“When the going gets tough, the man gets going,” Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU)
Despite the world’s progress towards gender equality, African women continue to be marginalized across many spheres of society, particularly in leadership positions.
A UN women study revealed that:
As of June 2016, only 22.8% of all members of parliament were women, which is a slow increment from 11.3% in 1995.
Rwanda is the only country in the globe with the highest number of elected women, representing 63.8% of the country’s lower house.
Globally, the representation of women (in the upper, lower and single houses combined) as of June 2017 was 41.7% in the Nordic countries, 28.1% in Americas, 25.3% in Europe, 23.6 % in Sub-Saharan Africa, 19.4% in Asia, 17.4% in Arab States and 17.4 in the Pacific.
Gender equity in decision-making and political participation is a globally agreed goal, placed by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. But from the look of things, we still have a long way to go.
In a bid to uncover the reasons why women remain underrepresented in the political arena, we interviewed 30 women from different socio-economic backgrounds, and these were the results.
Lack of support
75% of the women from the interview cited lack of support from fellow women as the leading cause of underrepresentation. If a woman is battling it out with a man, most women will prefer to elect the man, not because the woman is incapable, but because of the insecurities that other women have in electing their own kind.
Women are their own enemies – when one rises to the top, others begin to see her as competition, and since they find it hard to match the status, they will mudsling, or even pull her down.
Culture finds its way in almost everything in Africa, and politics is no exception. It is tradition for a woman to leave their home once she is married.
Now, in the African politics, it is impossible for the woman to go back to their village and compete for a political seat, reason being, she is already married and doesn’t belong there. But then again, it is also extremely difficult for her to vie for a seat in her husband’s village because she is not of their clan or tribe. So unless the woman leaves in a cosmopolitan area, she might as well forget about her political ambitions.
About 98% of women in our interview cited this as the biggest challenge.
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In Africa, highly qualified women in the political sphere are not judged by their extensive resumes or merits alone, instead, they are held to damaging double standards.
80% of the women in our interview agreed that a man who graduates from a prestigious university and thrives in his career is very well celebrated, but a woman with the same accomplishment is treated with suspicion. They even went further to say people will claim that the woman“slept” her way to the top.
In the African politics, male competitors also use a certain language and say things that paint the woman in bad light. For a woman to thrive, she has to develop a tough skin in game, otherwise, she might easily be crushed by the words from their male counterparts, as well as the masses.
In the developed countries, political rallies and engagements are often well coordinated, in Africa, that’s just the opposite. There’s always much of pushing and pulling, and sometimes, fists throwing. There are also cases where the male politicians hire goons to scare the women away.
A Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) interview around violence and politics in Zimbabwe established that over 50% of women in politics experienced some form of violence, with 14% of them stating that they had been hurt physically. This is only a representation of all the cases – women in politics suffer physical and emotional abuse, but most cases go unnoticed since the women fail to speak for the fear of stigmatization.
It is difficult for a woman to unseat a sitting politician for the above-mentioned reasons, but perhaps the main reason is that they lack the financial muscles to do so.
According to the women in our interview, African politics involves much of bribing and buying the masses. One also needs to buy the campaign materials, and hire transportation, PA systems, venues and more. All these require money, which is something that most aspiring politicians don’t have.
The national political parties often select a significant number of their candidates, years before the next general elections. They weigh their options to see which candidate is most likely to scoop the seat and support them.
Unfortunately, they can easily overlook a woman with great potential just because of the fear of losing that particular seat. Left out in the cold, most women end up running as independent candidates – which is tougher because of the limited resources.
Despite the argument of whether or not a greater representation of women in politics will effect change, most will agree that including women in the country’s political system is integral. However, women in Sub-Saharan countries face numerous barriers in joining politics, and thriving in the field even when elected.
The Plight of African Women Migrating to Europe
“From what I hear, there are plenty of job opportunities in Europe. I believe when I get there, my life will be better,” a Congo migrant.
Thousands of African women risk their lives as they go on a boat journey to Europe in search of what they imagine would be a better and easier living. Many begin the journey with much hope, but sadly end up in despair.
In an interview with one woman migrant who left the Congo with hopes of getting to Europe, one of our crewmembers asked about the trip. Here’s what she had to say:
“That trip was hard and easy at the same time. We started our journey from Congo, and we went through to Cameron, where we stayed for two days. Then we left for Nigeria and spent only a single night there. We proceeded to Niger and then to Libya. I had to work in Libya to get the money to go on with the trip.”
We asked, “How did you find your way to the boat and the smugglers?
“There was a black guy in Tripoli who asked people whether they had the money. When I asked him how much I needed to pay for the journey, he told me $1,000. I worked for a few days and managed to raise three-quarters of that amount, which he accepted. We were hidden somewhere in a bush without food– only some biscuits and a little water. We weren’t allowed to speak. In total, we stayed there for five days. On the fifth night, at around 9 PM, the guys came and told us we were leaving. The journey to the seaside took about two hours on foot.” She says.
We asked, “How did you feel when the boat took off?
“I have never been happier in my life,” she says smiling.
We asked, “Are all of you traveling for the same thing, and if so, what is it?”
“Yeah, most of us, if not all, are traveling to get a better life. We believe that the developed countries like America and Europe flow of honey and milk. Even when you lack shelter, once you are there, life is just good.”
We asked, “And do you believe that?”
“Of course I do believe that. Once I’m in Italy, my quality of life is going to improve,” she concludes.
The shocking reality
Migrant women are on the move for various reasons – to escape conflict, poverty, and devastation within their community or country, to join their loved ones, to further their education, and even to get better opportunities and livelihoods.
Unfortunately, most women migrants go through hell. In our interview with over 100 women, nearly 50% said they had been victims of abuse or rape during their journey. They say they were treated like chickens; they were beaten and denied food and water.
It is true that these women make a conscious decision to trust the smugglers with their lives – because they pay to be able to get across a country that they are not allowed to get across legally. However, they do not sign up for abuse and torture.
Women migrants rely on the smugglers to get overseas, often under a “pay first system” which leaves them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation, and violence including rape and prostitution.
People traffickers demand hundreds to thousands of dollars from migrants to take them across the desert before packing them onto inappropriate boats for the journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
How can we stop women trafficking?
Trafficking is a complex issue that needs a multifaceted approach. What makes it so tricky is the aspect of willing buyer, willing seller. Even so, there is still much that can be done. For instance, both NGOs and government programs can identify the women who are at risk and offer them adequate tools that they require to find work overseas without exposing themselves at risk.
Government and NGO programs should also take short and long-term measures to address trafficking. Short-term approaches include raising awareness and education, while long-term actions include improving the socioeconomic position of vulnerable women and lobbying efforts for reforms on the national laws.
How Lack of Sanitary Pads Affects the African Girl-Child
In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 65% of girls and women lack access to sanitary towels. Most of them resort to shocking alternatives like using goatskin, chicken feathers, soil, leaves, cups, pieces of cloth, and even ashes to hold the periods.
The onset of menstrual periods should be a joyous moment for any girl because it is a transition into womanhood. However, for some African girls, the process is dreaded, because many of them cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. For them, the menstrual cycle comes with frustrations, embarrassments, fear of stigma, anxiety, and stress.
“In Africa, many families survive with a dollar or less every day. It is impossible for a family to spare $0.50 for a sanitary pad when they don’t even have enough for one meal,” says Wakasa, a Human Rights Activist in Nigeria.
Since these girls and women lack the money to buy sanitary pads, they resort to using other methods to prevent leaking, and staining their clothes; they use:
- Chicken feathers
- Tissue paper
- Exercise books
- Cotton wool
- Maize cobs
- Cow dung
- Old clothes
- Old mattresses
While these ad hoc alternatives come in handy, they present a range of health and psychological effects.
According to Dr. Lagat, a Gynecologist at the Nairobi Women Hospital, unhygienic practices are the leading cause of severe reproductive tract infections and even cervical cancer among these women.
She says, “When a woman uses goatskin or old clothes to stem the bleeding, she exposes her uterus or urinary tract to bacteria from outside, which makes them prone to infection. But when they use sanitary pads, the risk is reduced.”
In another context, the fear of leaks, cultural stigma, lack of menstrual materials, and lack of knowledge can put too much pressure on the girls. Some African communities believe that periods only come after a girl loses her virginity.
Lack of sanitary materials also paralyzes the day-to-day activities, because women are forced to stay at home.
“I use scraps of fabric and cotton because sanitary towels are too expensive,” says Nafula, a 19-year-old Kawangware resident. “They sting, they burn, and they irritate my skin. But what’s worse is they leak and soil my clothes. During my periods, I cannot walk around, or carry on with my daily duties because I fear that people will see the blood stain on my clothes, so I seat at home.”
Impacts on education
Studies show that many girls in Africa miss about three to five days of school every month during their menstruation periods due to lack of sanitary pads. Often, they feel unclean, uncomfortable, and even embarrassed to stay in school. The discomfort and the fear of leakage also cause some to lose concentration in class.
For others, the problem is as basic as lack of access to toilets. In most parts of Africa, there’s only one toilet for every 300+ students.
The monthly absenteeism makes it difficult for the girls to keep up with the syllabus, let alone compete with their male classmates, so they remain a step behind throughout their education. Some will even choose to drop out of school to avoid the pressures altogether.
“I got my first period while I was in class. Unfortunately, a boy who was sitting behind me shouted that I had blood on my dress. It was terrifying because no one had told me that at some point, I’m going to have periods,” narrates Maya, a 14-year-old girl. “Everyone started calling me ‘the immoral girl’, and after months of struggling with self-esteem issues, I chose to drop out of school.”
What needs to be done?
Having monthly periods shouldn’t be shameful or a cause for health problems. It also shouldn’t hinder the women from empowerment or education. It’s therefore vital for policymakers to ensure that all school-going girls have access to sanitary ware.
Furthermore, school curriculum should include information about the biological processes to demystify all issues around the sexual and reproductive health to benefit students.
If male and female contraceptives are accessible free of charge in all public hospitals, the same should be for sanitary pads. After all, contraceptive use is optional; sanitary ware isn’t.
Workplace Challenges Women Face in the Developing World
People say that what a man can do, a woman can do better. But in the corporate Africa, this statement is more of a cliché, than it is a reality.
A census by Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa on women in leadership revealed that 7% of women are executive directors, 22% are board directors and 10% are CEOs. A closer look at companies that make a list in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange shows a decrease in the number of women to 2.2%.
If these statistics are anything to go by, then corporate Africa is still a boy’s club. But does it mean that only a limited percentage of women qualify for such positions? If not, why are they underrepresented?
Here are some workplace challenges that women face in the developing world:
Equality in the workplace
Equality is perhaps the biggest workplace challenge that women face today. The world has made significant progress toward gender parity over the last ten years. However, the gender gap in the African workforce is still prevalent.
A report used data from LinkedIn to analyze the gender gap in every industry, and the findings were shocking; across 12 sectors, less than 50% of leaders were women. The report also established that female-dominated industries like the nonprofit and education sector pay less than those that are male-dominated like energy and manufacturing.
This is a real and persistent problem and one that’s hard to recognize. Regardless of how far the world has come with fights against gender-based violence, many women are still victims of sexual harassments today.
The cases of men abusing their female staff can still be heard from all corners. Unfortunately, only about 5 to 15% of women report harassment cases. The other 85-95% chooses to stay silent.
Most women enter the corporate world with higher aspirations to climb the career ladder and have much confidence that they will get there. However, some studies show that their ambitions quickly reach a steep mountain edge and then fall off it in the first two years into the work.
Although one would expect that work-life balance could be the reason behind this, most women cited losing confidence in their ability to match the stereotype of what success looks like at an African company. Others face non-ending battles to dethrone them from their positions and have to leave in constant fear of losing their jobs to their male counterpart.
For a long time, the place of women in the African countries has been to sit at home and raise children. The idea that they now have a seat at the table is still not fully embraced by many in the workplaces. This explains why most men are not fully open to listening to their ideas, and will often overlook any contributions.
At the same time, women fear being rejected or ostracized, so they choose to keep the opinions or thoughts to themselves.
In as much as women love to grow in their careers, they also would want for their families to thrive. So they’re always juggling between work and life, often, more than their husbands.
Besides, women have to deal with pregnancies, meaning, they’ll need a maternity leave, maybe once, twice, thrice or even four times. This might sound like a good thing, but not in the eyes of an employer. They, therefore, will prefer giving the top responsibilities to a man, because they are sure of his availability.
They also see men as reliable because they can easily stay late into the work, or over the weekend, something most women can’t do. In that case, motherhood makes women less appealing for specific positions or responsibilities.
Enemies of their own
It is no news that most women do not support their kind. When a man and a woman are battling for a position, most women will support the man, even if the woman over qualifies for the job.
Women leaders also face a lot of criticism; some will say they do not deserve the position, some will disregard their opinions and others will conclude that they slept their way to the top. It is ironic how women find it hard to garner support from other women.
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