International Women’s Day is a big deal: the world unites to celebrate the awesome achievements and the tough challenges faced by women. This year feels especially significant – in the UK women have had the right to vote for a century but as we know from the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns, there’s still a way to go.
For many women, even in so-called developed countries, it still feels like a man’s world with genuine female equality as far away as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But for now, let’s shine the spotlight on female success stories, loudly applauding the unsung gamechangers. We pay tribute to just some of the outstanding African women who have broken through the glass ceiling, sometimes in the face of almost impossible odds.
Feminism in Africa
Some history books may lead us to believe that feminism was invented in the 1960s by and for women in Europe and North America. High on the idea that, thanks to the Pill, we were now in control of our own destinies, with much fanfare and hullaballoo we burnt our bras, cast off our pinnies, and marched fearlessly onto male terrain.
But this version of feminism is only half the story.
For the past 100 years, a parallel movement addressing the African sisterhood’s trinity of gender, cultural tradition and race of the has been gathering momentum, standing up for the rights of women across the continent. Some of the early trailblazers may not be household names but their words, actions and achievements rocked many patriarchal boats in their respective countries.
In her comprehensive overview, Minna Salami* traces the roots of African feminism back to such women as Sierra Leonean, Adelaide Casely-Hayford (1868-1960) who devoted herself passionately to the education of girls.
Charlotte Maxeke (1874-1939) was the first black woman to graduate from a South African university and a political activist throughout her life. She protested about the exploitation of women in the workplace and vehemently opposed passes for black women during Apartheid. In 1918, she founded the Bantu Women’s League, a branch of the ANC.
Huda Sharaawi (1879-1947), philanthropist, writer, nationalist and political campaigner, she is credited with setting up the Egyptian Feminist Union back in 1923 and being the founder of Egyptian feminism. Her political reach extended beyond her native country to women in the rest of the Arab world.
Ms. Salami also notes how the liberation struggle in Algeria, Mozambique, Guinea, Angola and Kenya when women fought alongside men, played a major role in the strengthening of the feminist movement in those countries and beyond.
So, these legendary women earned their place in history as role models, icons and pioneers by putting equality firmly on the agenda, creating a platform from which future generations of women across Africa have continued to challenge gender stereotypes and campaign for women’s freedom and empowerment.
With children to feed, clothe, and educate, women across Africa have traditionally been at the heart of economic activity. Small-scale farming and trading are widespread across the continent and according to the Master Card Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE), almost 80% of these farmers and traders are women.
From selling vegetables in local markets to medium and increasingly large-scale operations, women have proved again and again that they have an excellent head for business in a wide range of sectors – IT, media, security, finance, oil, fashion. This aptitude for entrepreneurship was confirmed by the MIWE which found that female entrepreneurs across Africa demonstrate resilience, determination, ambition and a keen desire to provide for their families, that they are astute opportunity-seekers and bold risk-takers – all essential qualities for successful entrepreneurship.
You want names? Sure, though of course to pay tribute to the thousands of dynamic and successful African female entrepreneurs would fill a book the size of the complete works of Shakespeare, so I have to limit myself to just a tiny sample of these superwomen.
Shortlisted by Forbes as one of Africa’s most successful women, Divine Ndhlukuka started her security business with 4 employees at her home in Zimbabwe. Securico now employs over 3000 staff, of whom 900 are women.
Folorunsho Alakija is a self-made Nigerian billionaire. Starting her career as a secretary, she has since turned her hand to the banking and fashion sectors and is now making huge waves in the oil industry.
Khanyi Dhlomo from South Africa proves just how far an aspirational young woman can travel. A journalist in her 20s, she has gone on to become a commanding figure in her country’s media industry. CEO and co-founder of Ndalo Media, she has a string of glossy publications to her name
Hot off the press are these 2 women, finalists in the Sub Saharan 2018 Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, founders of hugely profitable businesses. Their successes benefit both themselves and some of the most vulnerable people in their countries.
Melissa Bime, founder of Infiuss in Cameroon
As a nurse in Cameroon, Melissa saw for herself the toll the inefficient delivery of life-saving blood supplies took and so has developed a digital supply-chain platform that gives hospitals access to local ready-to-use blood supplies.
Evelyn Namara, founder of Vouch Digital in Uganda
To support farmers in rural Uganda, Evelyn has developed a digital voucher system vastly improving the way subsidiaries are exchanged.
For each and every one of these formidable women who have carved their names in the history books, there are multitudes of other female entrepreneurs as well the unsung heroes, labouring away at grassroots levels making ends meet to provide basic necessities to their families.
And finally, to those who argue that there’s still so far to go before women in Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) are truly equal, I say, hey, it’s a glass half full/half empty thing. Yes, it’s a long walk to equality but a huge amount of ground has been covered. Campaigning over issues such as FGM, forced marriages, land ownership, dowries, domestic violence, sexuality continues and will continue into the foreseeable future but let’s not underestimate what’s been achieved.
Change takes time – neither Rome nor Accra or Addis Ababa was created in a day!
Happy International Women’s Day!
Words: Yvonne Lloyd