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Expert Views: The Future of Women’s Leadership in Africa

Three high-level African women leaders speak with Women & Girls about how to improve representation of women in politics across the continent.

Written by Jihii Jolly Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Launch of the African Women Leaders Network at United Nations Headquarters on June 2, 2017. UN Women/Ryan Brown

Despite strong evidence of the important role that women play in peace, security and sustainability, their representation in politics across Africa is mixed.

While Rwanda has 61% women in parliament, the highest in the world, the United Nations reports that several countries have seen a regression of women elected to parliament in several countries, especially those with no quotas. Meanwhile, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa 2063 Agenda recognize women’s leadership as key to solving the global crises that disproportionality affect women, from poverty to climate change to healthcare.

With this in mind, the UN Women and the African Union Commission has launched the African Women Leader’s Network, with the aim of creating a road map for increasing women’s leadership across Africa.

At the launch event in New York, Women & Girls spoke with three women leaders about their personal experiences and hopes for the future: Célestine Ketcha Courtès, the mayor of Bangangté city council in Cameroon; Dr. Joyce Banda, former president of the Republic of Malawi and founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation; and Mahawa Kaba Wheeler, director for women, gender and development at the African Union Commission.

Women & Girls: Where has progress been made for women’s leadership in Africa, and where are we falling behind?

Joyce Banda: There is so much progress that has been made. When I was in office, we had a chief justice that was a woman. We had the head of the Law Society, head of Human Rights Commission, two deputy governors, eight district commissioners, 100 appointments. When women get into leadership, they appoint other women.

But we still have 130 million girls out of school. I am now doing research on the girl child between the ages of zero to 10. Because girls from age 10 to 14 are receiving a lot of attention, the whole world is setting aside resources for the adolescent girl child. [But] when you start focusing on the girl child at 10, it’s too late, because so much is happening between zero and 10. We’ve seen brides of eight years old, of 10 years old.

I am recommending that rights education is introduced from age three. [In a paper I recently published,] I’m making the case that leaders are born. There is a big debate saying you can’t make a leader. But research is saying the opposite. We need to find ways as leaders to fish [leaders] out, mentor them and send them to school, so we can build a critical mass of women leaders on the continent of Africa.

Célestine Ketcha Courtès: There has been some improvement in numbers of women locally elected in Cameroon, because the head of state, [Paul Biya], imposed that we should have 30% women in councils. So we went from two female mayors [out of 370], to 31.

The main problem is getting women into the economy because women don’t have access to finances. When you get married, with your husband, you build for 30 years: you build houses, you build economy, you build everything. But if the man dies, the son will become the head of the family and the woman loses everything. When there’s polygamy, maybe it will not be your child who will become the heir and take over all you worked for with your husband for 30 or 40 years. That is not fair. That mean there’s progress to be made. We need to change policy, to give a woman the right to her own property.

[We also have to improve] acceptance of women as leaders. It’s not easy for many people, for many men, to accept to be managed by women. I was the first female mayor in my council since 1916. The first year was not easy because people looked at me as just a woman. But through my way of doing, working and behaving, they started looking at me like a person, like a manager, like a man with a capital “M.”

In my city, since 1960, no mayor has renewed his mandate, but I’ve renewed mine for a second term now. I was elected the first time at 26%, and in 2013 for my second mandate, I was elected at 83%. That means if a woman performs, the result will allow the woman to continue to have her place, have her position.

Mahawa Kaba Wheeler: I’ve been told that if you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu. We don’t want to be on the menu; we want to be around the table. Hence we’ve brought together women leaders from across the continent who have been in the presidential office, who’ve held high office in various parts of [different] countries; but also the younger ones to learn to share, and understand what those major battlegrounds are to which we need to start paying a bit more attention.

The fact that conversations like these are continuing, the fact that the African Union Commission continues to make gender equality and women’s empowerment [priorities] under this new chairmanship, are major gains for us, and we recognize the achievements our member-states have made in appointments for women in political positions.

But we also recognize and are in solidarity with our sisters in South Sudan, in Somalia, in the eastern DRC and Central Africa. In all those unfortunate countries, conflict is still a reality in the everyday lives of sisters who live in refugee camps and IDP camps across the continent. Those are setbacks, but we don’t relent, and we have set ambitious targets for ourselves that we hope to collectively achieve.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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