Posted by Muadi Mukenge
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues her 11-day tour of seven African countries I wonder, “What realities would the women of Africa present to Secretary Clinton given the opportunity?” One of the big ones would be that African women are in the forefront of change in their communities, which is contrary to common knowledge in most of the world.
If she ventures beyond the ceremonial speeches and meetings, we at the Global Fund for Women think Secretary Clinton will get an earful from our African sisters. So much so that she may have no choice but to take a deeper look at how African families have fared as a result of problematic U.S. policies which African governments have been too eager to implement over the last 30 years. Why? Join me for a 5-minute tour.
First stop, Kenya, where women are horrified by the arms buildup in East Africa; and their country’s role in the destabilization of Somalia -- via arms shipments from the U.S. One of the reasons this matters is Somali women make up the majority of refugees in Kenya. And when Clinton addresses the trade summit, they will remind her that the burdens of foreign competition and food shortages fall upon women; women who already have to scrape together pennies to feed their families to buy wildly expensive food items.
Yet Kenyan women are demanding accountability from their reticent government to rebuild trust and restore peace among divided communities in the aftermath of post-election violence; violence that is threatening Kenya’s image as a bailiwick of democracy and stability.
On to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where women will ask, “what took so long for a high-ranking U.S. official to visit the country where rape has been the weapon of choice against Congolese women for the last decade?” They will show her that women’s groups are pressing for legal reform so rape victims can get justice, airing radio programs promoting women’s rights in a country where 50% of women are illiterate, and forming village peace committees to restore long-overdue stability.
Next Liberia; where gender violence is on the rise, in spite of the 2003 peace accords. Undaunted, women’s rights groups canvass rural districts to make sure everyone is informed about the country’s new Rape Law and other laws that advance the status of women.
Nigerian women will show how they are working to end early marriage, rampant gender violence, and assure women’s land rights. They will tell the Secretary how government corruption has led to neglect of the health sector, leaving Nigeria with one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. They can demonstrate how training programs run by women’s groups are assuring that women know how to use the Internet to organize and plan social change strategies.
Our last stop is South Africa where, though HIV infections may finally be leveling off, the country still has the world’s largest HIV-positive populations. 33% of women between 20 and 34 are living with HIV. If she requests it, Secretary Clinton will see how community-based programs led by women are making the greatest strides in the fight against HIV and its burden on women and girls. Furthermore, activists will call her attention to the numerous murders of women that remain unresolved by South African police. They will tell her that South Africa can’t be celebrated as the continent’s largest economy when it comes at a cost of broken families, violated women, and rampant unemployment.
After 11 days, the women of Africa hope that the Secretary of State returns to the U.S. with a new imperative. That she will lead the call for a sea change in U.S. policy; from trade and military buildup, to one of development and respect of human rights, especially women’s rights. As Clinton herself said during her presidential campaign, “There cannot be true democracy unless women's voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives. There cannot be true democracy unless all citizens are able to participate fully in the lives of their country.”
Muadi Mukenge is the Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa at the Global Fund for Women.
Image copyright Caroline Kaminju