Breaking barriers: Transformative women leaders pioneering change and progress for gender equality in Africa

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Editor's note:

This viewpoint is part of Foresight Africa 2024.

Politics, the state, nationalism, and the army are fundamentally masculine notions. They are characterized by patriarchal practices and values that are not easily changed. Sheila Meintjes describes how in South Africa women have been identified as “mothers of the nation.” However, national discourse has been framed within patriarchal boundaries, while women’s practical involvement was mainly centered on motherhood responsibilities and safeguarding the family.

For the last three decades, women have repeatedly called for the “full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action… [as] essential to achieving the internationally agreed development goals.” To date, four World Conferences on women organized by the United Nations have been held—Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). Since the Beijing conference in 1995, the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly and the Commission on the Status of Women have held several sessions to review the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020). On the policy front, African women have advocated and successfully lobbied for the adoption and ratification of instruments such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the International Conference on Population Development Programme of Action, to name a few. What is worth celebrating, however, is the development of strong women leaders and feminist platforms across the African continent in the past four decades.

The emergence and growth of the number of women leaders in Africa—particularly successes in political representation and monumental policy achievements—has sustained momentum.

African women leaders have played a key role in challenging gender inequalities by advocating for better policy interventions to arrest the intersecting forms of discrimination women face. These varying but interrelated forms of discrimination result in deeply entrenched inequalities often rendered invisible by aggregated data. African women have used constitutionalism, the rule of law, human rights, and justice and freedom narratives reminiscent of Africa’s anticolonial struggles as premises for combating the struggles enabled by international, continental, regional, and national legal frameworks. Women’s struggle for justice, equal human rights, and dignity have straddled ideological divides and various epistemological lenses, including the Pan-Africanist, nationalist, anti-imperial, left-wing, liberal, and feminist traditions. Further, women’s challenges persist and are actively fought in various settings, in institutions, boardrooms, slums and villages, and in virtual spaces using various tools, tactics, and strategies. These obstacles are multifaceted: occurring at the local, continental, and global levels and spanning the environmental, social, political, economic, and technological.

There is a need to reflect critically on the role of women leaders in Africa in accelerating progress toward gender equality, peace, positioning, and sustainability.

Over the years, women have made several attempts to challenge gendered obstacles on the continent. In numerous precolonial African societies, such as those in Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana, women consistently held pivotal roles in leadership and peace processes, addressing a diverse array of challenges and concerns impacting the welfare of their communities. Their involvement showcased their distinct perspectives and active contributions toward the advancement of women’s roles in leadership positions, peace processes, economic growth, poverty eradication, prosperity and unity, and challenged the notion that women were solely passive victims. This pattern endures today, as women on the continent continue to strategically involve themselves in addressing a wide range of challenges and societal issues including the economy, peace, governance, environment, and political leadership.

In Sierra Leone, for instance, women leaders played a significant role in rebuilding the country at the end of the civil war two decades ago. Female peacebuilders contributed to achieving lasting peace, enabling the country’s return to civilian rule and democratic elections. Thanks to their tireless advocacy efforts, groups such as the Women’s Forum and the Movement for Peace, among others, forced the government and warring factions to step down from their entrenched positions and worked toward a negotiated settlement.

The role of women leaders in promoting peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda spotlighted the significance of women’s participation in peace processes through community-based activities and advocacy campaigns. Women took to the streets, advocating for an end to violence, engaging with government officials, and documenting instances of abuse perpetrated by the Ugandan military. Their efforts garnered global awareness for the conflict. Additionally, they played a crucial role in backing initiatives for the recovery of cultural institutions to facilitate community reconciliation and the successful reintegration of former combatants.

Driven by a long-term vision of achieving social justice for women, women leaders have proven to be resilient and flexible, adapting to new or emerging issues and adopting varying strategies as the context requires. Constitutional reform and corresponding women’s efforts in Mali, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania are examples of real transformative interventions by women leaders and collectives in Africa.

Despite progress in policy development for the women, peace, economic, and security agendas, significant social barriers persist impeding women’s participation in traditionally male-dominated spaces and limiting the agenda’s implementation. The 2021 Peace Talks Report revealed the continued exclusion of women from peace negotiations in various conflict zones such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Tigray conflict. While women often serve as critical community mediators, addressing various conflicts at the grassroots level through mechanisms such as FemWise, the overarching need remains to fully include women’s voices at all levels of governance and peace processes, from local to global.

The hard-won generational gains on women’s participation in civic spaces are being reversed around the globe against the backdrop of the challenging and unstable world occasioned by multiple crises including numerous military coups from the Sahel region to Sudan as well as the outbreak of conflict in Ethiopia, the invasion of Ukraine, and the largest refugee crisis since the second World War, which are slowly paving way to a resurgence of “gender apartheid.”

Women cannot effectively take their seat at decisionmaking tables if they are absent in labor markets, fail to benefit equally from technological advancements, lack access to health care, and are under constant threat of gender-based violence. There is still a lot of work required as far as the struggle for gender equality in Africa is concerned regarding the role of women leaders. Hence, there is a need to reflect critically on the role of women leaders in Africa in accelerating progress toward gender equality, peace, positioning, and sustainability, given the new threats and challenges arising from the volatile, unpredictable, and ambiguous global and continental political economy of development governance.

For the gains made to be put on track, we need women to continue to demand and take an active role in advocating for the increase of female representation in leadership and political spheres from the village to the parliamentary level while fostering discussion within public and political bodies about women’s leadership and establishing benchmarks to assess the influence and impact of women’s participation in leadership and ensure accountability.

Looking ahead, women leaders in Africa have a promising future. Collaborative efforts, including partnerships with governments, civil society organizations, and international actors, will be crucial for sustaining progress and achieving gender equality. Addressing systemic barriers, promoting inclusive policies, and investing in women’s education, health, and economic empowerment will be vital steps towards a more equitable Africa.

In conclusion, women leaders in Africa have made significant strides in recent years, raising awareness, driving legal reforms, and advocating for women’s empowerment and equality. While challenges persist, women leaders in Africa continue to manifest in the form of women’s collectives, movements, faith-based institutions, community, and grassroots collectives, among others, and provide hope for a future where African women can fully enjoy their rights, participate in decisionmaking, and thrive in all aspects of life.

Let us fortify a joint commitment to creating a world where women stand as equals in decisionmaking spheres, where their contributions are valued and integrated, and where their leadership paves the way for a more peaceful, just, and prosperous future for Africa.