African women leaders on the rise

Alia Soliman , Tuesday 18 Feb 2014

Africa’s third female president, Catherine Samba-Panza, is now in charge of the Central African Republic

Catherine Samba-Panza
Catherine Samba-Panza, interim president of the Central African Republic, addresses Central African Army Forces soldiers as Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke (left) looks on, at the National College of Administration and Magistrature in the capital Bangui,5 February 2014. (Photo:Reuters)

In January, Catherine Samba-Panza, was sworn in as president of the Central African Republic (CAR) and pledging to bring peace and security to the troubled county.

Samba-Panza is following in the footsteps of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who was elected president of Liberia in 2006, as well as Joyce Banda, who has been president of Malawi since 2012, to become the continent’s third female president.

But while it seems like African women leaders are on the rise, analysts are divided about whether the election of female politicians represents a victory for ordinary African women.

CAR's first female leader

Samba-Panza was sworn in at a ceremony days after being elected interim president by a national transitional council, after Michel Djotodia, the rebel leader behind a coup last March, stepped down under mounting international criticism over his inability to control his fighters and stem the violence.

Gamal Nkrumah, founder and director of the Pan-African Cultural Centre, told Ahram Online that the situation is much more complicated for Samba-Panza than for Sirleaf or Banda.

"The Central African Republic is on the verge of falling apart. Muslims are … about to be made extinct," Nkrumah said.

But Minna Salami, an African feminist who writes for The Guardian, told Ahram Online that she thinks Samba-Panza’s presidency is an important step in the right direction.

“Of course the symbolic significance of her gender has already encouraged hope among civil society – however, the road ahead is faced with monumental hurdles and we can only hope that she will continue to focus on peaceful and inclusive strategies towards ending the violence,” Salami said.

Samba-Panza has reportedly promised that the country’s security forces will be re-organised to protect Muslims as well as Christians.

Since last year when a largely Muslim rebel group, the Seleka, lost power, Muslims have been in increasing danger. Muslims make up around 15 percent of CAR’s population.

Catherine Nyambla, a Kenyan feminist and winner of the Goldman Sachs Fortune Global women leaders’ award in 2012, told Ahram Online that she believes in Samba-Panza.

“She can do it,” she said.

“It will not be easy to balance her duties with everything going on in the country now; she has to be really smart about it.”

Nkrumah says that out of the three countries it seems like Malawi's President Banda has been the most successful, followed by Liberian President Sirleaf.

“We don’t know yet if Samba-Panza will be able to control the situation in CAR; I think what’s happening in CAR is too much for her,” he said.

The new president gave a speech a few weeks ago and talked about bringing peace and security to the country. A few hours later, a Muslim was killed.

“If this shows you anything, it shows that she is not controlling the situation very much,” Nkrumah added.

“It has nothing to do with her being a woman. It’s not her fault. On the contrary, maybe if CAR had a male president things could have been worse, and people would not have listened to him either.”

Making a difference for ordinary women?

Many wonder if having a female leader will affect the lives of ordinary African women, many of whom experience poverty and illiteracy. The gap between such women and the female leaders who apparently represent them is significant.

Nkrumah said that Sirleaf, Banda and Samba-Panza are all highly educated and all “come from a very good social status…and they do encourage women to participate in the public space, but they need to have a stronger grip to handle the crisis that their countries face,” he added.

“I don’t think it makes a difference. Having a female president would not affect women overnight. It will take a long time until it reflects on ordinary African women.”

Nkrumah also stated that Joyce Banda of Malawi increased the number of female ministers in her country, and put focus on a number of projects for poor women, but still he doesn’t think one female president can change everything on her own.

“Poor education is one of the reasons many of these ordinary African women can’t reach leadership positions,” he says.

Rachel Strohm, a PhD student at UC Berkley who studies conflict and governance in central Africa, told Ahram Online that there are a number of other women in political positions, such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister, and the 64 percent of Rwandan MPs who are female. 

Such political gains are facilitated by better access to education for women, according to Strohm.

“That said there's still a lot of inequality in this outcome.  Wealthy families are disproportionately able to provide good educations for their daughters, often including university educations at prominent foreign schools.”

“Samba-Panza has a law degree from Paris, Johnson Sirleaf has a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard, and Okonjo-Iweala got her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Strohm explained. 

“Poorer families still typically rely on badly-functioning state schools or marginally better private schools, and girls are often the first to be withdrawn from school if a family can't afford the fees for all of its children. So there have been real gains for women, but not every woman has an equal likelihood of benefiting from them,” she said. 

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