Women represent Africa's best hope

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. FILE|AFRICA REVIEW 

Many African women had mixed emotions last week. It started the previous weekend with the death of Prof Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement, and ended on Friday with the announcement that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had won the same award for 2011 along with peace activist Leymah Gbowee and democracy activist Tawakkol Karman of Yemen.

Ms Sirleaf and Gbowee have fought hard for peace following a brutal 20-year war in Liberia, while Karman started her campaign for democracy and civil rights long before the so-called Arab Spring, for which she now provides a powerful moral symbol.

In its citation, the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee said it was awarding the 2011 Peace Prize jointly to the three women for their struggle for women's safety and women's full participation in peace-building work. It's easy to understand why the award was long overdue.

A reporter friend of mine in Monrovia, Julie Gipwola, told me that the head of a prominent civil rights organization in Liberia complained to her that the timing of the award was wrong. "Why did it have to be two Liberian women?" she heard people say. "One could have been a man. Already we have had enough with women!"

Partners in leadership

Some of that negativity may be blamed on the fact that Ms Sirleaf is involved in a tough re-election campaign, and her detractors don't want to grant her credit, but a great deal of it has to do with the attitudes of men in general and the role of women in African and Arabian societies. It shows just how far we are from full appreciation of women's rights. African women have been neglected for too long and so we need to wake up to their plight.

Last spring, during the revolution that resulted in the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an NPR correspondent reported that women were matching along with men in a show of people power. They stood together in Tahir Square and endured brutality at the hands of police but refused to give in until Mubarak left power unceremoniously.

Soon after, however, the Egyptian men refused to admit that women were equal partners in leadership, and a few of them said a woman would never be elected president of Egypt one day. To them, women are good only for procreation and taking care of household chores, as well documented in Nawal el Saadawi's books.

Yet, women have been and will continue to be the backbone of the African society. They take care of their families, till the land, fetch firewood, and have increasingly proved to be better leaders at local and national levels. African women leaders care more about development of their communities than their male colleagues.

New-found fame

The continent if full of male leaders who engage in looting of state resources and starting violence or civil wars that often impoverish their nations.
The Nobel Committee's recognition for Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman was an important step in rebalancing for fortunes of African activists. Their new-found fame, if used well, will go a long way in fostering peace in their countries in much the same way Wangare Maathai used her high profile to highlight the need to protect the environment before she was prematurely taken away from us last week.

There's more the United States can do to make it easier for African women to continue the good fight: To encourage women participation in the political process through the power of the purse. Let there be a requirement that foreign aid be tied to the number of women in political positions in any country asking for help. That's the surest way to effect change in Africa.

The writer is an adjunct lecturer in modern African history at the New York City College of Technology/CUNY.

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