Happy International Women’s Day! Across cultures and societies, women play a vital role in development. Particularly in Africa, women make a sizeable contribution to the continent’s economy. Women entrepreneurs in the continent account for the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in the world, this represents over 25 per cent of the total number of women entrepreneurs according to the African Development Bank.
Despite issues of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination faced by this gender, there are lots of women like Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (Nigeria), Huda Sha’arawi (Egypt), Wangai Matai (Kenya), and Aoua Keita (Mali) who have and are changing the narrative across the continent’s social, economic, cultural, and political spheres.
As the world celebrates women on this day, Edugist highlights some women who have through their words, activism, and contributions to development in Africa, been truly inspirational.
The seeds of success in every nation on Earth are best planted in women and children- Joyce Banda, Malawi
Joyce Banda is the President of the Republic of Malawi (2012-2014) and the first woman to serve as head of state anywhere in Southern Africa. While serving as president, Banda worked to increase human rights. She is credited for turning round an ailing economy on the verge of collapse in April 2012.
Through her non-profit organisation, Joyce Banda Foundation International, she continuously works to increase access to primary and secondary education for children, particularly those less privileged.
To girls and women everywhere, I issue a simple invitation. My sisters, my daughters, my friends; find your voice – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia
Renowned for being the first elected female head of state in Africa (2006 -2018), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is without a doubt an inspiration to women across the globe. During her tenure, she made elementary education free and mandatory for all children. She has passed record-setting legislation to increase transparency in the Liberian government.
In 2011, Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent efforts to promote peace and her struggle for women’s rights. Through her organization, the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center) she continues to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women.
Emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of humanitarian or compassionate attitude.
A lot of us bring up our little boys as princes and our little girls as Cinderellas who must wait on the princes. Then we realise something is wrong, they should be equal – Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa
Dr. Dlamini-Zuma is another woman of many firsts whose active voice and contributions have impacted women’s development in the continent. She is a fiery freedom fighter and South African politician who emerged as the first female leader of the African Union (2012 – 2017). Before leading the AU, she served as the first Minister of Health under the Nelson Mandela’s administration. As health minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, she laid the foundations for free public healthcare for the poor, took a hard line on smoking and made medicines more accessible.
While serving as the head of the African Union, she created Agenda 2063, the AU’s first concrete long-term programme. She was also focused on actionable steps to development and achieving gender equality in Africa. For instance, she forced recruiters to re-advertise positions when they failed to shortlist any female candidates, in order to bring gender balance within the commission. Dr. Dlamini-Zuma is a stalwart and champion of equality and African development.
If you have a sense of purpose that drives you, then aim high and become a leader and make room as you go – Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria
Dr Okonjo-Iweala is the seventh director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) from 2021. The Nigerian-born economist cum international development expert is the first female and first African to take up this role. She is also respected for being the first female and African candidate to contest for the presidency of the World Bank Group in 2012, having earning the backing of Africa and major developing countries in the first truly contestable race for the world’s highest development finance post.
Prior to her emergence as WTO DG, Dr Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance twice. She spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion.
Dr Okonjo-Iweala has been listed in the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World (Forbes, 2022, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011), as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World (TIME, 2014 and 2021), one of the 25 most influential women (Financial Times, 2021), one of Transparency International’s Eight Female Anti-Corruption Fighters Who Inspire (2019), amongst many other recognitions.
Women need to believe that they can do whatever they set themselves to do, despite the society’s pressure and people telling them otherwise. You can only have the power to be a change-maker if you believe in yourself – Meaza Ashenafi, Ethiopia
Meaza is the first woman in Ethiopian history to become the Chief Justice of Ethiopia (Chief Justice). She is renowned for her contributions in women’s rights advocacy and being the pioneer of different innovations such as the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA) and Ethiopia’s first women’s bank (Enat Bank). Under her leadership, EWLA has helped more than 100,000 women obtain free legal advice and they were able to represent women in major cases relating to the abduction of women and other harmful traditional practices.
Over the years, Ashenafi has gained domestic and international recognition for her work in promoting women’s rights in Ethiopia and receiving numerous awards for philanthropy and leadership including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
When people talk about changing a country, they’re talking about the beneficiaries. And who are the beneficiaries? The women. We can’t just have peace delivered to us on a plate; we have to be active participants –Aloisea Inyumba, Rwanda
Inyumba was a visionary politician who is revered for the role she played in the rebuilding of her country Rwanda after the Rwandan Revolution. At age 26, she became Rwanda’s first Minister of Gender and Social Affairs. She helped design the burial of some 800,000 victims of the Rwandan Genocide. She also devised a system to care for half a million orphans. “Each One Take One” was her motto as she urged every mother to add at least one more child to her family.
In the political sphere, she created five tiers of local to national women’s councils that indirectly fed into the parliament, resulting in the highest percentage of women legislators in the world, and making Rwanda the first country to break the 50% barrier for women’s participation. Before she died in 2012, Inyumba was also involved in women activism at the global level. She was a member of the Women Waging Peace Network, a movement that now includes 2,000 women leaders spanning the globe.
Don’t wait for a Gandhi, don’t wait for a King, don’t wait for a Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Gandhi, you are your own King – Leymah Roberta Gbowee, Liberia
Gbowee is an international peace activist and advocate for women’s rights, who led the peace movement, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.
Her efforts to end the war, along with her collaborator Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, helped usher in a period of peace and enabled a free election in 2005 that Sirleaf won. Together with Sirleaf, Gbowee was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.
Speak up against those who cannot speak for themselves. Let’s speak in the language of the youths. Visit schools, visit hospitals. What assistance do we offer those who cannot help themselves? We should assist rape victims. We should be the voice of society – Folake Solanke, first female Senior Advocate (SAN) of Nigeria
Solanke is the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the first Nigerian female lawyer to serve as Senior Counsel in the country. She is the first Commissioner of Western State (1972) and the first African International President of Zonta International, an international service organization that focuses primarily on advancing the status of women. Her contributions to women’s advancement has been trailed with positive acclamations over the years.