Fifty years ago, 17 African countries threw off the brutal and degrading yoke of colonialism. The 50th anniversary of African national liberation is an opportunity to critically reflect on the past five decades in post-colonial Africa, which began with luminous hope but have been marred by a leitmotif of grinding disappointment and failure. No one has suffered more from the continent’s post-colonial misfortunes and misadventures than its women.
Without a second wave of emancipation for Africa’s women, fifty years from now the continent is doomed to celebrate its liberation centennial grappling with the same dreams deferred and opportunities lost.
The state of African women five decades after independence is both sobering and hopeful. If you were born today, with the highest chance of contracting HIV/AIDS, dying in childbirth, exiting school prematurely, or suffering sexual assault as the result of armed conflict, by most indicators, you would likely be born a woman in Africa. And if you were born with a high propensity for courage with the potential to carry an entire continent on your back? The answer might well be the same.
As a professor and human rights advocate working on women’s rights in Africa, and a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria, I have witnessed firsthand how national emancipation has not translated into women’s liberation.
In acknowledgment of the continent’s failures regarding women’s empowerment, the African Union declared the years 2010 – 2020 as the “African Women’s Decade,” an opportunity to right political, social and economic wrongs through the implementation of aggressive gender-sensitive policies.
Of course, it is much easier to declare a women’s decade, than to muster the political will to realize one. But as African states look back on fifty years of independence, they must recognize that women’s emancipation is a central component of Africa’s true liberation.
“My bones will rise again!”
African women’s contribution to the continent’s liberation struggles often remains in the shadows of history, even though women played a central role in national emancipation.
While many can identify Kwame Nkrumah as Ghana’s liberation hero, few know of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Mother of the Asante people of Ghana, who led a rebellion against British colonialists as early as 1900. Even the Ghanaian high school students in an African women’s history class I taught were unaware of Yaa Asantewaa’s heroics on the battlefield, where she famously challenged her male counterparts: “If you the men of Asante will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women … We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.”
The students also learned of the legendary Nehanda of Zimbabwe, the female spiritual leader who led the first Chimurenga, or war of liberation, against colonialists in 1896. For her leadership role in the revolt, Nehanda was hanged by the British, and famously proclaimed before her death at the gallows, “My bones will rise again!”
Every morning, the students would arrive in class eager for more lessons on the brave African women buried in their history, spinning in their sunbeam yellow uniforms and shouting in unison, “My bones will rise again!”
Nehanda’s prophecy came true. Her legacy, and that of other resistance heroines like Yaa Asantewaa, lived on in post-World War II liberation struggles in which African women took up arms, worked as spies, boycotted racist laws, and formed anti-colonial women’s political organizations.
African women’s sacrifices and contributions during the struggle for liberation did not translate into formal positions of power in post-colonial Africa.
Women and political power
Men have remained the central players in African power politics since independence.
In 2005, there was an historic break in this uninterrupted chain of male political dominance when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia was elected the first female head of state in Africa. I was in Liberia during the election and was fortunate enough to receive a coveted ticket to the inauguration ceremony.
Foreign luminaries were everywhere, but the stars of the ceremony were the countless African women dressed in their colorful finest who journeyed from all over the continent to witness the historic event. They formed a chorus of goodwill and blanketed the festivities with their unfettered pride. At the end of her speech, Johnson Sirleaf spoke directly to the women of Africa and said that things had changed forever.
Although Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure has not been without controversy, she is widely regarded as a capable, no-nonsense leader. The early promise of her election was accompanied by the silent acknowledgement that male leaders have failed the African populace.
Despite the dismal, and oftentimes criminal, performance of Africa’s strongmen, there are few competent African women who are given the support and opportunity to compete and succeed in national electoral politics. (Rwanda, which has the highest percentage of women in parliament of any country in the world, is a shining exception.)
Low levels of education, feminized poverty, and patriarchal notions of politics as a man’s domain all conspire to lock women out of political office. Much must still be done to open up political space for African women. At the local level, successful women’s associations have spread like bush fire, with strong female leaders providing steady guidance. Women’s leadership abilities on the community-level must be given the opportunity to translate to the national stage. Programs that provide female candidates with financial and technical support and skills training as well gender-based affirmative action may be some additional methods of increasing the number of African women engaged in electoral politics.
A greater number of African female political leaders, specifically those with proven track records on gender sensitivity, would help garner and sustain the political will needed to focus on the myriad issues affecting African women today, such as HIV/AIDS.
“I refuse to die of AIDS. I refuse to die of bitterness.”
HIV/AIDS is one of the biggest challenges that many post-independence African states have faced. The majority of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa are women and girls, who make up 60% of new HIV transmissions and 75% of HIV-positive people between the ages of 15 and 24. It has become a gendered disease.
In Malawi in southeastern Africa, where I co-produced a documentary on the feminization of HIV/AIDS, economic insecurity, lack of sexual autonomy, and gender-based violence, increase women’s vulnerability to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
HIV-positive women in Malawi have become the face of AIDS in their country. Daphne Gondwe, the co-founder and president of Malawi’s Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, once defiantly told me, “I refuse to die of AIDS. And I refuse to die of bitterness.” Instead, she formed an advocacy organization that now counts over 50,000 HIV-positive Malawian women as members. I have met hundreds of them, all forging ahead in their lives with a courage and resilience that is deeply humbling.
Policymakers in Africa should take advantage of recent findings concerning women and AIDS. New evidence-based studies have proven that gender-based violence doubles women’s risk for HIV, regularly used female microbicidal gels can reduce a woman’s chances of contracting the virus by up to 54%, and small monthly cash transfers to school-age girls can cut their chances of contracting HIV by half. There must be political will to put resources into the application of these encouraging breakthroughs.
“These pregnant women die because they are female, poor, and voiceless.”
Maternal mortality is another major health crisis affecting African women. They suffer the world’s highest death rates from pregnancy and childbirth. In some African countries, like Malawi, pregnant women are dying at the same rate that birthing women died in medieval Europe.
In 1936, British colonialists built “Bottom Hospital” in the capital city of Lilongwe, Malawi, where for decades, some of the country’s poorest women gave birth in a government-run maternity unit with one labor ward and one operating room where over-worked and outnumbered health workers assisted between 12,000 and 13,000 women a year. It was by its very design and operation a human rights violation – robbing women of their rights to adequate healthcare, privacy, dignity, and in many cases, their right to life.
When I asked one of the heroic obstetricians at the hospital why pregnant women in Malawi die in such staggering numbers, he replied, with righteous anger, “These pregnant women die because they are female, poor, and voiceless.”
Wearied of the relentless and preventable maternal deaths stalking them at every turn, health workers at Bottom Hospital advocated nationally and internationally for the funds and political will to shut down Bottom Hospital and build two new humane public maternity units in Lilongwe. Bottom Hospital, where countless women lost their lives, now sits empty – a ghost in central Lilongwe.
In its place are two brand new public maternity hospitals, outfitted with new equipment and operating rooms, where the poor and disadvantaged give birth in their own private delivery rooms – the first such facilities in Africa.
The new public maternity units in Lilongwe are examples of the small victories that sustain our hope. But for lasting change in the fight against maternal mortality in Africa, politicians must also spend more resources on retaining the doctors and nurses who often look for greener pastures abroad, invest in the necessary drugs and equipment that can prevent deaths, provide HIV-positive pregnant women with access to antiretrovirals, and increase women’s access to health units by fortifying roads and transportation access.
“She is just like you.”
Standing in front of hundreds of students at a school assembly in northern Sierra Leone under the sweltering West African sun, where I am leading a human rights workshop, I look out at the sea of bright-eyed schoolgirls’ faces and wonder, how many of these girls will eventually die premature deaths during childbirth? How many will contract HIV?
How many will have their first sexual experience be one of violence? How many will undergo female genital mutilation and have their external genital organs removed?
How many will drop out of school because of early marriage?
At this school and many others, the school principals would introduce me at the beginning of the workshops and proclaim to the students: “Our guest is so young, and she’s already a professor! And she’s African, like us! Girls, you must work hard so one day you, too, can become professors. She is just like you.”
Whether those bright-eyed girls will indeed become economically independent, free women, or will join the ranks of the 90% percent of Sierra Leonean women who undergo female genital mutilation, or the 13% of Sierra Leonean pregnant women who die during pregnancy or childbirth, or the 83% of Sierra Leonean girls who do not attend secondary school, will depend on the economic and educational opportunities they receive.
Educational and economic empowerment is the key to women’s liberation in Africa. Educated women are more likely to have fewer children and higher incomes, which in turn increases their access to quality health care and drastically reduces their chances of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. Educated women are also less likely to have undergone female genital mutilation or to become victims of domestic violence. Women who are economically independent are in a stronger position to negotiate safer sex practices with their intimate partners, thereby decreasing their chances of contracting HIV.
In order to strengthen women’s educational and economic status, governments must address deeply entrenched gender biases in the educational system and increase women’s access to land, credit, potable water, agricultural farm inputs, and markets.
As we mark 50 years of African independence and look towards the uncertain future, the international community, African governments, and civil society must dedicate themselves in word and deed to the support of initiatives meant to bolster the status of African women in social, economic and political life. African men must become advocates for the rights of their mothers, daughters, and wives, and promote improved gender relations. And African women, clutching their courage in the tradition of their foremothers during the anti-colonial struggle, must demand their liberation.