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One Thousand Days of Mama Ellen's Presidency and the Future of African Women Empowerment

May 11, 2009, 6:27 AM | Article By: Almami Fanding Taal is a Legal Practitioner

"The actions of those in power need to be reviewed and made accountable to women, and it is time to move from lip-service to real results." President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

In a UN Report on Violence against Women it was found that one in every six women globally has suffered violence from people close to her in a domestic situation. That the practice is widespread across boundaries across cultures is hardly surprising. But the fact that violence against women in some instances are justified and/or even accepted by some women, especially in traditional societies of present day Africa is profoundly shocking and deeply worrying. Violence against women is not and cannot be acceptable under any circumstances.

The findings of the Report, that some women in Ethiopia believe that there are situations when violence against women is justified, raises foundational and existential questions about these societies because it is not morally right or legally defensible that a victim of violence is perceived to be complicit in her own persecution. Where a society is so organized or social relationships are so arranged then something is fundamentally wrong and unjust about that society as this would and have crippled one-half of the body politic, stump growth and development and the relationships between men and women in such societies, ultimately become unfulfilling, full of discontent and hopelessness.

What needs to be done for women to achieve their full potentials? In asking this question one is also asking the question, how does a society achieve its full potential if more than half of it, are not treated right: questions such as how does a woman get empowered in a private or domestic situation to deal with violence and abuse? What is the role of the State in eliminating domestic violence are also asked?

In fact most statutes in Africa have no specific or special provisions for domestic violence against women instead violence against women is lump together with other common offences against the person such as assault and battery in their Penal Codes. The absence of a distinction in the legal definition of domestic violence, which is most devastating when it is inflicted emotionally or psychologically, makes detection and punishment problematic. With the exception of South Africa, AfricanState and Societies turn a blind eye to violence against women.

The law certainly has a significant role to play in defining what is and what is not acceptable behaviour in both public and private conduct. In all societies, rape, for instance is considered a very serious crime, which has serious penal consequences, however  most traditional societies are struggling with the concept of marital rape and some are out rightly hostile to the concept.

Of course one should not overestimate the efficacy of laws in dealing with social and cultural practices and relationships negotiated in private and that is why African women should not set too much store by legal instruments. Conventions, Solemn Declarations, Constitutional Guarantees and Gender Sensitive legislations all have their place in the empowerment scheme of things but the most important tool for empowerment for women is for women to have a sense of entitlement and go out and claim the full benefits of being a human being without the permission or approval of men or society. 

Few will dispute that ours is a man's world, where women have existed for the service, comfort and pleasure of men and to help with procreation. Every religion, without exception, apportions to women a place of subordination to man.
In much of the world girls still stay home to help their mothers with household chores while their brothers go to school. In African societies, a man has been entitled to multiple wives, de facto where not de jure. A husband is allowed to discipline his wife by various means, including corporal punishment. Greater muscle power, the only real advantage that a man has in relation to a woman, has proved very useful for the purpose.
In addition to the odds on the domestic front women caught up in situations of armed conflict endured a further deracination of their dignity and massive violation of their personal integrity particularly in
West Africa where most of the nineties was wasted in civil wars and senseless violent political conflicts.

According to the rules of war, civilians and unarmed people-who are mostly women, children and the elderly-must not be harmed which in past wars were observed but not in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Therefore it was possible for Germany to be rebuilt after 1945 by the women who survived but not in Sierra Leone and Liberia where in the wars fomented by Charles Taylor and his allies, the RUF, civilians became the main targets and thousands of women were indiscriminately raped, maimed or killed and their children forcibly recruited as child soldiers. Taylor and the RUF are guilty of horrendous atrocities: murder, rape and the systematic mutilation of tens of thousands of civilians by hacking off their feet or hands with machetes and axes. The harrowing statistics of internally displaced persons, orphans and refugees is devastating and leaves one gasping.

Therefore standing by the ashes of wars and destruction caused by men it is possible to survey the magnificent peaks and valleys that have been illuminated by the feminine mystique.

Against extraordinary odds, women have done very well indeed. It was only in 1893 that women anywhere in the world were allowed to vote. That distinction went to New Zealand. But it was until the late 1990s, over 100 years, that women occupied all five top positions there, namely, prime minister, leader of the opposition, governor general, and auditor general and CEO of the largest private company. The Gambia has achieved a similar feat, the Vice President, Attorney and Solicitor Generals, and the Speaker of the National Assembly all women. 
The Nobel Peace Prizes in 2003 and 2004 were awarded to women: Shirin Ebadi of
Iran, for "her efforts for democracy and human rights, especially the rights of women and children" and Wangari Maathai of Kenya, for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace". Just over a decade earlier, in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi had been honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for her "non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights" in Burma. For the sake of democracy and human rights in her country, this diminutive woman has braved the military junta and earned the ire of the generals. She refuses to abandon her people despite being incarcerated by the regime for over a decade and separated from her two sons and husband, who, has since died.
In the
United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher proved herself to be among the best prime ministers ever. She led an economic resurgence that reversed the decline which had set in over the previous decade or more. While performing as a competent prime minister, she was still able to play the role of a wife and mother. A lady prime minister, Indira Gandhi, restored India's battered national pride in 1971 after the military disaster of the 1962 war with China and the less-than-impressive performance against Pakistan in the 1965 war.

In the last 10 years two women have occupied two of the most important positions in the US government and served the country with great distinction. In 1997, Madeleine Albright, a refugee from Czechoslovakia and a divorced mother of three daughters, became the 64th US secretary of state, the first woman to occupy the position.
Four years later, Condoleezza Rice, an American of African descent, achieved the distinction of becoming the first woman to occupy the position of National Security Adviser under President George Bush. Like Henry Kissinger three decades earlier, her performance in that position was so impressive that in his second administration the president moved her to the more high-profile post of secretary of state. And the bet was on Hilary Rodham Clinton becoming the first lady president of the
USA in 2008, in event Barack Obama won and became the first African-American President.
Among the poor and working class of
Argentina, Evita Peron wielded a charismatic influence that has few historical parallels. She is believed to have exercised more power than anyone else in the country, with the sole exception of her husband, President Juan Peron. The poor loved her for she built homes, hospitals, schools and found jobs for thousands of Argentineans.
During Peron's re-election rally in 1951, more than a million people stood calling for "Eva" to accept nomination as vice president. She did, but the military, wary of her popularity, forced Peron to remove her from the nomination. She died the following year, mourned by the masses, but despised by the upper classes.

The name of Florence Nightingale is legendary, remembered for her work as a nurse during the Crimean War (1854-56) and her contribution in improving the unsanitary conditions in military field hospitals. An accomplished mathematician, she compiled statistical data to demonstrate that better hygienic conditions reduced mortality in hospitals. At the time, injured soldiers were seven times more likely to die from disease in hospital than on the battlefield. She soon reduced the mortality rate from 60 percent to 42.7 percent and then to 2.2 percent.

During the mid-nineteenth century nursing was not considered a suitable profession for "respectable" women, for this humanitarian vocation had a rather unsavoury reputation. In 1860, financed by the Nightingale Fund, the
NightingaleTraining School and Home for Nurses opened in London with 10 students. Florence Nightingale is credited with transforming nursing from its disreputable past into a respectable profession, where men now compete with women.
And who has not heard of Mother Teresa, the Albanian woman who devoted her entire adult life to helping the poorest of the poor of
Calcutta in India. Affectionately referred to as the "saint of the gutters" and "angel of mercy" she served the wretched of the earth till her death at the age of 87, from Calcutta to New York, by creating a global network of homes for the poor, afflicted and discarded of society, from lepers to AIDS victims.
Mother Teresa's frail but long hands of compassion reached as far as
Ethiopia and South Africa. In 1982, at the height of the siege in Beirut, she rescued 37 children trapped in a frontline hospital by brokering a temporary ceasefire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas. By 1996, she was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries.
There is not a profession or vocation in which women have not made an impression, particularly in the
Gambia. In my own high schools days, girls usually were in the top of the list of results for the WAEC GCSE Exams, despite the distraction of household chores, from which there was no escape for most.
Women are on the frontlines of war zones, as military combatants, reporters, doctors and charity workers. Many working women all over the world, including the Gambia, balance the demands of the workplace with their duties as wife, mother and sister with a skill and stamina - and a smile - that can leave all but the most perverse of men awestruck.

I end this world survey of women greatness by coming closer to home in Africa, to Liberia where the first lady president in Africa was inaugurated a little over one thousand days ago.

It is poetic justice that the oldest republic on the African continent is the first to produce a lady president. This would have been a perfect consummation of affairs but for the terror and incalculable loss that preceded it. There is so much to do in Liberia at all levels to turn the country around, because a whole generation has been lost because of the incompetence and wickedness of the Doe and Taylor years. Liberians need healing right now and whether by political wisdom or divine providence they have elected or have been gifted with the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. So much has so far been made of her gender and so many see in her election a new beginning for the people of Liberia, a second chance to save succeeding generations of Liberians from the scourge war. Hopes and expectations are high for the survival and success of her presidency. She certainly has her work cut out for her and has the best wishes of all people of goodwill.

After the initial euphoria most observers have moved beyond the gender of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf to appreciate that she is a very accomplished person. She has the academic credentials and a proven track record of dealing with big issues. The type of experience that Liberia is in dire need of, for the present and future, which are full of risks and uncertainties. To that extent the political wisdom of the Liberian people for preferring her to George Weah, who played fantastic football in Europe but has no known skills for mending a nation traumatized by war and violence, is to be applauded.

In the first hundred days of the Johnson-Sirleaf presidency there is reason to justify the wise choice of the Liberian electorate because she is very eloquently articulating the concerns of ordinary Liberians whether at the ElyseePalace or at the Capitol, where she was honoured with joint sitting of the American Congress with record standing ovations. Her supreme self-possession at press conferences or meeting the great and good around the world demonstrate that she is indeed a very substantial woman. And I think she said best at her inauguration
"I am excited by the potential of what I represent - the aspirations and expectations of women in
Liberia, African women and women all over the world"

In conclusion what I wish to say about the future of women empowerment is captured in the words of Mahatma Gandhi "You must be the change you wish to see in the World": that women must be the changes they wish to see in the world, that they should claim their place in the home, in workplace and in the world as of right. Empowerment is a proactive proposition, which requires personal efforts and productive engagement of the one who wishes to be empowered. Laws and men can help but women must do it themselves.