The Contribution of Women in Leadership in Africa and How the UN is Partnering with the AU to Help Prepare the Next Generation of Women Leaders in Africa

Photo: Gleestitch Studios
Photo: Gleestitch Studios

Throughout the centuries of African history, women have played an integral role in society and shaped the culture of their communities and their larger societies.

Throughout the centuries of African history, women have played an integral role in society and shaped the culture of their communities and their larger societies. All across the continent, our history reflects the contribution of important women leaders who have played significant roles in the history and development of their societies and countries.

The number of women in senior-level government positions has been steadily increasing, and that is an encouraging development @HannaTetteh

Women have played some powerful roles in African history. They include Queen Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, whose 21-year reign was noted as a period of peace and prosperity; Dihiya, an Amazigh warrior Queen, who lived in what is present-day Algeria and is famous for having twice beaten back Umayyad invaders; the warrior Queen Amina of Zazzau in present-day Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, known for her leadership, governance and expansion of her kingdom through conquest; Queen Nzinga in what is now Angola, who forged strategic alliances and was tenacious in resisting Portugal’s colonial aspirations; Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen mother of Ejisu in present-day Ghana, who led the Ashanti resistance against the British; Empress Taytu Betul, who fought in the famous battle of Adwa, which is thought of as the most important victory of an African army in resisting colonial domination; and Empress Zauditu, who saw Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations.  

Over the last century, women played important roles in resisting the colonial administration and subsequently in the fight for independence. The Abeokuta Women’s Union, which represented over 100 000 women in Nigeria and was led by Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, revolted against the colonial administration when they sought to impose taxes on them, engaging in tax boycotts, and sending a representative to London to present their case. During the struggle for liberation across the continent in Algeria, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, among others, as well as in South Africa in the fight against Apartheid, women played important roles. However, even though they made essential contributions, these were not reflected in their participation in leadership roles in all cases in post-colonial governance. 

That did not prevent more women from aspiring to play more active roles in leadership and governance in their respective countries. From the beginning of this century, we have seen greater participation of women in governance and leadership in Africa. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Liberia’s and Africa’s first democratically elected female President in 2006. She played an important role in the post-conflict reconstruction and development of her country, for which she won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

We have since then also had President Catherine Samba Panza of the Central African Republic, President Ameenah Gurib Faki of Mauritius, President Joyce Banda of Malawi, President Sahle Work Zewde of Ethiopia, and most recently President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania. African women have not only served in the highest office in their respective countries, but since the beginning of the 1990s and up to the present day, many more women across the continent have served in the executive arm of government as vice presidents, prime ministers, ministers of state, and in the legislature. Madam Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma also deserves special mention, given that when she was elected Chairperson of the African Union (AU) in July 2012, she became the first woman to lead the organisation or its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. The number of women in senior-level government positions has been steadily increasing, and that is an encouraging development. Four African countries, including Rwanda, Namibia, South Africa and Senegal, are among the top 15 countries with the most women in parliament worldwide. Rwanda tops the list globally, with 61.3% of its members of parliament being women. However, the sub-Saharan African average is 23.6%, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The UN Office to the AU works to promote coordinated, collaborative and mutually reinforcing responses to Africa’s peace and security challenges, including the inclusion of women in peace processes @HannaTetteh

Nevertheless, if we only focus on women in political leadership, it would give an incomplete picture of African women’s leadership on the continent. Therefore, I would like to recollect the important work of the late Professor Wangari Maathai, the environmental activist and Nobel Laureate. Through her Green Belt Movement, she mobilised people to plant trees throughout Kenya to restore the ecological balance and maintain the livelihoods of communities. In our publication developed in partnership with the AU entitled “She Stands for Peace”, we also told the stories of several African women playing important roles in peacebuilding in their communities. I would like to make special mention of Julienne Lusenge, who has been a leading activist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo fighting against gender-based violence (GBV) and advocating for the survivors of sexual violence in conflict, as well as Betty Bigombe, who has had significant roles leading peace and humanitarian efforts in Northern Uganda as a Minister of State. In her private capacity, Bigombe also served as Chief Mediator in the conflict engaging the Lord’s Resistance Army. 

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda

The UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 and its follow-on resolutions, specifically UNSCR 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122 and 2242, established a broad spectrum of norms which came to form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. These resolutions emphasise the importance of the full and meaningful participation of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, mediation and peacekeeping, as well as in ensuring an inclusive and comprehensive response in post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. UNSCR 1325 emphasises the importance of the equal participation of women for sustainable peace and security. 

While there has been tremendous progress since the adoption of UNSCR 1325, there is still much work to be done. The development of national action plans as instruments to localise the implementation of the WPS Agenda is critical. Currently, only 25 AU Member States have developed their National Action Plans. Regrettably, women’s participation in peace processes is quite often more symbolic, and it is sometimes resisted by the principal parties to the conflict, especially when they do not belong to the groups of armed actors or, in some instances, due to cultural norms. There is a lack of coordination and cooperation among different actors working on WPS at the regional and national levels, and this has to change to create the momentum for inclusion. 

Women’s civil society organisations working on peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and gender equality remain underfunded and not always well integrated into the mainstream policy discussions on WPS. Women and girls continue to be targeted for sexual and GBV, including rape. The protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence remains a key challenge during conflicts, in post-conflict environments, as well as in challenging humanitarian settings. While we celebrate the achievements since the adoption of UNSCR 1325, we also need to be mindful that there is still a long road left for us to travel.

Women have played important roles and taken leadership in matters relating to peacebuilding, post conflict reconstruction and development. They must be at the table in formal peace negotiations @HannaTetteh

The UN Partnership with the AU

The UN Office to the AU works to promote coordinated, collaborative and mutually reinforcing responses to Africa’s peace and security challenges, including the inclusion of women in peace processes. Taking cognisance of this, we have consciously built the implementation of the WPS Agenda into our partnership with the AU Commission, Regional Economic Communities (RECs), and Regional Mechanisms (RMs) in Africa through the UN-AU Joint Framework for Enhanced Partnership on peace and security. In line with our mandate, we are focusing on supporting the development of women leaders in different fields as follows:

  • Mentoring programmes for young women in leadership who participate in work relating to the WPS agenda. This mentorship is intended to encourage and support young women to take up leadership positions and equip them with the necessary skills. They are paired with more experienced women recognised as models to learn from them and improve their effectiveness. Some of this work has been in the area of youth training to use culture and heritage to influence their peers and communities and towards the mediation of conflict, all in an effort to contribute to the objective of silencing the guns in Africa.
  • The AU Female Mediators (FemWise) initiative training and induction programmes.  
  • Jointly conducted training for gender focal points and women’s organisations on gender-responsive conflict analysis and mediation, with the aim of building their leadership skills in addressing peace and security concerns in the region from gender and human rights perspectives.
  • Started an initiative called “She Stands for Peace”, under which we have published a book of the same name, documenting women’s lived experiences in line with the UNSCR 1325. We have also developed a podcast series under this name where we interviewed WPS practitioners on their work in their respective fields and which helps to uplift the voices and contributions of women. We plan to launch the second edition of “She Stands for Peace” as an eBook shortly as well as a public website dedicated to providing resources to support a community of practice on the WPS agenda in Africa during the month of March.

At the UN Office to the AU, we are committed to supporting the AU in enhancing the participation and contribution of women in leadership and governance and in the implementation of the WPS Agenda. As we move on beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, our dream is to see progress with the implementation of continental frameworks that promote gender parity and inclusion so that, over time, the women and girls of Africa will be in more positions of leadership and able to contribute to the development of the continent. 

Hanna Tetteh is the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to the AU and the Head of the UN Office to the AU

Article by:

Hanna Serwaa Tetteh
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union

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