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The Role and Impact of Women on Africa’s Democracy

BY: Dr. Donald Agumenu

The values that characterizes democracy and make it a better system of governance compared to others are the opportunity to be represented through the choice of the majority; the inclusiveness of the whole population, or all the eligible members of a state; the control by majority, referred by some as, ‘power to the people’; the application of the principles of social equity; the exercise of being accountable to the people who elect the leaders; the right of the people to request for change of the status quo including constitutional changes; the opportunity of multiple choices during elections; the freedom of speech especially through the media; religious freedom; racial, ethnic, cultural, gender equality, and many more propagated values.

These democratic ideals have been tested since the dawn of democracy and except in few cases where excesses have been recorded; the practice of democracy in governance and leadership has continued to enhance human freedom and dignity. It has also helped the development of nations in areas such as education, technological advancement, cultural exploration and infrastructural development. Since one of the most determinant aspects in democracy is number, one would have expected that, women in Africa would seize the opportunity to shape the course of democracy; to push for more women, to actively participate in politics. The active participation of women in politics has rich impact in the enforcement of laws that discriminate against them, and on the society.

Across the globe, the role of women in politics varies. Their participation in the democratic course and in governance is integral to contemporary discourse on developing the nation. Regardless of the clamour for women’s political empowerment by international organizations, research consistently reveals that in many parts of the world, women still linger on the fringes of political realms and their participation in governance remains significant compared to men especially in Africa. The causes for these setbacks include socio-economic and political reasons such as, the cultural settings and the political chauvinism in Africa.

Legitimacy of Democracy and the Apathy of the African Woman
It is normal that the majority should determine the pace and legitimacy of democracy. If all things be equal, women should have been more involved in democracy related discourse, more so that they would vote for their rightful place in the universe. Yet, the gender gap between the men and women in support of democratic governance is quite wide in Africa. Some imagine that the reasons could stem from: discrimination in the socio-political and economic machineries of some African nations, while others simply have seen it coming from the self-relegation of women which the long-time cultural practices have helped in behavioural patterns to mutate along the years, consequently victimizing them. It is not difficult to find women rejecting values of democracy and embracing dictatorship tendencies. Thus, women’s self- deterrence towards political careers may be inherent. Of cause, some people may not completely agree with this point of view and may concentrate on women’s population ratio of competence vis-à-vis men’s. According to Jordan Peterson(a Canadian clinical psychologist), be it within the matriarchal or patriarchal hierarchy, or even within professions women are more inclined to opt for professions or jobs that demands or require care such as the medical profession while men are more inclined to professions in the technological fields.

Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in more than 35 countries, reported in a survey that was carried out between 2012 and 2013 in Burundi, Mauritius, and Swaziland, that, in Burundi, 36% of females who were interviewed refused to subscribe to democracy as a better system of governance, compared to autocracy and other systems. In the same survey, the males who responded on the same line were about 16%. The group’s result in Swaziland showed that 61% women reject the notion of democracy as compared to 47% men. In Mauritius, the report showed that 17% of the women will not prefer a democratic leadership and 13% men were of the same view.

It is usually a human error to over protect what we already enjoy. Although this tendency may block us from exploiting or adventuring into other avenues, thereby causing stagnation, many people still would prefer to stay in the box. True freedom is gained when there is nothing to fear, hide, protect or defend as prescribed by one of America’s best transformational female coaches, Liza Nichols. Unfortunately, it takes education and serious persuasion for some to leave what is seemly good and dive into the unknown; yet, we have greater chances to meet the best part of who we are, only if we try. Just as many women fear the unknown and dare not venture into it, it is also evident that some men fear the unpredictable outcome of what women will become should they be left to exploit their full potentials. Even granted that, there are many women who just cannot dare to be different for the fear of what the outcome may look like in a society and governance that has been controlled by men for ages.

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When people are confronted with circumstances that may challenge their traditions, religious or cultural practices, and sometimes their nationalities, there easily can emerge within them sentiments and emotions to build strong resistance. The cultures in Africa that punish widows as though they are the ones who always kill their husbands is still practiced in many parts of the continent and in places like Burundi, the laws that protect widowers are discriminatory from those that are applied on widows, but it is also troubling to know that the application of most of these customary laws and the rituals that go with them, are applied on women by their fellow women rigidly and rigorously compared to the laissez faire attitude of the men on their fellow men (widowers). It is hoped that women’s apathy on freedom and democracy can be corrected through education, because the system by itself, has been designed to inflict a guilty conscience on a non-conformist of the set cultural practices, irrespective of how unfair some of these regulations may be to women.

An elaborate research work carried out by Christiana O. Ogbogu, PhD, at the Department of Public Administration, Faculty of Administration, at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in Nigeria indicated that, exclusion from informal political party networks; the problem of patriarchy and cultural barriers; the multiple roles of women; the lack of finance; the discriminatory education/training cultural tendencies; the lack of adequate mechanisms for monitoring electoral outcomes and protecting women’s mandate; and other problems like lack of mentors; religion; and biologically inherited weakness, all work against the rise of women to political greatness. Thus, only few women in Africa have been able to hit the political pinnacle required for one to be distinguished.

In Dr. Ogbogu’s research work, few interviews were conducted and while justifying exclusion from informal political party networks, one of the females who were interviewed during the research work, touched on the monetization and corruption of the political world as a big hindrance to female political aspirants. She said,

Men control state power and use the privilege in diverting funds in facilitating their political activities. Women lack access to such funds and they may not be inclined towards diverting state funds for personal use”.

Another respondent added that:
It is difficult for women to contest and win elections because politics is tied to ‘cash and carry’ arrangement whereby elections are won by the highest bidder. The electoral process ranging from party primaries, public campaigns, to the election process is monetized and this puts women on a disadvantaged position”.

It is amidst such conundrum and challenging circumstances that some African women arose and became forces to reckon with - the reason why we will always pay them our respect and tribute whether they are alive or dead. I have dedicated therefore, this chapter to pay special tribute and honour to some distinguished African women and how their achievements, have impacted freedom and democracy in their various countries in particular, and Africa at large. There are a handful of them whose love for humanity and/or the nature made them icons.

The list comprises: Dr. Esther Ocloo - an astute Ghanaian entrepreneur; H.E Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings - former first lady of Ghana; Professor Wangari Muta Maathai from Kenya - the first female Nobel Prize winner in the Sub-Saharan; Zenzile Miriam Makeba, popularly known as Mama Africa and H. E Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, both of South African descent, and some more.

Shaping democracy and economic development
Esther Ocloo
From a humble beginning, Esther Ocloo grew and blossomed into a distinguished Ghanaian entrepreneur. She owned several enterprises. Since the early days of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) headed by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, in the late fifties and early sixties, women’s role in shaping the political fate of Ghana has not been any less significant. According to Tsikata, (1999:75) and Manu (ibid: 109) who are cited in the research work of Beatrix Allah Mensah (2005,) “The women’s section of the CPP, was largely responsible for the development of women’s section or wings of the party and also for the organization of the youth league. The party leadership therefore took this initiative and effort seriously and institutionalized it by making constitutional provisions for a women’s league at branch and ward levels as the main organizing framework for women in the party. It was therefore not surprising that the party gave credit to the women for the internal solidarity, cohesion and success of the CPP. Manu records that women were efficient organizers who could bring thousands of people together for a rally at the shortest possible notice.”

The CPP regime of Nkrumah encouraged women’s participation in politics. This was evident in types of policies adopted as a form of encouragement for women’s participation in politics and public life. Women became members of parliament, deputy ministers and district commissioners not just by sympathy but through meritocracy. Beatrix agrees with this assertion in her reference to Tamele, (1999:23). She also wrote that, “In consonance with this, Ghana is noted as one of the first African countries to introduce a quota system for women in 1960. In that year, the CPP passed a law allowing for the nomination and election of ten women to the National Assembly.”

Aunty Ocloo’s appreciation of limited fund circulation in the hands of women propelled her to be in touch with women at grassroots level. She seemed to have understood this better than the government officials and this somehow, aroused women’s desire to be economically empowered. By virtue of her humble background, she was also realistic in her approach in dealing with the women, which could be one of the reasons for her great success. She initiated a program to generate small loans (micro lending) in order to stimulate businesses, especially among poor women. Through this program, she supported many women in the sixties and beyond. According to some reports, Esther Ocloo travelled abroad in 1956 to develop recipes for commercial canning, when it became evident that there was great discrimination on the consumption of locally produced goods because of packaging. One of her brands that have stood the test of time is palm oil and the palm wine.

Aunty Esther harnessed her experience to organize the first Made in Ghana exhibition in 1958, after bringing together Ghanaian local manufacturers into an association. Her activities lead to her being elected as the first President of the Federation of Ghana Industries in 1959 and subsequently becoming the first executive chair of the National Food and Nutrition Board in Ghana 1964. She went ahead to expand her activities into the tie and dye textile business in the mid part of the 1960s.

“From the 1970s onwards Ocloo worked at a national and international level in the economic empowerment of women where she was appointed as an adviser to the Council of Women and Development from 1976 to 1986. She was a member of Ghana's national Economic Advisory Committee from 1978 to 1979, and a member of the Council of State in the Third Republic of Ghana from 1979 to 1981; and advisor to the First World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975.

Aunty Esther Ocloo was a founding member and the first chairman of the Board of Directors of Women's World Banking from 1979 to 1985. The Women’s World Bank is a non-profit organization. She has provided support to women across 28 nations in the world. Although it is women focus, it also offers strategic, technical support and information to a global network of about 40 independent microfinance institutions and some few banks. The support is directed to encouraging these financial institutions to offer credit and other financial services to low-income entrepreneurs in the developing world. “It is the largest global network of microfinance institutions and banks in terms of number of clients, and the only one that explicitly designates poor women as the focus of its mission. ”

It is worth noting that Esther Ocloo was also:

  1. Member of advisory Board, Ghana Institute of Management and public administration (GIMPA), Ghana.
  2. Consultant to food and agricultural organization (FAO) of United Nations. Coordinator, Africa women in development- (1982-1987).
  3. Chairperson, UN Committee for international federation of business and professional women (IFBPW)-(1985-1989).
  4. 1st vice president, international federation of business and professional women – (1985-1987).
  5. Chairperson of project/committee. International Federation of Business and Professional women – (1987-1989); and 2nd vice president (IFBPW) 1987-1989.
  6. Consultant to UNIDO to develop (1) a training program for entrepreneurs in food processing industry. Vol. 1 and vol. 2. Training program for women, Workbook (1993).
  7. Member, council of appropriate technology international (ati), USA (1990) Direct, Advisory member on women Issues. Farm Implements and Tools (FIT) program, an International Labour organization ILO/Netherlands Government Programs to support indigenous technology capacity (1993). FIT is a Netherlands NGO promoting the type of packaging material and machinery required by women who wish to go into food processing industry, Member of board of trustees of the National Science and Technology Foundation (1994) Ghana.
  8. Member of board of trustees – state of the world forum (1996).
  9. President, United States African development consortium (USADC) .

The lists can go on and on. There is no doubt that she was one of the best examples of leadership trajectory in Africa, and worth emulating. Her legacies in the economic and political sectors should encourage many more young women in Africa into politics and business. However it prudent for especially young African women to be careful of money politics in the circles of political leadership and governance as money politics in Africa and the globe at large, is nothing short of a good recipe for future chaos and disaster; and it will not be long before we reap the fruits of the seeds we are presently sowing in the name of democracy. Aunty Esther Ocloo was a big inspiration for many young people at her time and it is possible that she influenced women of all ages and all classes and some vibrant women in our present dispensation

Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings
From 1966 until 1981, there was some kind of regression in the political participation of Ghanaian women in politics, and this was caused by the ousting of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and the uncertainty in the socio-political and the economic sectors of the nation for about 15 years, due to the fact that the military controlled power through series of coups. It is not surprising therefore that the military regimes did not consider encouraging women into politics. In her research work, “Women in Politics and Public life in Ghana,” Beatrix Allah Mensah (2005 ) notes that, “In fact, there is no record on any woman taking up or being offered any political position in any of the military regimes except the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) regime”. This is indicative of the fact that the military regimes in Ghana were not only averse to women’s political participation and contribution to public life but also largely inhibited women’s full contribution to the development of politics and administration regime.

The PNDC Era Which Span from 1981 to 1992 Made Strides to Change the Tendency
Mrs. Rawlings played a significant role, in the transformation of the Ghanaian politics and the life of women in the nation during that time through education, empowerment, career development and self-awareness, backed by legislative instruments.

A significantly influential women’s group which was championed by Mrs. Rawlings was the 31st December Women’s movement (DWM). It became a big force and was considered very significant in designing the socio-political and economic climate of women at that time; although it was apolitical. The group carried out activities that made them indispensable in shaping the new phase of history that Ghana was preparing to birth, after a long “labour period”, characterised by economic instability and coup d’états. The group was socioeconomically empowered by Mrs Rawlings and it impacted women across the nation, with simple economic activities like the manufacturing and running of garri processing machines and opening vocational centres for training women in different forms of trade.

The DWM empowered women to become part of the decision making process in their villages, and explained policies on health and education. It offered an adult literacy program to teach them to read and write. Early marriages among female children were discouraged and programs were offered on nutrition and immunization. In 1991, through the efforts of Nana Konadu, Ghana became the first nation to approve the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child in Africa.

Through the women group, Mrs. Rawlings played an important role in the adoption of an "Intestate Succession Law," which is applicable to the survivors of anyone who dies without leaving behind a will. Prior to this law, Ghanaian women had little or no rights of inheritance upon the death of their husbands. The new law would subsequently give provision for criterion of inheritance .

This DWM that many have nicknamed, the Mrs. Rawlings’ movement also carried out educational program to teach women how to become involved in the national electoral process. While reminiscing on some practical actions on the group, she stated that "…literally just pounded it into them” (the 31st December women Movement,) “until they realized, hey, we don't want any of these people who are living outside our areas to come and stand in our areas to be elected,”

On the same report, Mrs. Rawlings confirmed that,
"A lot of women are now on committees in their villages and districts; some are chairing the committees.... I can only say we've made a lot of impact, and I can see from the self-esteem and near arrogance of the women, that now we've actually been able to break through this thick wall." (Morden Ghana in 2014)

The government of Rawlings saw the need for Affirmative Action and created an enabling environment for women to be represented in the constitutional council. Although women participation did not produce the results that some women and even men were expecting per the constitution, the quota at least asserted and assured women that their place in the birth of the new political dispensation for Ghana was guaranteed. From that moment up until now, women’s participation in politics has been increasing although critics still complain that, it doesn’t meet the recommendation of the Beijing Conference. “According to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) women’s liberation and their full contribution on the grounds of parity, in all spheres of influence of society, consisting of membership in decision making approaches and access to supremacy are important for the accomplishment of parity, growth and peace. ”

It is a historical fact that, Mrs. Rawlings worked relentlessly to help in the formation of the NDC party, a metamorphosis of the PNDC. Now, under the Fourth Republic, more dynamism and branding was needed to face competition in what was going to become the most advanced democracy in Sub-Sahara Africa. The logo of the party even today reminds each one of the spirit of this great mother. She was instrumental in the development and production of the logo.

In 2010, the NDC party was plagued with serious corruption allegation from various corridors, just a couple of months after the induction of Professor John Evans Atta Mills to power. This was having serious effects on the party and the nation; yet, the ruling government was adamant and could not employ the accurate strides to adequately curb the trend.

In July 2011, the primaries to select a flag bearer for the NDC were organized at Sunyani, the capital town of the Brong Ahafo Region. The Congress would mark a new dispensation in the politics of the NDC party. The election results of the polls at the Sunyani Congress were shocking. High jinks of money politics and the “Fear Factor” were used to describe the results of the elections - a two edge strategy to intimidate and to win over by the camp of Professor Atta Mills. Mrs. Rawlings would create the new political party – the National Democratic Party in July 2012, and became the first woman in the history of Ghana to form a political party and consequently the first female to run presidential candidature on the ticket of NDP-twic, but without the desired result.

As the first woman to successfully create a political party and subsequently running for presidential flag bearer ship, will be remembered as a shrewd politician, a distinguished patriot, a great writer and above all, an outspoken woman in the political trajectory of Africa. In December 2018, she published her memoire titled, “It takes a woman.” It truly takes a woman extraordinaire to tread the path that J.J Rawlings trod.

Professor Wangari Muta Maathai
Maathai, a renowned heroine known around the globe as the first African woman to be honoured with the Noble Peace Prize, was the founder of the Green Belt Movement in 1977. The movement, an environmental non-governmental organization was aimed at planting trees and promoting environmental conservation. She was however well known due to her activism and women's rights.

Zenzile Miriam Makeba
Nicknamed Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba was a South African singer, a songwriter, an actress, a United Nations’ goodwill ambassador, and a civil-rights activist. Her musical genres were Afropop, jazz and world music, she strongly advocated against apartheid hegemony in South Africa; her music and political views greatly influenced the youth and her contemporaries. Her music flavour and dance pattern popularly known as patapata, had a hold on fashion design as well. Her activism made her an enemy of the apartheid regime. Her activities influenced men all across the continent and beyond. She featured in a Hollywood movie, Sarafina, in 1992 that was based on aspiration of Black South African for freedom.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Apart from being the wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie was also OLS (Order of Lithuli Silver division honoree) MP from 1994-2003 and from 2009 until she died in April 2018. She was a strong activist against the white dominated apartheid regime for a long time, until its fall in 1989.

This list will do injustice to African womem if it doesn’t include those who are presently on the field and some other few who had taken a pause in the writing of their legacies, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. Africa saw in 2006, for the first time, a female president through the lens of democracy and re-elected to serve a second term in 2011. She would give way for others to climb to the corridor of power without being a stumbling block to their dreams in 2016 – a sharp contrast with some of the “democratic dictators”, who find all the means possible to be “super glued” on presidential seats by amending voting terms in the constitution, in the name of polling stations and voting exercises; even when facts are far from being truth. Some other living female legends in the political arena are: Joice Mujuru of Zimbabwe, Sophia Abdi Noor – Kenya, Alengot Oromait – Uganda, Mbali Ntuli – South Africa, Aja Fatoumata Jallow- Tambajang – Gambia, and Adeola Fayehun of Nigeria.

The impact of most of these African women on the socio-economic and political scene on the continent cannot be overemphasized. They have become models for many other women and young girls. Although there is still much to put in all wise, the trend is encouraging. Hopefully the younger female generation that is exposed to different forms of communication tools will use the gadgets adequately to increase parity between men and women in every sector of national development.