Women’s leadership and gendered rise of Africa: Some reflections

BY: Nana Oye Lithur / Daily Graphic / Ghana

Excerpt of an address delivered by Nana Oye Lithur, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, at the investiture of the 13th President of the Association of Professional Engineers in Nigeria on February 13, 2014.

I share in Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people”. There are different types and styles of leaders and leadership.

Some simply go through the processes  and others make change happen. Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, was a leader who made change happen by achieving the independence of Africa. As more women get elected and appointed into public office, what will our leadership be like? What legacy will we leave behind and what will and should we be remembered for?

I have some thoughts on leadership because of my experiences as a women and human rights lawyer/campaigner in Ghana for over one-and-a-half decades, and now as a Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection.  As an African woman and a feminist, born, bred and educated in Africa, I have been heavily influenced by a remarkable American woman. I bought two volumes of her biography from a charity shop in London a few years ago and read her life story.

Human rights campaigner

She was the American reformist, human rights campaigner and activist, Eleanor Roosevelt (ER), who ‘worked vigorously on behalf of every major reform issue.”  The best thing that could ever have happened to me last year was the invitation to speak to students at Val-Kill, the residence of Eleanor Roosevelt, on the December 10, 2013, international Human Rights Day.

Until her death, ER was committed to a liberal vision. In her personal and political journey, she addressed the most controversial issues of the state, made noblest values seem politically achievable and believed in the power of people and the power of ideas to transform the society. For her, social change required that ideas should be faced with imagination, integrity and courage.

This is a historical pilgrimage of strength, valour, courage and emotions which we, as women leaders, should chart. Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal and political life experiences resonate with me and highlight the feminine bonds that we share as women  across Ghana, the borders of West Africa and across the continents. 

Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is set to grow by around 5.5 per cent in 2014, faster than any other region in the world. How do African women play a pivotal role in this economic progression? How will it change our lives?  As women leaders, how will we lead in harnessing energies to be part of this historical economic progression in Africa? How will the other half live?

I place my discussion on the genderised rise of Africa within a historical context of the origins of the gender rise in the United States of America.

Global Women’s Rights Movements

This year marks the 166th anniversary of the Global Women’s Rights Movements. One hundred and sixty-six years ago, women fought for civil rights for women in the United States. It started with an afternoon tea party hosted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her four female friends and ended up with the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Stanton and adopted at the Wesleyan Chapel, Seneca Falls, from July 19 to 20, 1848. It stated thus:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; that amongst these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”

While the women in America were having tea and starting the suffragette movement to agitate for political rights of women to be respected, Nana Yaa Asantewaa, a Ghanaian heroine, had already realised her political rights and was leading men and women to fight for the survival of the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana from British colonial rule. Critical lesson for women leaders of the modern day is that she made change happen.

Yaa Asantewaa was the leader and commander-in-chief of the Ashanti independence war. Her hometown, Ejisu, was the headquarters of the war. She appointed chief commanders and captains. Her imprisonment marked the end of the Yaa Asantewaa War. She was sent to exile in Seychelles by the British where she died. 

I recall the story of my own paternal grandmother, an active women’s leader of Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP), during the struggle for independence. She was called Elisabeth Naryea Mensah - also an illiterate. She played a key role in the party and organised women to feed the political detainees, including Kwame Nkrumah. She was, therefore, honoured by Kwame Nkrumah with a visit to her house when he was released from prison. There, talcum powder was sprinkled on him by my grandmother and she also poured libation thanking the ancestral gods for his release.

 I was overwhelmed by the news that my own grandmother was a political activist and it reinforced the genderised nature and marginalisation of political participation of women in Ghana, to an extent that the historical accounts of our political struggle for independence largely ignore ‘her stories’ and the contribution of women to our independence.

Women leaders

As women leaders, how will we ensure that the voice and story of women across the sectors are heard?

As I flipped through the Economist on my flight to New York in December last year, I was struck by the picture of Beth Wangari, a Kenyan female farmer, featured in an advert on agricultural technology. As an African female farmer, Beth is representing the millions of smallholder farmers producing over 25 per cent of the world’s food supply. She is your typical African woman.

As an African woman, she represents two thirds of illiterate adults worldwide, her child may be the one out of nine African children to die from infant related diseases before age five. Her daughter may be one of the 61 per cent of young women who lack basic reading and writing skills globally.

But, the fortunes of Africans are changing and it is a positive change. The UN Millennium Development Goals Report of 2012 clearly demonstrates this exciting outlook. The question is how will we as women leaders sustain and influence this change?

We are achieving universal primary education. The Africa regional percentage of female parliamentarians has risen from 13 in 2000 to 21 in 2012. Globally, maternal mortality is reducing and reducing in Africa, maternal mortality has reduced by two thirds on our continent. 

What does this mean and what do these gains and challenges translate into for African women? How will these influence a greater decision-making role in the household for women, greater political space, more women in our boardrooms and an increased number of literate women? Will it reduce harmful traditional practices?

Can we say that in the second decade of the 21st century, we are finally getting or not getting a place at the table? We all celebrated the election and swearing in of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the President of Liberia and first female president of an African state in 2005. Joyce Banda, ‘JB,’ has been elected as first female President of Malawi. Elections across Africa, Europe and Latin America have seen a new wave of female presidents. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,  Joyce Banda, Michele Barchelet in Chile, Angela Merkel of Germany and - the latest - Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic.

African female parliamentarians

The rate of African female parliamentarians in sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing in the world, with the regional average increasing from 13 per cent  in 2000 to 21 per cent in 2012. We all celebrate the success story of women in politics in Rwanda, a country emerging from conflict with 48 per cent representation of women in its Parliament.  Presently, Rwanda tops the Inter Parliamentary Union league table with the highest number of female parliamentarians globally. 

In Ghana, women constitute 20 per cent of our Cabinet. They hold Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Justice, Education, Health, Transport, Tourism and Gender portfolios. We also have a female Chief Justice. Women occupy the chair of our National Commission on Civic Education, Director General of Prisons as well as the Controller and Accountant General’s Department. Women have held other top positions including the Inspector General of Police, Immigration Services and Speaker of Parliament.

Looking into the future, is this the changing phase of women in leadership in Africa? For women, increased leadership in Africa will not happen as a consequence of a miracle. Deliberate steps have to be taken; laws have to be enacted, and affirmative action laws need to be adopted to achieve an equitable balance. Unless women are given a critical voice in leadership by increasing their numbers and participation, their interest will not be given due consideration.

Africa is progressing steadily in the right direction. We will join hands to ensure that this rise and progress is genderised.

 As we continue serving our nation, we are reminded of timeless advice that Eleanor Roosevelt offered to women working in political leadership in 1936:

“You cannot take anything personally,

You cannot bear grudges

You cannot get discouraged too easily

You have to take defeat over and over again and pick up and go on

Women who are willing to be leaders must stand up and be shot at

Every political woman needs to “develop skin as tough as rhinoceros’ hide”

These are words I share with all women leaders as we continue our journey of service to Mother Ghana and Africa.