25 Years after Beijing: Changing the script about women’s leadership

In a public lecture on pan-Africanism and women’s leadership in Africa to a packed auditorium at Nelson Mandela University at the end of last month, the former president of Malawi, Dr Joyce Banda, argued that the success of economic integration and development will be attained only when women are “fully integrated into national and regional economies as equal actors and beneficiaries” beyond their current limited role in microfinance.

The focus of Banda’s lecture, hosted by the university’s new Centre for Women and Gender Studies, was the need for greater economic integration that can free Africa from its dependence on foreign aid. She reminded the audience that the African women that participated in the Fourth World Conference of Women in September 1995 in Beijing, China, with women activists and government representatives from 189 governments, returned from Beijing with a renewed commitment to find their way into leadership positions.

Twenty-five years after the Beijing Platform for Action that placed gender equality on the post-Cold War global agenda, Africa seems to have succeeded more than other regions in women’s access to power. As Banda noted, the continent has had five female presidents, Rwanda leads the world in the highest percentage of women in Parliament (63%); South Africa, Ethiopia and Rwanda have 50% female representation in national Cabinets. She argued that African women leaders have achieved this without “confrontation, yelling and marching”, but through “negotiating skills that we are born with as women”.

In my response to Banda’s lecture I noted that the Beijing meeting was a significant marker in the changing global and continental attitudes about women’s leadership at a time when the United States-led liberal international order proclaimed the importance of human rights under liberal democracy. 

At a continental level, African countries were facing an increase in civil wars that produced a generation of child soldiers and extreme levels of sexual violence that made it evident that sexual violence is not an incident of war but its central strategy. During this time of crisis, the script that had been used to motivate for women’s exclusion from leadership changed to motivate for the special qualities that women have that could facilitate the achievement of peace and the rebuilding of post-war societies. As academic Carol Cohn has argued, women’s social roles as “nurturing, collaborative, empathetic qualities of peacemakers” have historically been used to motivate for women’s weakness in leadership, compared to men’s supposed aggressive and individualistic qualities.


In their 2018 research on South African women peacekeepers in the South African Defence Force (SANDF), Angela Alchin, Amanda Gouws and Lindy Heinecken also found that among the central motivations for women’s inclusion in peacekeeping missions was the perception that in their interactions with fighting parties, women are “likely to calm a situation with their presence and negotiating skills compared to men”. As Cohn argues, the danger with motivating for women’s participation and leadership under the guise of their unique leadership qualities individualises the solution to structural political problems and sets the scene for women’s future exclusion if they are seen to fail to deliver on their supposed special contribution.

Essentialist approach

For example, Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, faced enormous pressure to single-handedly use her “special female” skills to rebuild Liberia after 14 years of a brutal civil war. When then president Banda lost the national elections in Malawi in 2014, Lindiwe Makhunga and I wrote on the Mail & Guardian Thoughtleader that narratives about her leadership demonstrated an “essentialist conception of women’s leadership, which is considered highly efficient and capable, impermeable to corruption, peaceful and innately maternal”. Thus, when women leaders face predictable challenges in addressing structural poverty, corruption and patronage, their experiences are used as an example of the betrayal of the special powers of women’s leadership and another change in the script against women’s participation in governance.

Furthermore, feminists have argued that the victories of legal gender equality that was fought for and generally won because of women’s organising, has not been followed by the genuine mainstreaming of gender into institutions of governance. They argue that what we have is an “add women and stir” approach that equates women’s numerical representation with gender transformation. The celebration of women’s representation in Rwanda, for example, often ignores the personalisation and militarisation of Rwandan politics around the personality of Paul Kagame, whose leadership style some analysts have described as Machiavellian.

As I noted in the lecture, feminists are critical of the celebration of the 50% parity of the South African Cabinet, for example, because legal equality and women’s representation has not transformed into a better quality of life and safety for majority, non-elite South African women. For one, the recognition of femicide as an everyday reality and crisis in the country is a result of the activism and sacrifices of women outside state institutions, in social movements and nongovernmental organisations. 

Representation is not enough

In her 2016 comparative doctoral study of MPs in South Africa and Rwanda, Makhunga argued that “the ANC-led government promotes the presence of women in formal government, leadership positions while simultaneously pursuing an overt anti-gender equality agenda defined by traditionalism, a lack of political will and apathy towards addressing the dire social ramifications of gender inequality”.

The Southern African Development Community  (SADC) Gender Protocol Barometer, which tracks the implementation of the 2008 SADC Gender Protocol, routinely points out that although countries in the region have adopted policies that should facilitate gender equality, transformation and women’s greater participation in all areas of governance and life, “there is still a big lag between normative frameworks and patriarchal attitudes that drive gender disparities”.

Individual women’s access to institutions of power will not lead to substantive change for them or for achievement of gender equality if this is not accompanied with a commitment to transforming patriarchal institutional cultures. Alchin, Gouws and Heinecken’s research on South African women peacekeepers shows that women in the SANDF feel that their male counterparts resent their presence because they view it as weakening the army and feel pressured to “act like men to cope in such a militarised setting”.

No level of women’s negotiating capacity and bargaining will undo societal behaviours that promote the control of women, and exceptionalise women’s leadership by recycling tropes of women’s essential qualities, instead of motivating for women’s participation on the basis of their equality as citizens, who have a shared stake in securing peace, security and the development of the African continent.

Dr Siphokazi Magadla is senior lecturer in the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University 

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Siphokazi Magadla
Siphokazi Magadla
Dr Siphokazi Magadla is a Senior Lecturer in the Political and International Studies department at Rhodes University. She joined the department in 2011. She worked previously as a research consultant for the Security Sector Governance programme of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, focusing on the role of women in peace and security. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political and International Studies and Journalism and Media Studies, and Honours in Political and International Studies from Rhodes University. She holds a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She is a Fulbright Scholar. She graduated with a PhD in 2017 at Rhodes University. Her PhD examined the state assisted integration of women ex-combatants into civilian life in post-apartheid South Africa.

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