Saturday, November 3, 2012

Still Minority Status for the African Woman

Author: Adeline T. Massima

Something has changed in the last fifty years for women in Africa. Increasing numbers of democratic governments on the continent has meant increasing representation. Though, where it is, and where it should be is still quite far apart. The truth is that African women still hold a minority status.

African men are predominantly “macho men.” In fact, this particular genre of men is still the most ubiquitous on the planet. However, in Africa, though many women still live under the crushing and often brutal socio-political construct of men, there have been some significant symbolic power victories for women. Today, there are two women heads of state in Africa, not to mention, that the head of the most important international judicial organization, The International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, is soon to be an African woman. Added to that, the finance minister for the continent’s second largest economy is a woman. Could the symbolism of women at commanding heights translate into real empowerment for the majority of African women someday soon?

Symbols matter. They can be psychologically accessed to change reality in the future. People believe in stripes and flags, stars and banners, and insignias that symbolise outcomes yet realized. Every nation, including those that later become conquering empires, was once only a symbol before it became a reality. The question is then, what does two female heads of state in Africa do to bring the symbolism of equality for women into a reality on the continent?

Fatou B. Bensouda is the Chief Prosecutor at the
International Criminal Court.
The reality, at the moment, is far from ideal, but also grim when presented with the daunting challenges facing this “majority” group. The continent, as is the case in the world in general, has more women than men. However, Africa’s armed conflicts, both the few that make international headlines and the many that do not, disproportionately have women and children as the victims of their inhumanity. Women and children are the collateral damage of Africa’s wars. At times, as is currently the case in the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the drawn out war between Sudan and South Sudan, civilian women are actively singled out for rapes and other gross human rights abuses by rebels and formal military. In October 2009, after multiple peace agreements, the UN mission to the Congo documented that 15,000 women had been raped throughout the country that year.

African women have experienced little change in their situation, mostly due to the little political power they collectively command within the power structures of their respective countries. In 2003, Rwandan women, a mere nine and a half years after the country’s devastating genocide, won 48.8% of the lower house of parliament, making Rwandan women number one in the world in terms of political representation. Today, Rwandan women make up 56 % of the lower house and 38 % of the upper house of parliament. South Africa comes very close—its women hold 42 % of the lower house and 32 % of the upper house. And in Mozambique, women hold 39 % of the upper house of parliament. All three of these countries rank much higher than the United States; though, you wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Rwandan women enjoy the same rights and social freedoms as their Western counterparts.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the current
President of Liberia and the first
female elected official in Africa.
There are longstanding cultural and built-in institutional barriers on women in Africa. And these barriers have proven immutable, even in Rwanda and South Africa. For example, Rwanda’s parliament needs men for any bill to become law, since they hold the majority in the upper house. And, as is often the case, the upper house holds most of the powers of the legislative branch. In South Africa, there is only one viable political party—the African National Congress (ANC). Women have yet to prove capable of breaking through the strong masculine power bloc within the ANC where the party, though morally and rhetorically in support of women’s issues, is yet to follow through on many of its campaign promises.

International Relations has been abuzz recently with the nouvelle idea that women’s issues are fundamental to global security. The truth is that the decisions women make in life and in their families have immense consequences on society. The number of children they decide to have determines population size; what they use to cook for their families have a noticeable effect on pollution and green house gas emissions; and how educated they are has a contributing effect on the chances of their children pursuing decent education.  But, the pivotal role of women at home, which has never been questioned, is finding it very difficult to translate into the political realm. Few African countries put women into consideration in their national security agenda. Even fewer see women as potential contributors to the structural directions of their respective countries.

What change can two female presidents and the female head of the ICC engender for the African woman? It’s still a little too soon to be able to tell exactly how this group will realize its true place in the chambers of power. Though two female presidents do not make a tidal wave, there is something happening that is gradually reshaping the image of women in Africa. Eventually, it can be hoped, and expected, that the democratic wave moving through Africa will bring with it liberalizing and socialist movements that will allow the continent’s women to enter the political stage and take their place in deciding the most important issues in society.

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