At a recent festival in South Africa attended by young leaders from Africa committed to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, I noticed something endearing. Many women, chosen to attend the meeting as “goalkeepers” because they are taking action in their countries to help to reach the goals, flocked excitedly to hear words of wisdom from Graça Machel, a former freedom fighter in Mozambique and minister and one of The Elders.
It was a beautiful scene to watch. Young African women, including me, see Machel as our Mama, our role model. She is a member of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of 10 distinguished individuals who advocate for equitable and sustainable development in Africa. She is also an internationally recognised and respected advocate for women and children’s rights, and the founder of the Graça Machel Trust.
And because Machel is a role model who is walking the talk, many of us turned to her hoping for tips on how to tackle Africa’s problems.
Her advice was simple: we need to empower women. If half the population is left behind, nobody will reach their goals. She urged us to start by empowering one another and to turn our individual efforts into a river — a movement, a network.
I wondered how many African women in leadership positions could enlist such a worshipful crowd? How many of them are open and willing to share lessons they have learned? How many are willing to pave the way, open their networks and coach young African women and girls to build a pan-African network of powerful women?
Women make up almost 50% of the population in Africa. But African women still hold only a small share of top leadership positions in the continent. According to a 2016 Women Matter Africa McKinsey & Company report, women are still under-represented at every level of top leadership positions, including on the corporate ladder. According to a 2018 Grant Thornton Women in Business: Beyond Policy to Progress report, women fill 29% of senior roles in business in South Africa and one in five local businesses still have no women at all in senior positions.
The shortage of representation of women in senior positions is not only an African problem. It persists around the world, including in the United States and in the United Nations.
If Africa is to achieve the sustainable development goals, representation of women in every area has to double. After all, they make up 50% of the population, and their participation is essential. For example, take goal two, which focuses on ending hunger, achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture. In Africa, women make up half the agricultural workforce and prepare up to 90% of household meals.
Clearly, you cannot end hunger in Africa without women, and we will get there faster if we ensure that they are represented in leadership positions in the agricultural industry.
Furthermore, women are powerful agents of change and development and they can bring in new knowledge, brainpower and innovative ideas to solve Africa’s challenges. Concomitantly, young African women must be mentored so that they can take up these positions.
But it is also not just about doubling the number of women in positions of power. Evidence shows that more gender diversity can translate into increased productivity, greater innovation and greater idea diversity. Furthermore, evidence shows that women leaders are accelerators and can help companies to unlock their “economic prize” associated with pursuing the sustainable goals.
The good news is that Africa is making progress. Ethiopia recently elected its first female president and women now make up 50% of its Cabinet. Also, 50% of Rwandan Cabinet ministers are women.
Africa has also had a handful of women serving as popularly elected presidents, including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who led Liberia from 2006 to 2018, and Joyce Banda, who served as the president of Malawi from 2012 to 2014.
Throughout the continent, increasingly, women are occupying senior positions, beginning with the UN and other international organisations, and in national governments and in civil society organisations. Africa has also produced Nobel prize-winners such as Kenya’s Wangari Maathai and has several influential women in all areas, from business and agriculture technology, science and media.
But, even as women rise to these powerful positions of power, the bigger questions remain: Are women leaders doing their part to bring more young women into positions of influence and power? Are powerful women actively mentoring younger women? Are they extending a helping hand?
Michelle Obama, when introducing then United States president Barack Obama in 2012, said this about helping others: “If you have worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
The truth is, if Africa has to tackle the sustainable development goals and bring meaningful and long-lasting change, African women in positions of influence and power must commit themselves to opening their doors and networks for aspiring young women. They must share their wisdom, including the best practices they have learned during their careers.
By empowering young women and supporting the initiatives they are working, we can set Africa on course towards achieving the sustainable development goals. We must invest, mentor and support them.
Esther Ngumbi is a researcher in the department of entomology at the University of Illinois