When severe drought hit her village in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, then eight, had no idea that this moment of utter devastation would come to define her life purpose.
Unable to move from hunger, she encountered a United Nations aid worker who gave her a bowl of warm porridge and saved her life.
This transformative moment inspired Elizabeth to become a humanitarian, and she vowed to dedicate her life to giving back to her community, her continent and the world.
I Am a Girl From Africa charts Nyamayaro’s journey from the small village of Goromonzi to Harare, London and beyond, where she eventually became a Senior Advisor at the United Nations and launched HeForShe, one of the world’s largest global solidarity movements for gender equality.
Read the excerpt below.
In my office, and during meetings and conference calls with colleagues and external partners, I can’t stop thinking and strategizing about how to enable more women to lead. So I head to the country that has modeled female leadership in an exemplary – and truly extraordinary – way. I travel to the African country of Rwanda.
Despite having experienced almost unimaginable violence and suffering in the 1990s caused by genocide, in 2003 the government of Rwanda accomplished what at the outset appeared an impossible task: they elected women to 48.8 percent of the seats in parliament, making it the biggest such accomplishment of any country in the entire world.
Now, eleven years later, Rwanda continues to have the world’s highest number of women in parliament, with 61 percent representation. In my meetings with the minister of gender and the female members of parliament, I learn about their journey to success, how women rallied together in villages and cities to ensure that more citizens saw them as viable candidates.
“It was not easy; these positions were not just handed to us. We worked hard. We educated ourselves not only academically and intellectually, but also socially, spending months and years in communities, listening to the various issues women face so that we could properly advocate for them,” one woman explains to me. “Yes, in the beginning it all seemed impossible. There was the bias that politics was a ‘man’s job.’ In fact, even some women were not convinced. You will be in a community and you ask women if they agree with your policies, and they say yes. But then you ask them if they will vote for you, they surprise you by saying, ‘Eeee, I am not sure. I think maybe the male candidate will do a better job.’ We had to prove ourselves, and thankfully we did, with the support of our fellow female activists and, of course, our families.” Another woman chimes in, saying, “But first we had to overcome the intimidation, the violence, the sexism, and the personal attacks. Some men wanted us to stop, but we said no and showed them that us women, when we stand together, we are unbreakable. In 2006 we showed them what we are capable of achieving, when our country passed a landmark bill to address gender-based violence. In this bill, us, female members of parliament, we were able to categorize rape as a punishable crime for the first time in our country. Prior to that, perpetrators went unpunished.”
Their fortitude is palpable – a tangible force in the room. It is, I think, truly uplifting. This is ubuntu in action! And what an extraordinary feeling, to be surrounded by women leaders who listen, take charge, and are enabled, by the power of law, to make transformative changes in the lives of women and girls.
As I visit communities in Rwanda over the next few days, it is easy to see the results of these female leaders. Women-owned businesses are thriving. Schools are educating young boys about the importance of respecting girls, and how to show this respect through action and thought. More girls are in school, with a greater percentage studying Science and Technology, a field traditionally dominated by boys. There are more women landowners and property owners actively contributing to their country’s economic growth. Women making decisions that empower other women and uplift their communities: this is indeed incredible progress, and a working paradigm for what is possible on a global scale.
I leave Rwanda elated and full of hope. It is truly exciting to see a country from my home continent lead in such a pioneering way, on such a vital issue. This African country is a role model for every country in the world. If Rwanda, a country that went through one of its darkest periods in the 1990s, was able to rebuild with so many women in leadership roles, then surely other countries can do the same. We can do this globally, I tell myself.
However, the reality in other countries is sobering. When I travel to Mongolia, a country with only 4 percent female representation in the national parliament, women share with me their hesitation to get into politics, or even consider it: “It is too expensive, too time-consuming, too risky,” they say. Their hesitation echoes that of women from many other parts of the world. In India, women observe that “it is demoralizing to be held to different standards than our male opponents. To be judged by the way that we dress, or talk, or walk. To be called ‘shrill’ or ‘too emotional’ for expressing our views.” They risk not being taken seriously, and sometimes, they risk their lives or the lives of their families.
“Eeee, when I announced my political campaign, the following evening two men came to my house past midnight,” a female candidate from Zimbabwe shares with me in a pained voice. “My husband answered the door and they said to him, ‘You better put your dog on a leash unless you want trouble,’ referring to me. Huhhh, the next day, me, I dropped out of the race to protect my family.”
In the United States, in Tennessee, a female candidate shares her terrifying experience with me. “Well, the male candidate I was runnin’ against called me to his office one day. He’d been runnin’ a smear campaign against me, sayin’ all kinds of terrible things, and I’d asked to meet with him to resolve things. Well, when I arrived in his office, he closed the door, pushed me up against the wall, and threaten’d to rape me if I didn’t stop my campaign. Of course, I refused to give up. But he still won; he threw money at it and bought the whole darn election.”
The work is intense but exhilarating, and I can almost hear Uncle Sam say to me, You must learn to find balance in life, Elizabeth. You can’t live to work like your aunt Jane. You must also live. Yet there is so much more work to be done! I continue to live on planes and in hotel rooms, moving from one country to the next to meet with communities and policy makers and advocate for laws that will accelerate progress toward gender equality.
On the rare occasions when I am back in New York City, I catch up with my friends from the African diaspora community over long lunches after Sunday church services. In bustling restaurants in Harlem, a neighborhood rich with black history, we share stories from back home and celebrate all that is great about our African continent: how it now has the largest mobile phone market in the world; how communities in Kenya pioneered the development of financial technology (fintech), which is now used for mobile banking globally, including in the US; how our remittances, the money that we members of the African diaspora send back home to support our families, continue to be greater every year than the total amount of aid money our continent receives from all Western donors combined, a fact that is rarely ever reported. We remind ourselves of our ubuntu, and that before we are Nigerian or Zimbabwean, or Senegalese or Moroccan or anything else, we are first and foremost Africans. We reminisce with gratitude over the mukanas given to us by our families to be here, remembering our African values – “to whom so much is given, so much is expected” – as we remind each other of our responsibility to uplift not just our individual countries, but our entire continent.
This connection with fellow Africans affirms my belief in everything Africa has to offer the world, fueling my passion to bring Rwanda’s exemplary model of female leadership to every country and every woman who seeks to lead and create change. I get the chance to test my theory when my UN Women colleagues in Uruguay mention that this small South American country of 3.3 million people is gearing up for elections; I seize the opportunity and immediately jump on the next plane.
It is the middle of winter when I arrive in Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo, but the weather is mild and pleasant; leaving the airport we drive along the coastline and its sandy white beaches. The city is noticeably quieter than New York City; there are fewer skyscrapers and more art deco buildings, and the winding streets are lined with small museums and quaint colonial homes.
Arriving at the parliament building, an impressive neoclassical structure, I am greeted by a female member of parliament. “It is really unacceptable that women make up less than 13 percent of Uruguayan parliament,” she says. “Today we are determined to make history.” Her excitement and hope are contagious. The country’s vice president is present, and the room is packed and buzzing with close to fifty women’s rights activists, female politicians, and members of parliament.
For the past year, these groups of pioneering and passionate women, backed by the support of UN Women, have been working tirelessly to ensure that the country’s upcoming elections will, for the first time in history, be governed by a national quota law guaranteeing that 30 percent of the seats on the ballot be filled by female candidates. Their efforts have paid off, and today they will present the signatures from their petition to the country’s vice president, with the hope of the law being adopted.
I can feel the energy in the room, and along with it an undercurrent of anxiety. There is so much at stake here, and everyone present feels the weight of this moment. The passing of the law must succeed; otherwise it will be a very demoralizing setback that will significantly delay our progress in Uruguay. “All of us here are from different political parties, we are competitors. But we realized how important this moment is, that we are stronger when we work together, so we set our differences aside for our equality and our county’s future,” one of the impassioned activists tells me, and I think again of ubuntu and that “when we uplift others, we in turn uplift ourselves.” I know this to be true, and I long to see it come to fruition here and now.
When my colleagues and I finally meet with the vice president for a bilateral meeting after the petition’s submission, I make a bold suggestion: “Your Excellency, there is a huge opportunity for Uruguay to make great strides toward gender equality with the adoption of this law. It would be an incredible signal to the rest of the world if the law became permanent after this year’s election.”
A few months later, Uruguay goes to the polls, and the results are impressive. There is significantly higher voter turnout of female and young voters than in previous years. Most importantly, the 30 percent rule of representation is adopted as a permanent standard for all future elections in Uruguay. It is inspiring to see that by working together, the women in Uruguay have created real and lasting change for themselves and for their country. I feel proud and humbled by the work we have done to contribute to this historic milestone.
Still, I keep thinking about Rwanda. Surely there has to be a way to accelerate progress for other African countries to follow Rwanda’s phenomenal example, I think. The equation is simple: when women lead, the lives of women and girls dramatically improve. When I share these thoughts with Phumzile, she says, with her usual determination: “We must send a signal to the world that African women can and will lead.” Over the next months, my colleagues and I work with the African Union and the government of Germany to launch the African Women Leaders Network (AWLN), a network of over one hundred former, current, and aspiring female political leaders across Africa, empowering them with the resources, networks, and mentorship required to build political campaigns and run for office in their respective countries.
I search for more answers. How can we rapidly accelerate progress on gender equality around the world? How can we reverse the false notion that in order for women to win, men must lose? I know that gender equality is not a “zero-sum game,” with one gender conceding power to the other. Equality means just that – being equal. As a child of the African soil, I also know through ubuntu that no one is truly equal until we are all equal; that real and lasting change happens only when we all work together, for the benefit of everyone. I start to wonder: How can we use ubuntu to create solidarity among all genders in a way that benefits all of us? DM/ ML
I Am a Girl From Africa by Elizabeth Nyamayaro is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and Simon & Schuster (R295).Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including excerpts! – daily.
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