Why 2012 Was a Watershed Year for African Women

This post was co-written with Carol by Jason Warner, a PhD student in African Studies and Government at Harvard University.

You may have missed it, but 2012 was a very a big year for African women.

African women have a long history of influence in continental politics and leadership. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s 2005 election to the presidency of Liberia, in which she became the first African female head of state since decolonization, was but the first in a string of high profile political victories for African women in the 21st century. Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, revolutionized Kenya’s approach to development, and in 2004 she became the first African female Nobel Prize winner. Mozambique’s Graça Machel, a renowned human rights activist and humanitarian, helped Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu launch The Elders in 2007. In 2009, Ghana’s “King Peggy” defied the objections of some male elders in order to take her place as the King of Otuam. And since the country’s 1994 collapse, Rwanda’s majority female parliament has been well-known as an international anomaly.

2012 represents a particular high point in these recent trends, making it unquestionably the year of the African woman in national and international politics.

The continent added its second female Nobel Prize laureate with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee. In Ghana, a record number of women were elected to the legislature in December, and the country’s former first lady Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings made a historic move in running for president.  Alice Nkom, the first woman to become a lawyer in Cameroon in 1969, faced threats and risked imprisonment for her defense of LGBTIQ clients jailed for their sexual orientation.

More broadly, African women in 2012 were lauded as the drivers of the continental economy and praised for their humanitarian work in flood-ravaged Malawi. In Kenya, women launched the widely-followed #purplezebra movement demanding electoral gender equity. And in Mali, women demanded that, as the primary victims in the country’s conflict, they were entitled to a place at the negotiating table along with rebel groups and the government.

While some commentators have questioned whether or not women are on the rise and others have asserted an unequivocal “yes”, four African women whose political rise made international waves in 2012 stand out:

Joyce Banda

Upon the death of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012, vice president Joyce Banda ascended to the presidency of Malawi. Upon assuming office, Banda enacted wide-reaching political, social, and economic reforms that have seemingly reversed the increasingly authoritarian rule of her late predecessor. Banda made waves quickly, threatening to arrest Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir (accused of war crimes in Darfur) if he attended the July 2012 African Union summit in the Malawian capital; the meeting was ultimately relocated. Banda has also garnered optimistic international credibility for her sweeping budget cuts in the bloated governmental bureaucracy. Most notable was her sale of the presidential plane and a fleet of 60 Mercedes. Banda has been a vocal advocate of women’s and homosexual rights, a move that has ingratiated her with liberal democracies but has found little support within her own country.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigeria’s outspoken Finance Minister and former Secretary of State Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has long been an alternatively controversial and beloved figure. She rose to international prominence in 2012 in her highly publicized bid to capture the presidency of the World Bank. Having served as the World Bank’s Managing Director from 2007 to 2011, many observers viewed Harvard-educated Iweala as a highly competent shoe-in for the post; that she was a woman from the Global South served as fodder for those who have bemoaned that the World Bank’s head has always been a citizen of the United States. After the US pushed through former Dartmouth University President Jim Yong Kim, Iweala returned to Nigeria as Finance Minister, where she again made waves in her unapologetic stances on Nigerian counterterrorism measures against Boko Haram.

Fatou Bensouda

Fatou Bensouda, of Gambia, landed the top post at the International Criminal Court in 2012. Previously a legal advisor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Prosecutor General in Gambia’s Ministry of Justice, Bensouda’s appointment has been hailed as an attempt to address the perception that the ICC has an anti-African bias. For her part, Bensouda has been unabashed about going after some of the continent’s worst offenders, telling Al Jazeera that Sudan’s president Al Bashir “will be arrested.” Bensouda seeks to expand the ICC’s investigate powers, increase the focus on gender crimes, and improve the court’s relationship with the African Union.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

In July 2012, the African Union voted South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to assume its top post as Chair. In its nearly 50-year history, Dlamini-Zuma is the first woman to head the organization. Having formerly held various high-level positions within the South African government – Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Health, Minister of Home Affairs – it was rumored in 2009 that she might be a candidate in the presidential elections.

Domestically, some have suggested 2012’s ascendence of African women might be attributed to shifting norms about gender and sexuality, women’s increased prominence in the formal sector and resultant access to capital, and government mandated-measures demanding legislative gender parity. Others have argued that the impact of female leadership may include shifts in spending priorities to value human development indicators like health and education over, for example, military spending. Finally, as Banda’s rise has suggested, women leaders may give more acute focus to gender and sexual equality than their male counterparts.

Internationally, the ascent of women like Bensouda and Okonjo-Iwaela, in global inter-governmental institutions, may help to give more attention and more respect to marginalized populations like women in the Global South. It also compels the global community to deal with, or at least admit, the existence of these inequities. Their elections and appointments might also indicate that we are seeing shifts in global attitudes about the hegemonic rule of international organizations by a narrow cadre of predominantly white males from Western countries and a recognition that women of the Global South come to the table with comparable and superior leadership credentials. “One would hope that 2012 marks the awakening of a broader global consciousness about the imperative to level the playing field to harness the asset-base constituted by African women,” said Arizona State University law professor Leslye Obiora, previously Nigeria’s Minister of Mines.

Was 2012 an anomalous year for African women? Or is it instead the mark of the new normal?Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Judging by history, women have always played important social, political, spiritual, and economic, roles throughout Africa. Now they are getting the increased recognition and respect they demand and deserve, and with it higher levels of political responsibility. It can only be the start of more to come.