Today is the 100th anniversary of the International Women’s Day (IWD), a day set aside to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women and their contributions towards making the world a better place. It is also a day to highlight the challenges that women still face. My focus today is on African women, their achievements and contributions in the past 100 years and the challenges they still face.
The first IWD was celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland in March 1911, when most African countries were still colonized and no one publicly celebrated African women or their achievements. African women have experienced a lot of forward movement since then, even though they are yet to fully achieve their economic, political and social goals.
Economically, more women now have access to funds to help them launch small and large businesses than they did 100 years ago, largely as a result of Microfinance opportunities. A greater number of African women have become entrepreneurs, continuing in their role as the backbone of society. Nevertheless, women still have less access to financial resources than men do and, all over the world, career women are still paid less than their male counterparts for the same positions.
There have been some gains in the political arena as well. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female president when she was declared the winner of the 2006 presidential race in Liberia. In Rwanda, women make up more than half of the Members of Parliament, a feat that has not been accomplished by any other country in the world. Generally, most African countries have now made it possible for women to run for political office, even though there are still far too few women in government. Some countries have even created cabinet ministries that are focus on women’s and children’s issues. Still, the political playing field is often far from level for women, and large swaths of the electorate in different countries still hold to the opinion that men make better political leaders.
When it comes to social achievements, African women have made a few gains. Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, for example, won the Nobel Peace Price in 2004 for her efforts in “sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai has given most of her adult life to bettering women’s social conditions in Kenya, mainly by focusing on reversing environmental degradation. While more African women now have access to education than they did 100 years ago, less than 50% of high school and university graduates are women, hence the 2011 IWD theme of “equal access to education, training and technology: pathway to decent work for women.”
I think African women face the most challenges from social issues because these have more dire effects on women than men. It is widely reported that HIV/AIDS adversely affects disproportionately more women than men in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, African women bear the brunt of other social problems like gender discrimination, disease, sexual harassment at their places of employment, lack of access to clean water and poverty, among others.
As we celebrate 100 years of forward movement for African women today, let us remain somberly aware of the major strides that need to be taken in order to overcome the challenges that women still face on the continent.