International Women’s Day: Inspiring Change: Why African Women must Lead

By Khadi Mansaray“Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all.”  ~UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon

In 1917 Russian women went on strike for bread and peace, they persevered eventually forced the Czar resign.  The United Nations declared 1975 as International Women’s Year and since 1996, March 8 has been celebrated as International Women’s day. Each year with a theme that addresses an areas of inequality and social injustice against women. This year’s theme, Inspiring Change, is incredibly relevant for African Women. As far back as 1917, women’s action was able to cause a significant political and social change. In Sierra Leone, women were instrumental in restoring democracy after a military regime.  Their contribution to political and economic stability is immense. Today there are three female heads of state and women are emerging as leaders in corporations and institutions. In spite of this and the obvious benefits highlighted by Ban Ki-moon, the leadership scales are still heavily tipped in men’s favour.  In Africa, women largely need to seek permission from men directly or indirectly to be able to lead. Society tends to be more comfortable and accepting of women leaders when they feel the ultimate power belongs to a man somewhere. Leadership for women is widely accepted to be supporting a man. In Sierra Leone, for instance it is quite common to see dynamic women being deputies, vice presidents or actively supporting their spouses agenda whilst the top jobs, are still being exclusively reserved for men. This ultimate distribution or allocation of power by men can easily be abused and is often counter- productive.

Women’s leadership in Africa needs a radical overhaul if women are to fulfil their potential. Waiting to be handed power, lobbying against the odds, or trying to succeed in environments geared to favour men only results in women competing for the attention of the alpha male who holds power. This is a risky dynamic as the power lasts only as long as the patron does. African women need to find ways of creating and owning their power.  Business and entrepreneurship provides this opportunity, and with increased levels of education women just need the confidence to decide they want to be leaders. It is time to rethink traditional and conventional ways of Leadership that focus mainly on authority and position as the only means of power. It is important that African women begin to explore alternative sources of power to enable them to lead beyond and without authority.  Being a leader without any authority is not as impossible as it may seem as there are several sources of power that do not require any authority at all. The power of ideas, personality and communication do not need position or titles to manifest. The ability and to connect, invest and reward are also sources of power that are under utilised. Change is inevitable in Africa, and women should be at the heart of that change.  With globalisation and advancement of technology the most effective leaders shall be those who can create and implement change by influencing beyond their immediate circle of authority. It is comparatively easy to be a leader when there is immense position power to lean back on. It requires more skills and understanding to lead in environments where events, and responses cannot be controlled. A rapidly changing environment requires this sort of leadership and this is what African women should aspire too.

The continent needs leaders in all walks of life.  Women need to lead in boardrooms as well as in the home if there is to be better economic growth prosperity. Peace and stability is more likely to endure if women are involved in decisions of national security and communities shall have better quality of life if women are involved in policy making.  Legislation on its own cannot create change and sustain it. African women need to get actively involved. In addition to being excellent and competent, they need to identify opportunities and be brave enough to act on them without seeking permission or approval. Education for women can only become a priority if women themselves recognise it and want to make it so both on personal and national levels. Women have to be at the heart of reducing infant and maternal mortality rates as they are best placed to understand the problems.  Equality for women really does means progress for all.

Earlier this week, Lupita N’yongo received an Oscar for her role in 12 years A Slave. The accolade is significant because unlike other winners before her, she is from Africa and started her acting career there. Her message ‘your dreams are valid’ resonates with many African woman, especially those who feel their choices are limited. Over the years the mainstream entertainment and fashion industries have become increasingly diversified to include various forms of African beauty. As more women and young girls begin to feel confident and take pride in their physical form, lets hope it also increases self- confidence. Leadership starts with self-belief and African women need to believe that their dreams are not only valid, the desire to lead and participate in governance also is.