“We are not just demanding a seat at the table. We want to redesign the table and the whole system.”
Graça Machel did not mince her words at the Women Advancing Africa conference of 300 African Women Leaders in Dar es Salaam last week. And she nailed her colours to the mast. Women must lead the next revolution. If not the world.
“Our first liberation was for political freedom and led by men,” said Machel. “Our second liberation should be the social transformation, economic emancipation of women and all those left behind. Women must re-imagine what the future of Africa will be and redesigning the systems that govern us. One without violence and war, one at peace and where our wealth is shared equitably and develops the human potential of all Africans.”
Her theme echoed in the hall and was taken up by the dynamic Executive Director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Hadeel Ibrahim. “Where current policies, institutions and even physical infrastructure carry inherent bias – generally towards the patriarchal structures that first devised them – a true re-imagining of Africa carries the potential of the ‘Second Liberation’, redesigning our societies to ensure that no one is left behind, be it youth, minorities, the disabled, the informal sector, LGBT, but especially women!”
The women of Africa, and of the world, have suffered the most under slavery and colonialism for centuries. It took decades to free ourselves politically from the shackles of that oppression.
But are we free? And who is free?
Africa is a rich continent. We have more than enough wealth to feed everyone, to clothe everyone, to provide a decent shelter and livelihood. But, as we well know from our own experience in South Africa for example, we face the reality of “state capture”. The corrupt nexus of business and political elites has a damning consequence for all 55-million citizens. Billions are siphoned out of state-owned enterprises, raising the costs of basic services such as water, electricity, public transport, hampering the ability of the state to provide a social security net for the millions of unemployed, vulnerable and hungry. Social conflict escalates, deepening poverty and inequality, stirring wanton acts of gender violence and xenophobia. In some countries, these acts of greed lead squarely to civil war. And the main victims are always women and children. Our future.
As Ma Graça eloquently articulated, “We cannot condemn our children to an intergenerational cycle of exclusion. Our population will rise to 2.4-billion by 2050. The majority will be young people. We cannot replicate the past patterns of power that strangle the youth and exclude women. We are not interested in incremental change. We want radical action. And we want it now.” She’s right. We can’t wait.
The Dar es Salaam conference focused on a women’s agenda of change. It rang loudly across the hall – sustaining a movement is about sustained action.
So what movement are we talking about?
Speaker after speaker spoke of governance and leadership that connected the head, heart and spirit. We have lost our way as humanity. After a century of exploitation, we know that the world loses a few dozen football fields of forest every minute; 33% of arable land is poisoned; large fish are down by 90%; 50% of species will be facing extinction by the end of the century.
It is absolutely clear that the new growth path has to protect Mother Earth as its core agenda. It is after all the only source of life we have providing the air we breathe, the water and food that nourishes us. Africa
has to lead the way to re-imagining a new global economy. Women have to lead the way.
One of the few male speakers, Sangu Delle, an African entrepreneur, captured the essence of the outcome of a powerful pan-African women’s movement with the following statistics, “If women’s incomes go up we know that 90% will go into the education, health and nutrition of their children. If we introduce gender parity today in Africa, we will see a $300-billion increase in economic output. This is not just a moral and social cause. It is an economic imperative.” It reminded me of the famous African proverb: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a whole society.”
Moving forward from this conference, it was concluded that local spaces would be convened where women could connect, organise and catalyse a plan of action building from below and beyond borders. It embraced a vision of ecority – the starting point being that all living things, from our forests to our oceans, from human beings to animals, are sacred. In learning to live together with ourselves and Mother Earth we have to put our environment at the heart of our work.
In finding the solutions to our African challenges we have to change the DNA of our development paradigm making it transformative from the inside out – sacred activism.
As an example, given that 700-million Africans live in energy poverty, we should reject the old technologies of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. We need to embrace the technological revolution which has changed fundamentally the way we live, access services, communicate, and especially the nature of production. With robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence advances we can leapfrog the old infrastructure and technological choices. Harnessing solar energy on a continent with an average of 300 days of sunlight means that we can create millions of jobs and entrepreneurs. It could embed communities with their own assets from which they can gain revenue and it will cost less than the old technologies.
This is not a pipe dream. Telecommunications are a great model. Africa went from the least phones in the mid-’90s to the fastest-growing market, in two decades. And today the second revolution of mobile internet has seen the biggest explosion of mobile banking in East Africa with millions of Africans going from unbanked to banked.
The question is why we cannot replicate that in every sector. Africa has 60% of the remaining uncultivated arable land in the world. Yet we sit in Africa with one of the biggest burdens of malnutrition in the world with more than one in four going hungry. And 90% of our food is grown by women subsistence farmers. Why are they not successful? The barriers are clear to them. They lack legal ownership of land, lack the finances to buy their proper seed, to establish their own community seed banks, access water and irrigation and even when they are productive to get a fair price for their crops in the marketplace. And lack the security to be a woman. Simply to be a woman living in safety from male violence.
The solution is clear and it starts with women like the ones at this conference, mobilising together to create a powerful movement. This will help Africa achieve its development targets, ensure gender parity, uplift millions out of poverty, feed Africa, and lead the way for the world.
I left the conference uplifted. Women’s rights, women’s empowerment and raising women’s incomes is the right thing to do for Africa. If we want our children to live with hope and to build the Africa of our dreams then our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters have to lead this second liberation struggle. That’s the world I want my children to grow up in. DM
The Hindenburg had a smoking room.