, who served as Prime Minister of Central African Empire during the years 1975-1976. Since then women have been inching towards the continent’s male-dominated top political posts. Those who came close second included Maria do Carmo Silveira, current Prime Minister of Sao Tome and Principe who was appointed in 2005,  Luisa Diogo, Prime Minister of Mozambique 2004, Maria das Neves, Prime Minister of Sao Tome & Principe (2002-2004), Madior Boye, Prime Minister of Senegal (2001-2002), Ruth Perry, Chairman of State Council, Liberia (1996-1997), Silvie Kinigi, Interim President of Burundi (1993-1994) and Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Prime Minister of Rwanda (1993).

In a defiant note of refusal to be left behind, women of my country in Somaliland had also their moment of joy and celebration on 29 September 2005 when Ikran Haji Daud Warsame made history as the first Somali woman to win a seat in public parliamentary election. Though internationally unrecognised, Somaliland also took credit for becoming the first Horn of African country and the first African-Islamic state to have a woman as a foreign minister. Edna Ismail has since then spearheaded the country's quest for attention with exceptional finesse.

As a country predicted by the eminent Kenyan-American Prof. Ali Mazrui in early 1980s to be the first African nation to have a woman president, Somalia’s closest call to such feat came in 1997 when Radiya-Roda, a woman from the then breakaway Somaliland, threw in her gauntlet for the country’s presidential race against a veteran politician and an independence hero. Although Radia-Roda barely made it beyond her announcement of intent, it was Asha Ahmed Abdalla’s vying for presidency in war-torn Somalia that had refreshed Prof Mazrui’s prediction in people's minds, while reflecting the African woman’s unrelenting will to reach for the skies despite the walls around her.

In the social development field of which women were always at the forefront albeit being invisible, African women’s moment of glory came when Kenyan environmentalist and human rights campaigner Wangari Maathai  won the Nobel Peace Prize, thus becoming the first African woman to have won such a prestigious international accolade since the creation of Noble Peace Prize in 1901. The most rewarding aspect of the award was that Dr. Maathai was honoured for issues that were close to the heart of African women over the centuries. The Noble Committee hailed Dr Maathai’s great achievements for the environment, human rights, gender equality and against poverty as important seeds for world peace. This was an international recognition of the African woman’s historical attachment to land and her record as a peacemaker.

African women’s age-long role as bread winners also got international recognition through the UNDP honouring of Ms. Edith Wakumire of Uganda for her work in poverty reduction at the local community level in October 1998 in commemoration of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. These women of steel not only represent as apostles of change for the war and poverty infested continent but also signify the dawn of a new Africa where women carry the flagship of peace and prosperity.

Bashir Goth is an African journalist based in Abu Dhabi. He can be reached at bsogoth@yahoo.com

 
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