KIRUKU: Tired of Africa’s big men? Roll out the red carpet for Wanjiku!
Theresa May, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Simonetta Sommaruga, Angela Merkel and coming soon: Hillary Clinton. Take it or leave it, a paradigm shift is quietly taking place across the world. But East Africa had better watch out, for this list is incomplete without a Wanjiku, Namusisi or Kibibi.
There is today greater acceptance of women leadership in world affairs. Still, while Western nations can boast of a long list of female heads of government, Africa can only speak of one: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. The continent therefore has a long way to go in so far as accepting women leaders is concerned.
Although women have made great strides in obtaining a voice and even getting elected to various political offices in many countries, they comprise less than 15 per cent of the Members of Parliament and less than 5 per cent of heads of state worldwide. They also hold only a fraction of other leadership positions regionally and internationally.
The British have shown the way, this being the second time that a woman is holding the position of Prime Minister. After the incredible feat of having its first black president, America seems headed to make history once again by having its first woman president. It is therefore an opportune time for citizens in the region to reconsider their hard stance and biases against having women leaders at the helm.
Even though Rwanda has led the way when it comes to female leaders, no Rwandan woman has given the presidency a shot – for the obvious reason that nobody can dare oppose President Paul Kagame.
Indeed, men continue to dominate the political, economic, social and religious realms throughout the region. The political aspirations, achievements, and roles of women in society are hardly ever recognised or acknowledged. The limited affirmative action has been insufficient, and women deserve to be further empowered by according them due status, rights, and responsibilities to enable them participate actively in decision making at the highest political level.
But female leaders currently occupying key positions must work extra hard to gain the respect and admiration of their constituencies. Women cannot afford to rely solely on affirmative action; they must prove themselves and make a difference wherever they are given the opportunity. This is the only way, eventually, to break through the glass ceiling and achieve as much as our sisters in the West.
Cultural and gender stereotyping have done enormous damage in the region and in Africa as a whole. Socio-cultural beliefs, attitudes, biases and stereotypes are major barriers that hinder women from pursuing elective positions. Another formidable barrier is the institutional framework guiding gender division of labour, recruitment, and vertical mobility. Current reports show that women are particularly disadvantaged, with their labour often under-valued and under-utilized.
A large majority of Africans still hold that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and any woman who seeks to scale the heights of political leadership is quickly labelled unprintable names. Most of the continent is deeply patriarchal, where men believe that they are the ordained and authorised leaders, a misconception that is fueled by popular interpretations of Christian and Islamic scriptures.
Moreover, the failure of any woman in a leadership position more often than not leads to stereotyping of women as inefficient, incompetent, arrogant, and unaccountable. Terms such as “moody”, “emotional” and “unreasonable” are used to unfairly describe female leaders. All these are tactics by male chauvinists to deny women their rightful positions in leadership.
Women, therefore, have a duty to excel, rise above petty politics and ensure their performance is above reproach; setting a high bar that puts them at par with their male counterparts or even surpasses them is a sure way to silence critics and attract greater support for their cause.
In order to encourage women leaders to arise, political parties must make the road to elective positions easier for female aspirants. Subsidising application fees and offering incentives to female candidates will go a long way in encouraging potential female leaders.
During political campaigns, women aspirants are subjected to humiliating abuses and ridicule by their male colleagues. This culture must be discouraged, with perpetrators made to feel the shame and even prosecution. Political parties, law enforcement agents and electoral authorities must ensure that uncouth practices and language are deleted from our region’s political cultures and lexicon.
The media, too, must become a major partner in the war on gender stereotypes. In addition, empowerment means that constitutional provisions and laws that provide for affirmative action and rights are implemented to the letter. These and similar measures will pave the way for women to ascend to become heads of state in the region soon, hopefully in our lifetimes.
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