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Women of substance winning the battle of empowerment: in every community in Africa and its diaspora, there is a woman motivating other Africa women to succeed in their lives. Women are becoming indispensable contributors to the search for practical solutions and nation building. Bekwase Mwale-Adams reports on how for every positive change in Africa, there is a woman of substance behind it.

Even as the World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF) held in Johannesburg last month launched the first ever Africa Gender Parity Group to collaborate ways to eradicate gender inequality and better engage women in the economy, many dynamic African women from all strata of life are already on the ball playing their roles in helping move the continent forward.

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From Algeria to Zimbabwe, African women are the backbone of their societies. With unmeasured resolve and selflessness, they are working hard to bring positive solutions to the plethora of economic and social hardship they encounter--as mothers, caregivers, household managers, or participants in civil society. They are also increasingly becoming major contributors to formal and informal economies as well as taking up major political roles. In all African countries, women do most of the work, including most of the agricultural work. It is estimated that women produce more than half the food in most African countries.

Due to their nurturing instinct, women bring different priorities and responsibilities, and they tend to value issues such as education, health, water and food as priority areas. In rural areas where male emigration to urban areas has created a gap in households, women have taken on increased responsibilities to fill the gap left by their spouses. They are therefore taking over their husband's roles and responsibilities, including heading households in the most challenging of times. These women of substance deserve recognition.

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The head of the World Economic Forum's Gender Parity and Women Leaders Programme, Saadia Zahidi, said at the launch of the WEF Africa Gender Parity Group: "Women account for a sizeable portion of Africa's economies and could contribute considerably more if there were greater gender equality. The Africa Gender Parity Group believes both women and men need to work together to close the gender gap, and thus better leverage women's talents to increase productivity and prosperity in all of society."

Linah Mohohlo, governor of the Bank of Botswana who is also a member of the parity group, added: "It's important to diagnose the legislative framework of countries that stand in the way of women, so we can change it to provide an enabling environment for all to lead better lives."

The Africa Gender Parity Group's major focus will be on greater government commitment and funding for education, focusing in particular on increasing the retention rates for girls. The group will also call for comprehensive overview of policies and programmes that have been effective in narrowing gender gaps in Africa's best performing countries and a transfer of these best practices to low performing countries.

Although disappointed that Africa lags behind most parts of the world in closing its gender gap on education and health, the group noted that Africa was well ahead of many emerging regions on closing the gap in political empowerment.

In the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks 128 countries according to the size of their gender gaps, the performance of Sub-Saharan African countries is greatly varied. South Africa, ranked 20, is a leader in the region, boosted by its scores on the political empowerment of women. But Africa's level of women's representation in parliament is higher than in many wealthier countries

"Women are increasingly joining the ranks of the powerful. After joining Africa's colonial-era movements to struggle for freedom for their country and themselves, they were marginalised after independence. Many went into the nonprofit or civil-society sector--or ended up singing and dancing at airports as part of arrival ceremonies for male politicians. But now, with voter dissatisfaction rising, they are increasingly moving into politics. These days people have greater hope in women," observers Dr Gisela Geisler, author of Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa.

The progress of African women leaders in the past decade is undeniably on the rise. For example, while the high hopes of having the first female president in America came tumbling down when Hilary Clinton lost out to Barack Obama in the Democratic Party nomination last month, Africa already prides itself with a formidable woman president--Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. We boast of female vice presidents in South Africa (Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka), Zimbabwe (Joice Mujuru), and The Gambia (Dr Aja Isatou Njie-Saidy), in Mozambique Prime Minister Luisa Diogo was given the Global Women's Leadership Award on 8 June 2008, at the annual Global Summit of Women, held in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Leaders, such as the Pan African Parliament's speaker, Gertrude Mongella, are icons and testimony of strong leadership and the needed empowerment of women. In Kenya, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, is an inspiration and admired for her grass-roots efforts to empower rural Kenyans to stand up against corruption in any government. A growing number of African women are also heading key government positions--health; foreign affairs; education; mines and justice.

At 49%, Rwanda has the world's highest ratio of women in parliament. It also has the third highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in Africa after Ghana where 44% of businesses are run by women, and Cape Verde which comes second at 43%. Mozambique is among the top three countries in Africa in terms of women's participation in politics--37% of its parliamentary deputies are women, and they hold 26% of ministerial positions.

Rwanda has also created a number of institutions and development programmes aimed at enhancing the status and welfare of women in all walks of life: from inheritance, land, labour and family laws which have been reformed to address discrimination against women. And Rwandan women, resolutely rebuilding themselves from the atrocious effects of the 1994 genocide, are taking the new rules to the full advantage.

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On the overall, in sub-Saharan Africa, an average 16.8% of parliamentary seats are held by women, which is close to the world average of 17.1%, according to estimates by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

The status of women in many African countries is improving. "Africa is in a period of great experiment," Anne Marie Goetz, who heads the governance, peace and security division at the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), told the UN journal Africa Renewal. "Things are starting to change, as countries see a window of opportunity to create ways for women to contribute their skills and talents to national development."

"Getting women into key positions is critical," she points out. "If you have women in public office--though not always the case--they tend to be more sensitive to the needs of female citizens. The ability of women to bring about real change, however, depends on the stance of their parties and the calibre of the representatives themselves."

But while good progress is being made, there is still a lot to be done to fully achieve African women's empowerment. As the Mozambican prime minister, Luisa Diogo, aptly puts it: "Despite the progress made, there is still a long way to go to ensure full women's empowerment and the full implementation of women's human rights agenda. Access to, and control of, economic resources remain conditioned by traditions that place women in a subordinate position, with lower social status."

RELATED ARTICLE: MORE WOMEN JOIN NAMIBIA NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

Namibia has become the fourth country in the Southern African region to achieve 30% female representation in political and decision-making positions. Three more women were appointed to parliament in Namibia bringing to 24 the number of women out of a total 78 members in the National Assembly. This gives women 31% of the seats, up from the previous 27%, according to Southern African News Features.

The women were appointed on party lines to replace three members of parliament who had died or resigned, two from the ruling SWAPO party and one from the opposition. Under Namibia's electoral system of proportional representation (PR), the electorate votes for party lists containing candidates presented by each party. If a candidate cannot take up their seat, then the next person on the list is normally appointed.

Namibia has shown a consistent commitment to ensuring women's equal participation in politics and decision-making as evidenced by the upward trend in the number of women in parliament. At the last general election in 2004, the number of women in parliament increased from 20% to 27%. At the same time Namibia appointed a woman, Libertina Amathila, as deputy prime minister. Women were also appointed to the positions of deputy speaker of the National Assembly, minister of justice and attorney general, as well as minister of finance.

With the latest appointments, Namibia becomes the fourth SADC country to attain the target set out in the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development in 1997, joining Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania in fulfilling this quota.

The voluntary party quota, and the PR system, is also used in South Africa and Mozambique, and thus it is no coincidence that these two have the highest representation of women in parliament in the region.

Tanzania has a constituency system of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) contested by both men and women, but the constitution guarantees that one-third additional seats are reserved for women, appointed under a PR system based on the number of seats each party wins in the election.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Mwale-Adams, Bekwase
Publication:New African
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:1518
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