BY EMMA GOLDBERG:
It may surprise Westerners to learn that there’s an area of social progress where countries like Rwanda and Liberia are leaving the U.S. trailing in the dust: female leadership. This year American citizens celebrated the election of 20 female senators; in Rwanda, women hold 56% of parliamentary seats. As Rwanda’s former minister for gender put it, “There’s a general understanding and appreciation that if things are going to be better in Africa, women are going to have a key role.”
But what propelled African women out of the home and into leadership positions was not just the simple realization that they could promote economic development—they were empowered in part by the transformations nations undergo during wartime.
During the Rwandan genocide women took on greater leadership roles in local industry and government as men went to the front lines of the civil war. So many lives were lost during the genocide that post-conflict Rwandan society was heavily female-dominated—in 1994, the country had ten times more widows than widowers. International bodies recognized that women represented a significant political constituency, and Security Council Resolution 1325 mandated that women be included in all aspects of Rwandan reconciliation and reconstruction. Involving women in public life has had a significant impact on cultural attitudes—recently the parliamentary women’s caucus succeeded in passing groundbreaking legislation aimed at ending gender-based violence.
Similarly, Liberian women gained more authority during the civil war. Honored for their contributions to the war effort, they were given more of a voice in public discourse in the post-conflict political system. In 2005 the citizenry elected the first African female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had earned the nation’s respect because she spoke out against warlord Charles Taylor’s brutal military tactics.
And even in Syria, known for its fundamentalist suppression of women’s rights, the rebel movement is empowering female leadership. Many wives who never previously left their houses have had to venture out and brave checkpoints to take on work outside the home, forced to compensate for husbands and sons who are in hiding from the government. Some Syrian women have sought direct roles in the rebellion. The Chicago Tribune recently profiled a 28-year-old woman named Jumana who has been working in a rebel hospital treating bullet wounds.
More politically stable nations in Africa have not been as effective in promoting women’s leadership. Cameroon is a country rife with corruption, but it has avoided full civil war—and it is, unlike countries like Rwanda and Liberia, an entirely male-dominated society. Gender-based violence is common, polygamy is widespread, and women make up only 5% of the National Assembly. Gender roles in Cameroon have remained rigid for centuries because there have been no major political events that catalyzed demographic changes.
But clearly, relying on brutal civil wars to promote gender equity is not an effective strategy. The examples of Rwanda and Liberia—countries in which conflict have prompted female empowerment—simply indicate that gender equity is feasible in less developed nations, they don’t indicate how policymakers can actually foster that equity. So how can global leaders promote women’s empowerment without the catalyst of civil war?
That’s a complex question that scholars and policymakers across the globe continue to grapple with. The answer will likely be multi-dimensional—there’s no quick fix to inequity. But we can certainly begin to promote female empowerment simply by calling attention to precedent. It’s one thing for Cameroon policymakers to read Nicholas Kristof’s declaring that women in power create legitimacy and prosperity, but it’s quite another for them to learn from the real life examples of their neighbors in Rwanda and Liberia. We can use precedent to persuade authorities that female leadership is not just a Western vision—it’s becoming a reality across the globe, and especially in Africa.
Emma Goldberg ’16 is in Saybrook College. She writes on post-conflict politics, refugees, and identity around the world. Contact her at email@example.com.