There’s evidence enough of “˜modernity’ here in East Africa: blackberries, the newest four wheel drive vehicles etc,etc…However, the attitudes of modernity: gender equality, divisions of labour, and respect for women at a deeper, societal level are still yet to fully emerge.
Without a mainstreaming of women in the development process, we’ll just go round in circles. It’s getting boring now: the endless TV footage of men in suits making decisions about women in Africa. We need a change.
In the immigration office in Tanzania, Lydia, a mid level civil servant says, “Look around us: I can say there are no female managers here. The problem is not just gender discrimination, it is favouritism. You get a management job here if you are friend or family of the president. Merit and brains are not rewarded, especially not if you are female, in` fact they are regarded as problems – you’re less easy to manipulate.”
Elizabeth Mosha, the Director of Tanzanian NGO Women In Action, believes that there are still real barriers to women being treated equally in East Africa for a number of reasons: “Domestic violence is still enormously common, and often expected, in many of our communities. Men think they are not doing their job unless they beat women. We’ve had to sensitize communities that violence against women is abnormal and not healthy”.
The contradictions abound: there are many female role models, and many loud and powerful voices calling for change. Take 3 random examples: the infamous Invisible Children video was created by an NGO headed by a woman (Jolly Okot), in Ethiopia, Sole Rebels (an international shoe company) is headed by Tilahun Alemu and Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma is now head of the African Union. But these are exceptional women, who have succeeded on men’s terms, without redefining the agenda or challenging paradigms.
Earlier this year, the World Bank’s President Robert Zoellick said that, statistically, women are the strongest entrepreneurs in Africa. But a whole range of legal and cultural issues frequently hinder women from being registered as formal owners. Zoellick highlighted the need to give women entrepreneurs intellectual and property rights (they are often not named on title deeds if they exist, and thus can not get surety for loans,) and financial terms that directly target them.
As Margareth Chacha, of the Tanzania Women’s Bank, which was set up in 2010 to cater for the millions of women who need small loans and start up capital, says: “Over 70% of our farmers are women. Women are the totally underutilised economic force in Tanzania. Women across Africa are excellent businesswomen; they are used to handling the family budgets and taking responsibility, they don’t need much capital to start up a small or medium business, and we’ve found them to be 98% reliable in their repayments of loans.”
Chacha’s bank finds imaginative ways to create loans: groups of friends can be guarantors, if there is not property as surety then a fridge or other large item can be used instead. They also recognise there may be cultural barriers to women being “˜allowed’ to open a bank account by their husbands, and work round this, with a mobile caravan travelling to remote areas, recognising women have neither the time, nor the money, to go to urban centres.
In the past five years, the World Bank Group has provided 65 billion dollars to support girls’ education, women’s health, and access to credit, land, agricultural services, jobs, and infrastructure. However, the more radical donors, such as SIDA in Sweden, are pushing strongly for gender to be mainstreamed in all areas of work.
SIDA argues that when women are integrated into supply chains, food production and food security, all the indicators (nutrition, child mortality, family assets) improve. Likewise, they stress the importance of equal access to land, tools, fertiliser, seed and markets.
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norwegian former Director General of the World Health Organisation says: “It is through giving women access to education, knowledge, to paid income, independence and of course access to reproductive health services, reproductive rights, access to family planning, that we change the current pattern of human consumption: that has to be integrated into all development work. Tinkering at the edges will not do the job.”
This, perhaps, is the paradox of East and Southern Africa: farming is still the dominant economic force but there are literally millions of young people growing up in slums from Nairobi to Mitchells Plain in South Africa who understand the internet better than they know the soil. And it is these people that organisations such as Take Back the Tech in South Africa, Femina HIP, Akili Dada in Tanzania and Kutubana in Zimbabwe aim to reach.
Via innovative programmes using SMS text messages, radio and popular soap operas, comics, cartoons and websites they give legal information, advice about sexual health and STDs, ways to report rape and harassment anonymously. “˜Akili Dada’ in Kenya has helped over 10,000 women from severely marginalised backgrounds by augmenting a phone campaign with safe places to study, support and mentoring. Kutubana has ensured voter registration, particularly for women, is accurate and occurs without harassment. It also provides a huge digital library of information on everything from divorce to local transport.
Meaningful development will only happen in East Africa by integrating women at every level and letting us make decisions: as managers, politicians, farmers, mothers, wives, grannies, spokespeople – giving us a voice in the public sphere. Totem or token successful businesswomen are not enough, change is needed more comprehensively.
Thembi Mutch is a freelance journalist and academic based in Tanzania.