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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 March 2005, 13:53 GMT
Africa's women speak out
The BBC News website asked some of the continent's influential female personalities for their views on the role of women in contemporary Africa.

Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe)

African writer and director Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Mutoko in colonial Rhodesia, but at the age of two she moved with her parents to England. She returned to her homeland in 1980 just before it became Zimbabwe under black-majority rule.

Tsitsi's writing debut Nervous Conditions was the first novel to be published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman and won her the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989.

Some of her film credits include Neria, Zimbabwe's most successful movie of 1993 which received the International Black Cinema Award in Berlin, and Everyone's Child which was shown worldwide at various festivals and more recently Elephant People.

What is the role of women in Africa today?

The role of African women has not changed much. We bear children, make and manage homes, earn our living, contribute to the running of society.

What has changed is the context. In today's post modern information age, we are coping with new problems of isolation, disintegration of traditional networks and support systems and the increasing pace of life.

What challenges do they face?

I think one problem is a lack of unity amongst women

Challenges are economic and social. The latter being in terms of the roles women are assigned in society.

The economic situation is worsening by the day as a result of the market economy that determines access to and distribution of commodities.

Traditionally women have been excluded from economically viable positions in society, and women are having to challenge this exclusion constantly.

Great gains have been made, but the challenge is still with us.

Are enough women in positions of power throughout Africa?

Absolutely not.

Scene from Elephant People directed by Tsitsi Dangarembga

In Zimbabwe we are pleased to have a woman vice-president.

Even though the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region has agreed on quotas for representation of women in parliament, none of the countries has fulfilled these quotas.

I think one problem is a lack of unity amongst women. Vying for scarce resources, women tend to see the other woman as a threat.

The fact that the Zanu-PF Women's League had agreed on and united to back a candidate for the vice-presidency, shows that unity between women can achieve significant results for women.

Do you think African women are empowered to bring about change?

I think we have the potential but we have to organise ourselves.

Women are not often given recognition for outstanding work they do in their fields

Organisation is lacking.

There are a lot of reasons. One is the perennial woman's problem of time.

This is particularly true as women are carrying out multiple roles as bread winners, wives and mothers.

The other problem is lack of resources. It is very difficult for groups formed by African women to obtain the funds they need whether from their own countries or abroad.

Finally women are not often given recognition for outstanding work they do in their fields.

This is frequently due to male domination in the fields, but also due to jealousy and lack of unity on the part of women.

In what way do you think women can bring about change most successfully?

I think the most accessible path to change is to be a role model in everything one does. I can't say I live up to this, but I try.

Book cover for Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Tsitsi's debut novel book cover (Seal Press)

This doesn't cost anything and it inspires young people to behave in more positive ways.

If women uphold the values of honesty, fairness and diligence in all our activities this would definitely have impact.

Apart from being a role model, women have to learn to speak out about their lives, their experiences and their visions.

Women are still very afraid to raise their voices for fear of victimisation, or when they speak, they do not speak from their personal woman's truth but say what they think possessors of needed resources would want them to say.

Finally, again women have to organise in whatever area they are active in.

I personally got fed up with the way women were being portrayed in the motion picture images that we see in Zimbabwe (both of local and international origin), so I got involved in Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ) which works to create a space for women's cinema narrative.

This year we are going regional.

Are women's voices being heard?

I personally do not think women's voices are being heard at adequate volume nationally, or internationally.

Women still want to get married, and always will

It is very difficult for a woman to rise to a position where she has national and international recognition. Often, on the way, the women's struggle takes a back seat as she struggles for survival.

Once a woman has secured a position, she is also aware of the national problems which need to be tackled. It is therefore often difficult to emphasise women's issues when there are many pressing national issues.

I think the bottom line is that as Africa gets poorer, women are going to suffer.

This is certainly the case in Zimbabwe, and there is great widespread resentment at those who control the world's resources for putting the country in this position.

What stigmas or taboos prevent women having a stronger voice and if so, what could change this?

Women still want to get married, and always will.

Thus women often tend to present themselves as good potential or actual wives by adopting meek and submissive ways of behaving.

I think upbringing can change this.

Women are often afraid to excel because they believe this will cast them in a threatening image. Women need to be told from an early age that they can excel.

What should the role of women be in future generations?

I think women have to think about defining a new femininity or womanliness.

Women as well as men should start wanting to stand for what is positive and life affirming, even in times of hardship

There has been lots of talk about the new man in the past couple of decades. But I think women need to redefine themselves too.

Adopting 'masculine' behaviours has often been seen as being necessary for women to progress.

This, I think, combined with the extreme stress of living in Zimbabwe at the moment make women very prone to committing all sorts of anti social behaviours and crimes.

I do not believe women should be the only custodians of a nation's values. The whole nation has to participate in creating, practising and protecting its values.

Women as well as men should start wanting to stand for what is positive and life affirming, even in times of hardship.

What inspires you?

Zimbabwe's Vice-President Joyce Mujuru (AFP/Getty Images)
Vice-President Joyce Mujuru is an inspiration to Tsitsi

Currently, one thing that inspires me is the solidarity within SADC as Zimbabwe goes through a difficult period.

Without this support from SADC, Zimbabwe would be in an even worse position.

I am also inspired by Vice-President Mujuru. Her ministries have always been known to run smoothly and she has been able to consolidate her position without posturing and rhetoric.

Margaret Dongo, also a politician, who had sufficient courage of her convictions to leave Zanu-PF and stand as an independent is also an inspiration.

Our political situation is so highly charged at the moment, that inspirations tend to be political.

I look forward to getting back to normal so as to draw inspiration from other areas of life.

We have to unite and support each other

I was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso recently for the African film festival. The president of Burkina Faso came to the opening and closing ceremonies and presented the main trophy.

That was inspirational, to see a government involved in matters of peace that broaden the human spirit, and to see the importance that culture, in the form of cinema, is accorded in that country.

What would your message be?

Unity. We have to unite and support each other.

Your comments:

It is said that behind every successful man, there is always a woman. Now, when the world, more so Africa are plunged into corruption, civil wars and other woes, where or what role have the women played in trying to avoid such situations?

Sometimes we have put so much demand on our men to give us more than they can afford and as a result, they have ended up stealing or killing just to please us. Right now the average woman's objective is to outlive her husband and inherit whatever they have worked for. I used to sympathise with we women, but of late, I have a lot of misgivings.

Never mind how much book knowledge a woman has, we have become so greedy that all our priorities in life have been misplaced. You can go ahead and scold me, but that is the truth about some women and I hate all that is going on.
Shuttie FN Libuta, Kitwe, Zambia

My thoughts on the African woman... hmmmm, where to begin? My thoughts are with the poor, rural African woman. In spite of a difficult socio-cultural, economic and political environment, she wakes up every morning, works till the end of day, and provides for her family. But she also joins hands with other women to try make this provisioning easier.

I suggest that we focus on these little victories, on what women do (and have done) to overcome challenges and conquer adversities, when we talk about African women. I think that it is here that we will draw inspiration and lessons for all of us in our daily struggles. It is from magnifying these little victories that we will eventually find ways, our own ways, to overcome the structures that perpetuate inequalities.
Nyambura, Nairobi, Kenya

Having lived in Zimbabwe for many years I can honestly say that women have the same faults and engage in the same intrigues as men. They are no better and no worse. It is silly to say that men in Africa are "keeping women down" against their will and they must therefore fight against men. Men and women are different physically, mentally and emotionally, but these traits compliment each other in society. A greater understanding by both sexes of each other, their roles in society and their mutual hopes and aspirations is the only way forward.
Tariq Ali, Houston, Texas

African women have woken up to their morning and we are taking our future in our hands, there are lots of women from African who are bringing a turn around. In my country Nigeria, it is a thing of the past and we are well represented in all the sector of the economy. The only problem is child birth mortality rate. We need more help for women in the rural areas. Higher education scholarships will enhance these improvements and give a thrust to the freedom we have found.

The light will be enkindled, and the dreams of many young women I know will be realised should they afford higher education their soul pine for. It is a race, we are running it and we believe our daughters will have a better life and they will be seen in the same light as every man who stands on the grounds of our country.
Abimbola Esther, Lagos, Nigeria

In Mozambique Frelimo has almost 48% of women among its 160 MP. Prime Minister, Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Labour, Mines, Social Affairs and Justice are women, as is the first Vice President of Parliament and the Deputy Head of Frelimo group in parliament. Two Provincial governors out of 11 are women. In terms of gender participation in decision bodies Mozambique presents one of the highest records both in Africa and in the world. But gender participation is still needed much more - it is a long road ahead.
S Vieira, Maputo, Mozambique

African women deserve well recognition for their work hard. I give all African women respect as my parents tought me. Many Africans men are not responsible for their family as women do in our daily life. The only men work in Africa is to bring food. Other then, women take care for children, cooking and fetching water in a distance of 2/3 miles.

Most of the African culture didn't even appreciate how hard women work. I feel sad about how hard women work in South Sudan where there no transportation. Africans women need special holidays as appreciations day. I hope the government of southern Sudan will create special holidays for women as appreciation day. Thank you BBC staff for reminding me of how hard Africans raise their children's also thanks Africans women for their work hard in a daily life.
Dhoal Wicthiel, Minnesota/USA

It is clear that African men, no matter where they are in the world, will continue to lord it over their women. African women, therefore, should boldly speak out and claim their rightful place. Until women are allowed equal right and freedom to be themselves, until men learn to accept that women are better and allow women to lead, Africa will continue to dip down wards. African women need to believe in themselves, challenge themselves and rally together to effect change. Some women are so ignorant and deeply rooted in the African culture that they criticize those who try to effect change. Only education can correct such ignorance.
Beatrice Eze, Minnesota, USA

Thomas Sankara, once said, "I can hear the roar of womens silence". With that he undertook to make adult education mandatory for all Burkinabe rural women. Society's future always lies with the woman for every woman wants the best, (better than where she is) for her child. Africa and the world will therefore only endeavour as far as the visions of that society's mothers/women see. Not just in economic terms but in human values that bring genuine peace to societies. In this all women both in developing and developed countries are in the same positions and have the same dreams.
Wangeci , Atlanta, USA

I am astounded she would cite Joyce Mujuru as an inspiration. She's a ruthless Zanu-pf apparatchik and personal beneficiary of Zimbabwe's land expropriation policies. Pandering to corrupt politicians will not advance the cause of women in Africa.
Sean, Washington DC

There are some women in Africa who are doing great things in what is largely a male dominated society. African women have the tenacity to bring about change and will continue in their quest to get into positions that will help to effect that change for other African women.
Patricia Anderson, Harrogate, UK

Most African women continue to shun their strong qualities that lie within them. Generations have passed and the promise to change the old ways of "woman in the kitchen" are right before us. Instilling a sense of humanity without dependence in our children and teaching our little boys to respect girls and see them as equal partners will change perceptions, and I believe this is happening. Coming from a middle class family myself that gave its children, both girls and boys, a fair opportunity at education, I have a lot of hope in how much society is changing. We should stop focusing on what has not been achieved and highlight the successes of women which will ultimately influence the growing generations.
Thandi Mwape, Zambian female in Kosovo

I believe African women can make a great impact if given opportunity in both national and international matters. I am an African still young but I know I'm a world changer.
Blessing, Nigeria

I have enough respect for Tsitsi and her work as the voice for the voiceless women in Africa and the world as a whole. She is a pillar in society, in this I mean she is the new voice needed for enlightenment of the oppressed and disadvantaged women of all colours. I did literature at "A"l evel and most girls in my class took courage from her book (Nervous Conditions) to better themselves. I think if women of the whole world can join her, they have nothing to lose but the chains that keep them down.
Rodrick Kamudyariwa, Dumfries,UK

We have to be careful and not blame African men for the problems of inequality amongst our societies. We have to get to the root of the problem. It is called western culture and ideas. Their thinking has been very detrimental to all societies that they have come in contact with. Take at peek at Iraq. "Same **** different laxative!" A total rejection of Western values and ideas is the cure for Africa. The political, religious, educational and their medical systems are all infested with inconsistencies, hypocrisy and an utter disregard for the majority coloured peoples of the world. Survival by any means necessary is their motto. Africans need to stop with the faithlessness and trust that we have the capacity for self-governing.
Tray Morris, Atlanta, Georgia

There can be no doubt that the women of Africa are the salt of the earth. They work from sunrise past sunset doing every sort of labour necessary. There is no greater paradox on the planet than this awesome effort which gets so scant praise, respect and assistance from the wealthy nations that insist on destroying themselves and this planet due to their over-consumption. Consider this: if the over-fed [people/nations] ate in healthy proportion and sent food, farm equipment and funds from such savings to feed the mothers and others of Africa, AIDS could be brought under control.
Chamae Deosil, Chiang Mai Thailand

I love women, especially my mother . I am a man but I do not think I could afford to be pregnant for two weeks, let alone nine months. Big up, women"
Munyaradzi, Manchster, UK

Civil war aggravates existing poverty, but is not responsible for people's subsequent problems, hopes and dreams.

African women are the most vulnerable women in the world - however, they have no voices to express themselves. They believe in a culture of silence that kills them. African women are victims of sexual violence; consequently, young women and girls are forced to early marriage without their consent. I am very encouraged by the rapid development in women's leadership and this progress should be strongly supported by everybody especially NGOS which work for developmental issues in Africa. I believe if women take over the leadership, stability and sustainable peace should be maintained everywhere in Africa.
Peter Tuach, Minnesota,USA

Women have the potential to excel at whatever they wish to pursue. but a lot of times fellow women are a source of the drawback. Women are the tutors of "chauvanistic cultures" such as submissiveness in marriage etc. To cut the story short: women must learn to unite and work together, not destroy each other. Men network with each other and build each other up. Women compete with each other! And as long as this continues women will always get second best...
Martha Banda, Lusaka, Zambia

When I think of a strong African woman, I think of my mother. She had always managed to stand tall and strong no matter what comes her way. I believe there are many other mothers or women like her in Africa. All they need is to stand together as one against the odds of our African traditions that makes the strongest of them weak in the eyes of many in their individual societies.

I am sure the African women of today have done a lot already and they should be accredited for some of their work, and especially the ones who lived in war torn countries for example Somalia, Sudan, Angola or Burundi etc. With all the countrymen fighting the civil war, the women were left behind to care for the family and that means do their traditional roles as well as men's. So the problem here is when will they be recognized for their effortless work? They are already heroines in my book and in the history of today but when will the Africa men realize that?
Riya Tingwa, Phoenix, AZ

Our women should always be respected as they are the foundation of our African society. Our African fathers usually abandon us for our mothers who struggle all throughout their lives for us. We must respect and support our women as without them, there wouldn't have been any great persons from Africa. Ask any great leader and very few would tell you their parents played a better role to their success.

In the West, when a man divorces a woman, he contributes through child support for the child welfare but in Africa, that is seldom the case. So we must respect our women for the courage they have taken all through to develop our society. We should avoid abusing them.
Rexon, Glasgow, UK/Cameroon.

Everyday I think about how fortunate I am to have the freedoms and the privileges that I do. My heart lies with these African women in their efforts to be able to express themselves.
Julie Jones, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

As our African countries continue to plunged into poverty due to man-made disasters (namely civil wars) What are your views regarding the role of the contemporary African woman as a facilitator of sustainable peace and post-conflict development?
Korto Priscilla Sherman, a contemporary African woman in NY

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