NEW YORK - African first ladies and activists hailed progress that some governments on the continent are making on gender equality. They met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
“We used to have 23 percent female representation in parliament but, with the stroke of a pen it went up to 48 percent. So, we managed to double our female representation with that decision,” said Namibia’s first lady Monica Geingos at a roundtable invitation-only event co-hosted by the Global First Ladies Alliance (GFLA) and Facebook.
Geingos credited the quota enacted by the ruling SWAPO party of her husband, President Hage Geingob. But she said a similar quota might be needed for Namibia’s private sector, where only 10 to 15 percent of executives are women.
“The private sector has to do more, they have to do it faster, and there needs to be targets,” Geingos said during a panel discussion broadcast live on Facebook. “It’s not only about representation at the top. It’s also about hiring female talent so female talent is around when decisions are being made on leadership and key positions within an organization.”
But government help is still needed in providing better access to capital for female entrepreneurs and prioritizing government procurement from female-owned or represented businesses, Geingos said.
“We should make it wrong to procure from businesses that are all male. Because, they’re not inclusive of our societies,” she added.
South Africa’s first lady Tobeka Madiba Zuma agreed and underscored the importance of providing equitable access to education for girls.
“They then become economically empowered. And, when they’re economically empowered that will guarantee their success in future that they will not be dependent on men,” Zuma said. “We just need to ensure that we encourage our youth and harness entrepreneurship,” she added.
The Elman Peace and Human Rights Center for Somalia has for been working for decades to break down stereotypes in gender roles by teaching young women to become electricians, mechanics, and learn to repair mobile phones.
“Women in my country are often viewed as victims of war, spoils of war. At the very best, beneficiaries receiving the impact of these various resolutions, declarations, and treaties that are meant to build peace,” said Somali peace activist Ilwad Elman, who was a refugee in Kenya as a child before her family moved to Canada. “But rarely are they engaged in creating peace in the country. And, that’s incredibly diminutive of their ability and their capacity.”
Elman noted while Somalia has been in a state of war for a quarter century, half the population — women — have been sidelined from government.
“The role of Somali women in society, if I was to sum it up, the easiest way to say it is that they do everything. They are the breadwinners, they are the economic powerhouses, they are the decision-makers, the influencers. However, their role has never been institutionalized,” Elman said. “And, for my country to transition out of this period of conflict that we’ve been in, and we are seeing progress now, is that we have to engage women. And, not just see them as beneficiaries but assets.”
Somalia has a new government in place this year considered to be the peoples’ choice, Elman said.
“It’s not a perfect system. However, it did yield a huge spike in representation of women parliamentarians, women that are in ministerial roles. And, that is how real change happens,” she said.
Role of technology
Women in Africa need positive leadership examples to follow and give them the confidence and courage to feel they belong in sectors dominated by men, said model Grace Mahary.
“I need my sisters and younger sisters to go on social media and see this every day and not just see, I’m not going to say names, male leaders of the world. Because, that’s all that you do see,” Mahary said. “And, I need to see the first ladies’ work on social media.”
The Victoria’s Secret model, who founded Project Tsehigh to bring solar lighting to homes in Eritrea, said social media provided a unique opportunity for female leaders such as First Ladies to connect with younger women across the African continent.
“We’re here on Facebook Live panel. Do you know how important that is? Growing up, I didn’t have Facebook Live. I didn’t see the first lady of Nigeria or the first lady of the Congo or any of these first ladies because I didn’t know they existed, I didn’t know what they were doing,” Mahary said.
First ladies have an important responsibility because of their proximity to power and influence, Geingos said.
“To me, the role of a first lady, and any powerful woman for that matter, in helping the generation beneath us to come up, is not to stand in the way, it’s not to compete, it’s to facilitate, it’s to provide a bridge.”
But Geingos said their role should not be to underscore their successes as female leaders but to show young African women the challenges they will face and the importance of learning from their failures.
“I think we have a responsibility to sit on panels like this and talk about what we have failed at,” she said.
Geingos went on to say that their success as first ladies would be measured by the gradual elimination of the institution itself.
“If we succeed, and we have a society that’s equal and we have a society where we have many female heads of state, the institution of first ladyism is likely to fall away.So, we must actually fight for the institution of first ladyism to fall away,” she said.
But progress on female heads of state in Africa has a long way to go.
Despite the improvements in representation of women parliamentarians in Africa, Geingos noted the continent currently has only one female president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is about to leave office.