Which Way for African Women in Politics?
Written By: Bertha M. Rinjeu
Published on The Star, Kenya – 1st May 2014
Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com)
“I don’t want to be a compliment to anybody else. I want to be me. I am not an entertainer. I do not want a borrowed rib!” So came the impassioned statement by Malawi presidential candidate Jessie Kabwila, a woman toughened by a strangely unapologetic anti-female prevailing political tradition in a country already headed by a woman president.
Finding herself in the unusual position of running against a fellow woman in majority male-led Africa, Kabwila speaks sternly against a system seemingly engineered to lock women out of the political process. “Doing woman in politics is a big challenge. You have to speak in such a way that you do not look partisan to women. You will be asked what it is you have done yet it is by doing nothing that you get anywhere.”
Kabwila, a former university professor, seems to have a personal difficulty with doing nothing. Having been married and divorced three times (by her own volition) and facing a decreasing platform through which to work productively in Malawi thanks to the vocal nature of her political associations, this giant of African women’s history seems to embrace controversy at every turn.
It is therefore an understandable task to imagine that one so fearless and determined can concede to the general troubles of other women in the political process. Perhaps it is this concession to the unusual vulnerability of women in politics that brought her to Nairobi to meet women from all across the continent active in the political settings of their nations, just a month to the Malawi elections.
At a workshop organised by the Urgent Action Fund-Africa and the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet), women from 15 countries came together to highlight challenges faced by women in politics, among the most prominent of which were violence, funding, patriarchy and a lack of knowledge and information.
It is an open secret that the road to political greatness for women in Africa is long, cold and lonely. Oftentimes women, by being women, are cut out of the systems whose decisions most affect them and their lot, creating an atmosphere of inferior reliance on the goodwill of men to achieve gains on their behalf.
Questions remain on the wisdom of such continued dependency. In the past, quotas and affirmative action have been used as tokens and gifts to women and other groups that suit the establishment’s ideals of representation.
What this has achieved is high numbers without the expected increase in volume for minority issues. In fact, silence seems to have been bought by the assurance of a name slot on a valid ballot paper come election time. This in turn has heightened frustrations within the women’s and civil rights movements whose gains, while appearing on paper, hardly translate to any real change, a danger in itself.
The reality remains that while parliaments, cabinets and presidents make collective nationwide decisions, it is to the mostly poor women on the ground, who form a majority of Africa’s population, that these decisions become personal. To a continent that is extraordinarily prone to war, nowhere is the personalisation of political decisions — of which disagreements and declarations of and calls to war are a part — more readily felt than in Africa.
Lona Lowilla, a women’s and human rights campaigner in South Sudan, knows all too much about the costs women pay for ill thought out political decisions. Often the last to leave their homes and consequently among the last to arrive at safety camps, women and children have suffered the heaviest casualty in the recent violence in South Sudan. Only in April were hundreds of civilians massacred at a United Nations Camp in Bentiu.
With information that Southern Sudanese men from the Diaspora arriving in the country are receiving military training to join in the fighting, Lowilla foresees a worsening in the condition of civilians in South Sudan.
Though it may appear that there is a leaning towards the essentialising of women, in areas of conflict and in rural villages across Africa, women are most often left to cater to their own persons and security and that of their children, livestock and homesteads while their men go off to fight and/or make a living.
Lowilla suggests that it is this responsibility or expectation to take responsible action at the danger of their own life that leaves women most vulnerable. “It is in the way we are brought up. It is in our nature as mothers. When a problem comes you go running after two, three children. The men they just run by themselves. Even if he calls he will call to ask if you have taken the children.
“Also, we are not trained in the battlefield. Must we be trained to pay back and revenge?” Lowilla poses an important question. With the increase of targeted wartime violence towards female civilians and the failures of the judicial courts and social and cultural systems to get justice for the aggrieved, should this be the next step?
Will the involvement of women in battle and the arming of women alongside their training for military action provide a solution, no matter how temporary, or will it only escalate the prevailing continent-wide orphan pandemic of Africa?
In cases of belligerent parties that are not state actors, how will the condition of habitually voiceless mentally-colonised women improve by military involvement if those that are engaging with them in battle subscribe to the super-traditional view that women are not only unfit for battle but should primarily concern themselves with the nurturing of their homes when they are away?
What is the role that the economic suppression of women plays in all this? The economics of war are often negotiated away from the prying eyes of the media and the general public. No campaigns are done to fund belligerent parties yet trucks of guns and ammunition arrive, often just moments before hostilities break out.
Strangely following behind these trucks and the hostilities they facilitate are the markedly humanitarian tents that should serve as temporary housing for the duration of the conflict. An entire shadow economy appears to exist around conflict with those left behind providing the market to which goods are supplied.
Because everything is political and because anything can be made advantageous to those seeking high office, those caught up in conflict, once the dust settles, now find themselves the unknowing constituents of a wily smooth-talker hunting for votes. It is not unusual for refugees and internally displaced persons to find themselves as the subjects of a wager that regularly begins with “… if I get into office…” Of course when votes are cast and the seat is won the same smooth-talker turns into a round-talker, political will having evaporated somewhere between the constituency and parliament.
Naturally, the first to go are women’s issues. Yet the blame cannot entirely be put upon men or a system generated to suit them. This is not a battle of the sexes. Men have been known to stand for, champion and support women’s rights just as women have been known to stand in the way of the women’s movement.
Women in politics face innumerable challenges, not least of which is the fear of loss of office to one younger, smarter, more adventurous, braver or simply more willing to go to greater lengths for political office than she.
Alongside demands for marriage, children, deference to men and religious propriety, the political woman finds herself the subject of peculiar media conversations about her dress, posture and the state of her personal affairs. Sometimes these personal affairs are used as the sole disqualifier for women to hold office.
Sexploitation or the threat of the leaking of the details of consensual affairs to unknowing partners are used to silence women who did all they thought they could to get into office. Of surprise is that the men with whom they engage in these affairs get off scot-free.
This double standard alludes to a particular fascination with the anti-personification and denial of the femininity of women in political circles while a demand for them to remain submissive and not shake up the status quo remains staunch. Asked why this is so, Kabwila attributes it to one thing, “the state has been constructed as a male legacy.”
Be that as it may, perhaps it is time for women to take a more active role in arranging the outcomes of what happens to them in political practice. The tendency to enter politics believing that a godfather or godmother will line the way has hurt more than it has helped. Seldom do women register as members of political parties; rarer are women who take up positions within their party structures.
Perhaps it is a construct of affirmative action that women are a special group lumped in with endangered and small tribes and persons with disabilities. It is not in contest that women have endured grave injustice at the hands of traditional political systems but does it not defeat fights for equality for women to perpetually demand minority rights, freedoms and protections while being in the majority?
Could it be the right moment for women to take off the rose-coloured glasses and do the work of getting the correct funding, building the right partnerships, lobbying and coming up with clear, concise, workable political strategies like their male counterparts? Should the women’s movement re-evaluate itself and come up with ways to advance its agenda so as to gain support from the grassroots to the very top and thereby earn the necessary votes for women in whom fellow women believe?
Funding and lack of information continue to stand as major obstacles to women seeking political office, but an often unreported threat is physical, bodily violence against women political candidates. Perhaps there should be legislation that deals directly with political violence against women or maybe the rethinking and enforcing of existing laws to further protect women against targeted violence.
In all there is no secret to politics but to treat it as a full time occupation. The concerns of life may get in the way but a healthy engagement with the media should help things some ways. Politics remains a game of public relations. Women cannot win the battle for representation unless there is a change in our approach to political participation. Secure themselves or their borders, growing militarisation and fundamentalism, corruption, tribalism and the gifting at diving into small groups threaten the ground she has covered.
It is one thing to change face but if greater involvement of women in the political process will not bring about a change in systems and structures, it is all for naught.
Jessie Kabwila with a final encouragement closes off. “Our greatest strength is in sisterhood and solidarity. Because we do not own very visible spaces, how do we create our own spaces? Change is not Eurocentric. These are African women we are talking about, people who are oral in nature. The role of the vocal to the downtrodden is immeasurable.”
The Urgent Action Fund-Africa and Femnet will hold a joint international convening for women in the political environment in Abidjan, Côte D’ivore in November.