Two years into the African Union’s Women’s Decade, we see two powerful women as Heads of State in Liberia and Malawi: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, reelected for a second term in 2011; and President Joyce Banda of Malawi, sworn in on April 7, 2012. Paving the way for millions of women and girls, the two leaders have announced their continued commitment to advancing women’s rights across the continent. “The two of us have great strength. Together, we can do more to empower women and ensure that women’s role in society is enhanced,” said Sirleaf.
After years of working with and for women leaders across the world, it is clear to Vital Voices that women possess a unique leadership style. As leaders dedicated to their community, women work collaboratively, using their vast networks to affect social change despite all odds. “African women lead in a style that demonstrates such innovation, such a high level of persuasion, such a high degree of tolerance and patience,” said entrepreneur and activist Eva Muraya, who co-founded the Kenya Association of Women Business Owners, a Kenya partner of the Africa Businesswomen’s Network. “Women will be collaborators; women will say sit with us at the table.” Women leaders take their power and use it to help others; they pay it forward.
Both Banda and Sirleaf have appointed more women to senior cabinet and ministry positions, and are working to reduce maternal mortality and sexual and gender-based violence. They have, and will, continue to focus not only on the plight of women in their countries, but all citizens. Accordingly, these women leaders are making efforts to improve the overall health of Liberia and Malawi, while also aiming to reduce corruption and increase government transparency. It is a daunting task.
Much like Banda and Sirleaf, Vital Voices identifies and works with women leaders, who are working equally hard to promote women’s political participation. Hafsat Abiola-Costella, Nigerian human rights, civil rights and democracy activist, is one such example. As founder of the Kuridat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), Hafsat works to nurture young women’s interest in politics by providing them with support they need to succeed. KIND’s 30 by 15 Campaign, launched in 2006, has increased the public awareness of women politicians, built a network of 120 young women interested and politics, and offered political education workshops to women interested in running for office.
In Zimbabwe, we’ve seen similar work at the Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU). WIPSU supports women elected into public office to strengthen their leadership skills, build their confidence, and facilitate information and knowledge exchange. They also provide technical support for women in decision-making positions, as well as in identifying and grooming future women political leaders.
In Uganda we see even more women working at the grassroots level to advance women’s political involvement. Action for Development (ACFODE) has worked with local councilors to enable both men and women leaders to provide quality service delivery, with an added emphasis on gender equality and gender sensitive policies and legislation.
Why do we see so many of these organizations focusing on involving women in decision-making, public service and leadership? Because they know what we know: the more we see women involved in powerful leadership roles , the more positive social, economic and political change we will see across the continent and the world. Not to mention, women’s leadership is not a new concept for Africa; though often times silenced by history writers, African women have historically filled leadership roles. “It’s something we’ve had in our tradition and our roots,” said Kah Walla, Cameroonian entrepreneur, political leader, and activist.
As Sirleaf sees it, “Women have stronger commitment. They work harder. They’re honest, and the experience justifies it.”
Recently, Vital Voices hosted a panel discussion, “When Women Lead Africa,” with African women from the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network. View the live stream recording on UStream.
Miriam Kirubel is the Program Assistant for the Vital Voices Africa program.