As the protests that led to the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in April continue to rage, the large numbers of women taking to the streets of Khartoum are giving hope to female leaders across Africa. Women, both young and old, have accounted for up to 70% of the protesters in Sudan despite reportedly being targeted with intimidation, harassment, and even rape. The world should recognize their bravery, and take concrete steps to help more African women become political leaders.
Sudan is not an isolated example. Women are playing an increasingly prominent political role in other African countries where they have traditionally been less visible, and often at similar risk of violence and abuse. Female leaders, many of them Muslim like me, were at the forefront of movements to oust former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika earlier this year, and to demand change in Tunisia in 2018. They were also prominent during the “Arab Spring” protests that spread across the region in 2011.
Yet although women have played a crucial part in ending conflicts and energizing protests in Africa and elsewhere, they are often marginalized in the subsequent peacebuilding and political processes. When it comes to formal institutions, men simply take over.
This is part of a broader global problem. According to the United Nations, less than one-quarter of national parliamentarians are women. At the start of this year, there were only 11 female heads of state and ten female heads of government in the world. And the leadership of the UN itself, along with that of many of its agencies and partners, is still male-dominated.
It is vital, therefore, that the women who have led the protests in Sudan are given an equal voice in shaping the country’s political future. This is particularly important in view of the recent suspension of peace talks amid an upswing in violence and attacks on protesters.
Through my own experience in Sierra Leone, I learned that becoming a female political leader requires nurturing and tenacity, supported by mentoring and education. Only then can African women hope to overcome the many barriers they face.
As an African Muslim woman, for example, you suffer gender discrimination at home, within the family, and outside it, in the larger society. Moreover, the sort of leadership qualities that are applauded and celebrated in men – such as self-confidence, assertiveness, decisiveness, and strategic thinking – are seen as negative traits in a woman. You are seen as arrogant, aggressive, manipulative, and controlling. It is very easy to become isolated, and to be criticized and condemned just for being good and successful at your job.
Moreover, African female leaders have been unable to build sufficient support networks. As a result, they have become overstressed and worn out trying to combine the roles of leader, mother, and wife.
Finally, in my work at the UN on sexual violence in conflict, I’ve seen how assaults on women’s rights and autonomy through violent acts, including rape, can be used as a tactic to silence them. We need more effective national and global responses to such attacks, and we must help victims speak out and have their voices heard.
Many of the female protesters in Sudan were targeted by security forces and subjected to repressive norms and laws during al-Bashir’s 30-year rule. Their continued defiance presents the international community with an important opportunity to respond quickly and flexibly to support home-grown and grassroots women’s movements.
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Women’s voices need to be heard directly, rather than through convoluted, short-term, and slow-moving aid and development programs. Just as importantly, we must provide the support that women tell us they need, not (as often happens) what we imagine they need.
Although there are programs that provide innovative and flexible support for young women’s leadership skills, such as CARE’s new Women Lead initiative and Oxfam’s RootsLab, very little funding for such initiatives is available. A recent closed-door, round-table discussion at the United Kingdom’s Overseas Development Institute involving experts across gender research, advocacy, and policymaking identified the need for more collaborative, flexible, and long-term financing to respond to the deep-rooted challenges that drive gender inequalities and limit women’s opportunities to work, lead, and be heard.
To address this problem, the international community should establish a special fund to support and develop women’s political leadership capacities, and to ensure their wellbeing and safety, as they work for change in countries such as Sudan. The fund could finance leadership and media training,community dialogues, personal safety measures, legal and advocacy tools, childcare, and other priority areas.
Such support would enable women to maintain and expand their political involvement in both formal and informal institutions of power. By committing itself to such a funding mechanism, the international community would help to strengthen women’s voices during crucial periods of political upheaval.
Recent events in Sudan and Algeria have shown how powerful African women can be when they have a collective voice. By taking meaningful steps today to support the continent’s emerging female leaders, we can help to create a more just and equal future.