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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 10:50 GMT
Blazing a trail for Africa's women
By Lucy Fleming
BBC News website

African women are celebrating, as Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has become the continent's first elected woman president.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Mrs Sirleaf says she want to bring motherly sensitivity to her job

The 67-year-old grandmother said she hoped her win would "raise the participation of women not just in Liberia but also in Africa".

"It's a historical phenomenon, which is going to be an example to other African countries... I could scream my heart out," Nigerian politician Sarah Jubril told the BBC's World Today programme. So is Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf's apparent victory the start of a trend?

Ugandan academic Sylvia Tamale says African patriarchal societies like to see women firmly in their place. She quotes a Ugandan man at a woman candidate's parliamentary campaign rally in 1996 asking: "Have you ever heard a hen crow?"

Yet, despite these traditional values, African women can crow success on a number of fronts.

Leading the world

For the past two years Rwanda has led the world in parliamentary representation for women.

Ope and her friends
Everything starts with the people and women are the ones that hold the key to bring change
Ope Ogundokun
Nigerian student

Its case is more unusual given the large number of people, educated and moneyed, who returned from the diaspora after the 1994 genocide - but it does reflect the trend in countries moving from post-colonial turmoil to multi-party democracy.

In rankings compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Mozambique, South Africa and Burundi have more than 30% of parliamentary seats held by women, compared to an average of 19% for their contemporaries in Europe.

New constitutions like those adopted in Burundi and Rwanda ensure ethnic and gender quotas, while political parties like South Africa's ruling African National Congress have quotas for women candidates.

Grassroots

Affirmative action has it critics, but as Kulah Balo - a woman farmer in Sinje village in Liberia - illustrates things are changing even in remote areas.

Wangari Maathai
Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize

"Women are becoming more involved in making decisions in the village. Before, when the men held public gatherings here, they told us women to stay behind. If we went, they wouldn't let us say anything," she told the BBC.

Mrs Balo says with more educated women in the public eye, ordinary Liberian women have been given a sense of empowerment.

"Before whatever the man said would go but now both husband and wife take decisions together."

And it was fighting a cause for ordinary women that won Kenya environmentalist and politician Wangari Maathai international recognition.

Known for her tree-planting campaigns, last year she was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for promoting social, economic and cultural reforms.

Mrs Sirleaf and Mrs Maathai share - as well as iron determination - a feminine approach to politics.

Mrs Sirleaf says she wants "to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency" as a way of healing the wounds of war.

Queen-makers

Feminine sensitivity, however, is not something that is immediately associated with Zimbabwe's Vice-President Joyce Mujuru, whose nom de guerre during the 1970s liberation struggle was "Spill Blood".

Nigeria's finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was once vice-president of the World Bank

Analysts believe she was picked as President Robert Mugabe's number two last year, not only because she is from his ethnic clan but because her husband, Solomon Mujuru, once led the army and can still guarantee their loyalty.

This is a slight role-reversal. In the past, it was by pulling strings from behind the scenes that women managed to exercise power.

In Rwanda, former first lady Agathe Kanziga, married to the late President Juvenal Habyarimana, and her family kept a firm grip on the steering wheel until 1994.

'Iron Ladies'

But despite concerns about Mrs Mujuru's leadership qualities, she has earned respect for going back to school to finish her education as well as taking up a ministerial post after independence in 1980.

Edith Nawakwi (The Post)
We [women] are in the majority
Zambian presidential hopeful Edith Nawakwi
And education remains the biggest challenge as girls' schooling is often sacrificed in favour of boys - for example in Benin only 47% of girls attend primary school compared to 61% of boys.

After Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist, perhaps Africa's most powerful woman is Nigeria's feisty Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. A one time vice-president of the World Bank, she is waging war on corruption in Nigeria and has negotiated a debt relief deal worth $18bn (10bn).

Mozambique's Prime Minister Luisa Dias Diogo is another former World Bank employee, who shares the nickname "Iron Lady" with Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf.

In a strange coincidence, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf will be Liberia's second female head-of-state, after Ruth Perry who acted as a transitional leader for a short time in the late 1990s.

Competition

Another concern for African women campaigners is that women are often raised to see each other as competitors.

Mozambican PM
Luisa Dias Diogo is tipped to be Mozambique's president one day

Without unity, Zambia's National Women Lobby Group argues that women will have no hope of capturing the presidency next year.

This week the umbrella group announced it was backing the candidacy of the FDD's Edith Nawakwi.

"This is the first time the women's movement has clearly indicated to the country that it needs to take seriously the issue of having a female president," Ms Nawakwi said - urging women to go and register to vote.

"We are in the majority."

Despite the fact women are a majority in Africa, to gain a meaningful mandate they need the respect of their male constituents and colleagues.

Ingredients

Even high-ranking female politicians can sometimes be treated with little or no respect.

Three years ago, Uganda's then Vice-President Specioza Kazibwe revealed that she had been forced to leave her husband after he had assaulted her.

The revelation caused a stir in Uganda, where wife-beating is not uncommon.

In Liberia, Mrs Sirleaf will need to win over the ex-combatants, who largely favoured the brawn of her opponent, the ex-footballer George Weah.

With so many obstacles, female politicians in Africa must often feel it is almost impossible to get to the top.

But Mozambique's Prime Minister Diogo - tipped one day to be president - says she just treats it like a Mozambican woman who has to create a meal for a large family, often without ingredients.




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