10 years ago, 192 world leaders signed up to the 8 Millennium Development Goals that would facilitate the narrowing of economic and social gaps prevalent in developing countries. The African continent is widely regarded as the last frontier for wholesome development, and it is here that accelerated progress is most needed. The MDG's can be viewed as strict targets, or as I see them, laying the foundation for credible and irreversible change in how societies exist. The third MDG, “Promote Gender Equality and empower women”, is one that has taken on a very interesting trajectory on the 53 country continent.
Women are being empowered more in Africa than at any other time in recent history. Whilst there have been heads of State in the past such as Queen Nefertiti in the Egyptian Kingdom (1370-1330BC) or Princess Amina of Hausaland in what is now Nigeria (1576-1610AD), post-colonially, women have had to take the back-seat politically. Many of the liberation movements that attained independence were male orientated, and hence women were never seen as worthy of the top jobs. However history was made in 2005, Liberia elected its first female president in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,, the first modern democratically elected female head of State in Africa. The fact she also defeated legendary soccer player (African, European and FIFA World Player of the Year 1995) in George Weah to the job makes the achievement even greater. Under her administration, Liberia has averaged 8.1% GDP growth from 2006-2008, been able to renegotiate key trade deals such as on rubber with Firestone, and inspired British legislation against vulture funds, that will not only help Liberia, but all developing countries.
The MDG's also look to increase the participation of women in politics, calling for more representation in parliament. The global average of women in parliament stands at 23% in the developed world and 17% in the developing world. Rwanda then has to be regarded as the standard bearer, constitutionally, 30% of seats in parliament are reserved for women, yet in the 2008 parliamentary elections, 45 women were elected into the 80 seat chamber, a stunning 56% of the House. This has translated to 30% of the cabinet being women, including key posts such as Foreign Affairs (Louise Mushikiwabo) and the portfolio for East African Affairs (Monique Mukaruliza) going to women.
The example of Liberia electing a female president came from the sterling work undertaken by Women of Liberia Mass Action For Peace. Following the outbreak of Second Liberian Civil War in 1999, that saw women bear the brunt of hostilities through rape and extra care for children, the women of Liberia united under one banner, both Christians and Muslims, to demonstrate against violence and to get the warring factions to negotiate and sign a peace deal. They held non violent protests outside the palace of former president, Charles Taylor, and eventually he succumbed to their protests, granting them a face to face meeting, where he promised to attend peace talks in Ghana, and later the women travelled to Ghana and 'locked in' the belligerents in the hotel for hours until they signed a deal. These events were captured in the brilliant documentary, Pray The Devil Back To Hell.
The Liberian experience has inspired other women on the continent to lobby for change, activist group The Women's Development Organization in Kenya denied men their marital rights until the Kenyan coalition government made progress on the reforms required and to prevent bloody violence that griped the country after the 2007 election. In Zimbabwe, the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) coalition who have bravely stood up to oppression and at times severe beatings to demand that the voice of women be heard and respected have stated the Liberian women are their inspiration.
Women in the past have also been discriminated against, many denied a formal education and hence kept in less lucrative jobs. Research has shown women have a lower propensity to spend household income on non-essentials compared to men, and this has seen women being favoured before men in micro-credit schemes. Firms such as the Finance Trust (formerly Uganda Women Finance Trust) in Uganda have targeted women for loans as they have a higher repayment rate than men, and there are also mechanisms within co-ops that see women club in together a pool of finance that only women can have access to, so that risks are minimized and there is a camaraderie between the women to repay back what they have loaned from the common pool.
The MDG statistics pertaining to MDG3 in Africa may not point towards much progress, however there are still big strides being taken forward, and these are the ones that cannot be reversed (in opposition to school enrolment that may be dependent on incomes and government spending). As part of this platform, it would be interesting to hear of progress being made on other continents in relation to this MDG.
Stanley is an economist with degrees from SOAS and UCL (London) with experience in international agencies. He founded the website DevelopmentAfrique.com as a platform to explore all the development issues and themes that affect the 53 country continent. DevelopmentAfrique.com acts as an educational guide to those unacquainted with Africa in general, to offering professional consultancy reports for agencies and business firms. You can read more at http://www.developmentafrique.com .