By Edda Zekarias, Addis Ababa
At the 24th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January, the AU heralded 2015 as the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development toward Africa’s Agenda 2063.
We speak the same language
Speaking to 500 young Africans attending the inaugural summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders last summer, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama passionately asked for youth’s best efforts to change the disheartening plight of many girls and women in Africa who often, and not by choice, miss out on opportunities.
“This is where Africa’s future lies — with those women-run businesses, with those girls attending university, and with leaders like you who are making their dreams possible. And the question today is how all of you and young people like you will steer Africa’s course to embrace that future,” Obama said.
Not long before that, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chair of the African Union Commission, had a similar message. “We need much greater commitment and action to empower women and girls in the process of eradicating hunger, poverty and promoting development. Furthermore, there is need to give special attention to increasing the participation of women in decision-making in all areas of life, as a means of improving the quality of decision-making … including in the protection of the environment and wildlife.”
March 8, International Women’s Day, is celebrated the world over. Sadly, for many girls and women, opportunities are far from within reach. Their battles in every aspect of life — at work, school or home — are silent and painful. Imagine that every single mistake or bad thing that happens in a family becomes blame thrown at a female family member. Will younger female members of that family be treated with respect and dignity as they mature into adulthood? How will their self-esteem be high enough so they can be confident and competitive?
“At the current pace, it will take 81 years to achieve gender parity in economic participation, and some 50 years to reach parity in parliamentary representation,” U.N. Women reports.
Yet, there is hope. We have each other. We also have strong support from the men who understand us.
“A truly strong, powerful man isn’t threatened by a strong, powerful woman,” the first lady said.
In an opinion piece published on International Women’s Day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “While their work may not always make the front pages, women are confronting our most pressing global issues. At great personal risk, they are fighting poverty, discrimination and violence so that their families, communities and countries can have better lives.”
“I see the power of women every day in every country that I visit,” he said.
This year, sustainable development goals (SDGs) will build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were about quantity. SDGs will enhance quality. MDG3 set out to “promote gender equality and empower women.” SDG5 will push efforts to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Including women in decision-making can double if not triple a nation’s economic and human development. This is true here in Africa.
At the International Conference on the Emergence of Africa held in Abidjan in March, UNDP chief Helen Clark proposed a way forward for Africa. “By reducing inequalities, African countries will lift human development and will harness the full potential of women and currently marginalized groups to contribute to development,” she said.
Much remains to be done. Whatever comes of these efforts, women who are able will play a key role in bringing other young girls and women along. So what will our revised route for the better be?
“If you keep positive and optimistic about what can be done, [things] do work out,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
For my part I pledged on #Africa4Her to work in partnership with my alma mater, Addis Ababa University, to help young women students build confidence and set goals for while they are at school and later in the workplace. I will help them gain access to a network of pioneering professional women with whom they can talk about the challenges they face. This will help them begin to develop internship opportunities and long-term mentor relationships.