For a long time now women have been used as pawns in political games that have seen men getting into influential positions the world over.
In Africa, women remain largely in the background though they are in the majority and always helping to catapult men into powerful positions.
So the announcement by the African Union that 2015 is the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development was welcomed by many who yearn to see more being done to enhance women’s participation and representation in decision-making structures in Africa.
To discuss this and many other issues affecting the continent was the 24th African Union Summit that brought Africa’s leaders together recently in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The summit ended with strong calls for women empowerment as a step towards achieving the goals of Agenda 2063, the continent’s development blueprint for the next 50 years.
At the helm of all this and trying to make sure that African leaders walk the talk is AU Commission Chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
I caught up with her at the end of the summit to hear her views on what had been agreed on by the leaders, in particular to learn more about how as a woman she had made it to the top.
Supported by the Ministers of the African Union in charge of gender and women’s affairs, who met ahead of the crucial summit and called for, among other things, an urgent mindset change to remove constraints to women’s rights and empowerment, Dlamini-Zuma says access to quality education is key to reducing the gap between men and women.
Asked how she got to be where she is today, Dlamini-Zuma, a South African, said: “One, I listened to my parents; secondly I also listened to them when they said education was important and number three, I joined youth organizations when I was young; women’s organizations and freedom movements – at the time I joined the ANC.”
She continued: “All these things shape who you are. They give you the experience that is needed and also if you work with other people, they push you, they give you the energy and so forth. So probably if I didn’t work with other women from a young age I wouldn’t be where I am today. Most things work better when you work with others. When you are working collectively with others you are stronger.”
But the journey to the top has not been without its challenges, she says.
“A lot of the challenges were challenges that applied to every black person in South Africa,” she said.
“But there were also challenges that also applied specifically to women; whether it’s just in the home where there’s no electricity or water; it’s the girls that always go and fetch water, that look for firewood but also in some homes girls are not looked at with equal value with the boys. But I was fortunate myself because both my parents treated us equally.”
Dlamini-Zuma says she will work hard with her colleagues on the continent, calling for changing mindsets, a thing she says is key to Africa’s development.
She wants governments on the continent to commit to ending child marriage; the development and implementation of comprehensive action plans, and inclusion of ending child marriage as an indicator for monitoring Agenda 2063 for the empowerment and well-being of girls.
“We are making progress as Africa and with this year being declared the year of the woman and this decade also being declared the African Women’s Decade, we will certainly see major changes as we push to enhance women’s participation and representation in decision-making structures,” said Dlamini-Zuma.
Women, she adds, must support each other to ensure they attain their goals.
Dlamini-Zuma says without women’s support, she wouldn’t have made it to be where she is today and will use her experience to help support and mentor young girls and other women.
“I must say that I’m getting a lot of support from other women, not only now but I got a lot of support when I was running (for the AU Commission Chair’s post), difficult as it was. They were very supportive and even now, they are supportive.”
Dlamini-Zuma says it is befitting that 2015 is the year the AU adopted Agenda 2063, the same year that has been dedicated to women’s empowerment and development.
“During 2015, we shall take our continental program of gender equality and women’s empowerment to a higher level by ensuring that women are at the table in conflict resolution and peace building; by increasing the representation of women in public life; through the economic empowerment and financial inclusion of women; and by modernizing agriculture, and addressing women’s access to land, technology, markets, infrastructure, and capital,” she said.
She continued: “During the year of women, we must pay special attention to the girl child, making sure that they are all in and remain in school, that we end child marriages and female genital mutilation, teenage parenthood and harness the potential of both boys and girls.”
It remains to be seen whether Dlamini-Zuma’s dream of empowering girls and women on the continent will receive the much-needed support from African leaders who many are calling on to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to gender equality.
“We must be the change to get the Africa we want,” she says. “If Agenda 2063 is to bear fruit, no woman, no girl child should be left behind. All of us must work together to ensure we transform our continent.”