What brings you to India?
I came to review the work of an organization called Isis WICCE (Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange), a global feminist action-oriented organisation that works in conflict and post-conflict countries. I met its partners in India, Nepal and Pakistan.
How is the women’s movement in Africa changing the face of governance?
The women’s movement in Africa has always been at the centre of development. During the late fifties and sixties, African women were increasingly drawn into national liberation struggles, with gender politics having obliquely filtered into broader mobilization against colonialism and class oppression. While the women’s movement formed at this time was not clearly feminist, it indicated a tradition from the fifties, of women organising around the network of gender, race and class relations. Today women are involved in governance right from the household level to the regional level. There are many women participating in politics, in protecting the environment, in fighting violence against marginalized people and in ensuring that there is justice on the continent.
Are there many such examples you can cite?
Yes. Women have been at the centre of reconstruction programmes, especially in post- conflict countries. For example, activists, especially Liberian women, did whatever they could to negotiate for peace during the war. Consequently in June 2003, a peace accord was brokered in Accra. This led to the formation of a transitional government and holding national elections. Following the November 2005 election, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won and was sworn in as the first woman President of Liberia in January 2006. The Nobel Peace Prize 2011 was awarded jointly to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist and leader Leymah Gbowee “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and peace-building work. Then we have the Green Belt Movement and late Professor Wangari Maathai who got the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. In Malawi, Joyce Banda is the second women President on the continent. From July 2012, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma took over the leadership of the African Union. Indeed, the list of women occupying spaces of power is growing.
How about women in other African nations where this rise is yet to be tasted?
Well, when one looks at the big picture, only two African countries out of 54 are being led by women. This is laughable, particularly when one remembers that demographically, women are over half the population in most countries in Africa. For women to be on the rise, whatever the woman leader does must trickle down to the other women.
Transformation is needed but this can only occur with the transformation of the whole system. Botswana and Rwanda are examples of African countries that are registering significant gains in women’s participation in political power. Affirmative action is something that addresses structural imbalances, not just having one woman running the government. Women need to be in leadership positions in various boardrooms, political parties and spaces of knowledge production such as the university, just to mention a few.
Tell us about the Zimbabwe Women Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN)
We established ZWRCN in 1990 as a space for women. Back then, spaces for women to meet were limited and there was no central place where one could find information on women in Zimbabwe. Documents were scattered everywhere. Today ZWRCN has a documentation centre and is a place for learning and understanding gender, women, feminism and development and has regular discussions on these topics
What is the current state of feminist studies in Africa?
From humble beginnings, today almost every university in Africa has gender studies. Africa has produced women and some men who are working as activists, writers, researchers and scholars. Women’s universities are also mushrooming. There are many women in higher institutions that teach and carry out activism. There are also feminist journals like Feminist Africa produced by the African Gender Studies at the University of Capetown. Feminist studies are working closely with activists on the ground advocating for equal rights, justice and emancipation. Not all women studies are feminist though.
What does your experience say about the role of women during conflict situations?
The importance of women in the promotion and maintenance of peace and human security is unquestionable. During times of conflict and post-conflict, women keep communities alive, feed the troops and mobilize for peace. For example, in West Africa, women members of the ‘Mano River Women’s Peace Network’ (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), came together to build peace, reconciliation and confidence in their countries. They organized themselves regionally, built networks and identified measures to help stop the recurrence of civil wars that had imperilled the region. They did other heroic actions such as bringing the heads of states to the negotiating table in 2001. In Liberia, they built peace huts and used them to address community tensions.
But in spite of all the risks they take in order to build peaceful societies, they are left behind in the list of revolutionary agendas and remain unprotected and invisible in all post-conflict programmes. Their contribution to peace and democratization during conflicts does not typically translate into leadership roles in decision-making institutions. Their narratives are largely absent from accounts in state and nation building, yet their contributions can’t be denied. Their voices go unheard during formal processes including peace negotiations, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, constitution-creation, elections, reconstruction, rehabilitation, truth and reconciliation and establishing a judicial system.
This is why, as a trainer, I catalyze the energy women have and train them to be effective leaders in post-conflict situations, so that they become leaders who can lobby, advocate and ensure that women’s issues are on the agenda.
Do you think there is a need for change in the media’s portrayal of women?
Yes, women are being objectified on billboards, advertisements, movies, music videos, and on television. As a result, young women are forced to focus on their looks instead of their holistic selves. Some young women, especially in urban areas, have a picture of what an ideal young woman should look like. Some of these images are harmful to their emotional and physical health. Many young women have developed eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. These problems are directly linked to sexualized and objectified images in advertising and media entertainment. But feminism has always tried to break stereotypes. Feminism as a political tool of analysis looks at issues of class, sexuality, location, disability etc. It questions masculinity and femininity as the norm and offers alternatives.
India has been outraged with a surge in rapes. How are African women tackling this menace?
If there is an area in which we have invested a lot of energy, it is violence against women, which takes many forms, including rape. Women have been using whatever opportunity they can to put issues of rape on the agenda. As a result, many institutions and organizations have gender policies that are supposed to protect women. Inspite of this, rape is on the rise. Then there are other issues including poverty, maternal death, HIV/AIDS etc. Though the number of women in positions of authority in Africa is increasing, for this to constitute an improvement in the definition and lives of women in Africa, the structures have to change. This change will help women to continue to move to the forefront to lead at the local, national and global level. Problem-solving, both local and global, will gain credibility when they include women-led ideas and are crafted with a gender/feminist lens to ensure social justice.