Tuesday, November 24, 2009

African Women Receiving Their Due

This will be the last column in November because of the Thanksgiving holiday and my participation in an election observation in Equatorial Guinea, which I expect to report on next week.

The African woman survives despite the overwhelming odds against her. They are the backbone of African economies, comprising an estimated 70% of informal economies, which typically are more than two-thirds of the entire economy in African countries. She is the primary producer of agricultural products, which are the overwhelming non-oil product in Africa and operates as the primary seller of those products. African women also play a major role in many peace-making and peace-maintaining efforts on the ground.

However, African women also bear the brunt of conflict, becoming the overwhelming percentage of victims of rape and death. Maternal death rates and the rate of women suffering serious complications during pregnancy in Africa remain among the highest in the world. The global economic crisis has especially limited the ability of African women to accumulate capital for business and has lessened their household incomes.

Still, African women overcome. After failing in her first attempt to win the presidency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected woman President in Africa. Countries such as Gambia (Aja Isatou-Njie-Saidy) and Zimbabwe (Joice Majuru) have female Vice-Presidents, and women hold senior government positions in other African countries, including Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament. The previous tendency to limit women politicians to heading women’s departments or other social service posts is disappearing.

In 2000, the United Nations approved Resolution 1325, which recognized the important role African women are playing in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and the pursuit of enduring peace. A recently-launched initiative calls for African women to receive a collective Nobel Peace Prize for their work in preserving the peace in some of Africa’s most difficult situations.

The 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award was just given to Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) for their leadership of an organization that has led the fight against the tyrannical rule of President Robert Mugabe. Often WOZA was the only organization with the courage to stand up for their rights, shaming male opposition leaders in Zimbabwe. As President Barack Obama said at the awards ceremony, “They have been gassed, abducted, threatened with guns, and badly beaten – forced to count out loud as each blow was administered. Three thousand WOZA members have spent time in custody or in prison, sometimes dragged with their babies into cells.”

Mahlangu, who has been arrested 30 times in the last seven years for peaceful protests, told the award audience: “These arrests to do deter us because WOZA has empowered us to believe that we deserve better. We deserve to have a roof over our head, food in our stomachs, our children in schools and the nation working.”

While not always as noted, many women have been at the forefront of the struggle for peace and justice in Africa – from Zainab Bangura in Sierra Leone to Martha Karua in Kenya. In fact, so many African women have played a critical role in peace and justice movements all across Africa that the collective Nobel Peace Prize makes a lot of sense.

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