Did you hear about the United Nations request for an investigation into reports that hundreds of women refugees from Angola into the Democratic Republic of Congo were subjected to sexual abuse? It was just revealed a couple of weeks ago, but it may have faded into the many reports of sexual violence against African women you hear all too often.
The status of women in Africa is a series of paradoxes. On the one hand, women have an exalted role as mothers and nurturers of their families. On the other hand, they are not accorded many of the economic rights women have in other parts of the world and are still forced into marriages and subject to female circumcisions. Women and their children are the main victims of the various wars and civil conflicts in Africa, but they are historic peace makers, leading efforts to end these conflicts. In African countries with the most diamonds, oil, gold and other mineral resources, such as Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and others, women are at their most vulnerable. Women comprise an estimated 70% of economic activity in Africa countries, but they only own an estimated two percent of the land.
There are prominent women in Africa, such as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Zimbabwe Vice President Joice Mujuru, as well as numerous female ministers. There is World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. There is Kenyan Nobel prize winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai. One might think from their examples that the status of Africa women has taken a great leap forward. Unfortunately, these women are the exceptions to the rule for most women in Africa, who live busy lives building their families and their societies with little of the help one would expect for the glue that holds Africa together.
There is a saying: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” True though it has always been, even in the developed world, women had to struggle to achieve equal rights to men. Actually, it took the suffrage movement and the factories that were needed to feed the war effort in the 1940s to open the door that allowed women to break free from limited life choices. Still, that liberation did not spread to women in African countries, which for the most part remained as European colonies. While their sisters in Europe and North America had a choice as to the direction in which their lives would flow, African women continued to toil on with no discernable difference in how they could shape their futures.
Thomas Sankara, the late Pan-African theorist and military President of Burkina Faso, once said, “I can hear the roar of women’s silence.” Without being prompted by women demonstrating or boycotting, Sankara made adult education mandatory for rural women in his country. He was the first African leader to appoint women to government positions, including cabinet posts. He banned forced female circumcision, forced marriage and polygamy. Unfortunately, his Marxist ideology discredited his views generally among the Western governments who should have supported his enlightened position on equality for women. When he was assassinated in a coup, his policies were almost all reversed, including the status of women. Today, Burkinabe women are ruled by tradition and unprotected by constitutional law.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International reported that discrimination against women in Burkina Faso was responsible for a high rate of maternal death during pregnancy and childbirth because they were unable to access adequate health care. This situation is not confined to Burkina Faso, though. A thousand women in the world die each day from pregnancy-related causes, and 570 of them are African. While these deaths are preventable, they are not prevented. Reducing maternal mortality was one of the Millennium Development Goals, yet the level of African maternal mortality is actually rising.
African women more than carry their share of society’s burden and should be assisted far more than they usually are. The light of hope in this situation stems from those women who have broken through to become leaders in their countries and internationally. It also lies in the young men who have been educated to see beyond the boundaries of the culture in which they and their ancestors were reared.
We are entering the second decade of the 21st century, and communications technology allows us all to see how life is lived throughout our world. Even rural women in Africa are seeing past the limits placed on them by societies holding desperately onto the past. Young women on the continent will not be held back by the conventions of the past, and young African men are increasing less willing to try to hold them back.
There was a time in many societies on the continent before the colonial powers took control that African women and men had an equitable distribution of responsibility and walked side by side in partnership. Perhaps history is about to repeat itself – albeit in a more modern way.