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Photo Gallery: The Decade of the African Woman

Foto: ? Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters/ REUTERS

Taking Charge How African Women Are Making Major Gains

Women in Africa are making great strides in politics and business, and are considered more reliable partners for international aid projects than their male counterparts. Welcome to what the African Union calls the "African Women's Decade."

The skirt? Much too short! And those loud colors! Two older women at a table in the back of the room begin to whisper to each other. A stout woman is standing at the front of the room. She is wearing a tomato-red dress and a knit bolero jacket in cobalt blue.

The woman places her hands on her hips and smiles at the crowd. Then she begins speaking. She attacks the president, rattles off the latest corruption scandals and sharply criticizes the new Protection of Information bill that curbs press freedoms. "We must be alert, so that South Africa doesn't become a police state," she says.

The audience -- primarily older and white -- seems bowled over by this clever and eloquent young black South African woman.

Wherever she speaks in public, the nation takes notice. Her name is Lindiwe Mazibuko, and, at 33, she is the opposition leader in South Africa's National Assembly. She is the first black woman to hold that office in the history of country's overwhelmingly male-dominated parliament.

Mazibuko is liberal, pragmatic and courageous, and embodies a new type of female African politician. She is a role model for all African women who desire a voice in shaping the future of their continent.

Speaking to the People

"Africa has millions of young, talented women," says Mazibuko, as she walks to the nearby parliament building in Cape Town. "But most of them don't want to go into politics, because they are marginalized there." Men -- old, power-hungry "big men," as she calls them -- dominate the political sphere in Africa to a far greater extent than in Europe.

"Many African presidents are older than 70, while the average age in Africa is about 19," says Mazibuko. "These men know nothing about the realities of life for young men and women."

The opposition leader has taken over the office space of the former white prime minister. Room 208 has mahogany paneling, massive leather armchairs, a fireplace, an English table clock and a view of the original neoclassical wing of the National Assembly complex. "This office was not meant for women," says Mazibuko. "I had to give it my female touch." She is referring to the white orchids she has placed into the two urinals in the men's room.

The alpha males in her own party, the Democratic Alliance, grumbled when Mazibuko was chosen to be the party's parliamentary leader in a crucial vote in October 2011. Things couldn't go well, they thought, because she was young, black, inexperienced and, most of all, a woman.

Verbal Abuse

Lawmakers with the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), derided her as a "coconut" -- brown on the outside and white on the inside -- who had sold her soul to a party dominated by whites. She was berated as a "house Negro" in social networks.

President Jacob Zuma dismissively referred to her as a "ntombazana," a derogatory term in the Zulu language which means "young girl." And because Mazibuko speaks English without an accent, she was even accused of not being a real African.

"Those are the usual sexist and racist insults coming from men who perceive a threat to their dominant position," says Mazibuko. "But it isn't something that can shock a feminist."

She comes from the black middle class, attended good private schools, studied music, French and politics in Cape Town and England, and then returned home and quickly embarked on a career within her party. Today even her political rivals admire Mazibuko, so much so that elderly male politicians with the ANC sometimes send her flowers.

She has prevailed, and she has even greater ambitions. She says she wants to be president because, "Africa is in the midst of an economic boom. If this development is to be stable, we need new ideas and a younger elite. And, of course, we need far more women in positions of leadership."

The Democratic Alliance is a case in point. A trio of women already shapes the party's agenda today. The party's leader is Helen Zille, the combative premier of South Africa's Western Cape province. And then there are Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town, and opposition leader Mazibuko. One of the women is white, one is of mixed race and one is black -- three strong women who are putting the fear of God into the autocratic contingent of male politicians in the ANC.

Challenging the Status Quo

Bastions of power that were firmly in male hands until not too long ago are toppling all across Africa. Female South African politician Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma heads the African Union Commission. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female president in the continent's post-colonial history. In Kenya, a female foreign minister and female defense minister were sworn in for the first time since independence. Some 64 percent of the members of Rwanda's lower house of parliament are women, which gives the body the distinction of having the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world.

When two African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011, women celebrated across Africa. Liberian President Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, a civil rights and peace activist, accepted the honor on behalf of all African women who brave the adverse conditions in their part of the world, including poverty, disease, the overexploitation of natural resources, lawlessness and violence, and the chaotic forces of war.

In April 2012, Joyce Banda, a former market woman, was sworn in as Malawi's president. Her most important objective is to fight poverty, which is especially prevalent among women and children. Her first official acts showed that she means business: Banda sold her predecessor's jet and the luxury limousines used by senior government officials.

Female Entrepreneurs

Africa's women are on the move. They are establishing law firms, Internet companies and fashion labels. They are managing banks, securing seats on corporate boards and running their own farms.

In Tanzania, Masai women are fighting back against land grabbing and the forced displacement of their nomadic ethnic group. In Mali, Muslim mothers are rejecting the barbaric rituals of female circumcision that mutilate their daughters. In South Africa, tens of thousands of female activists are involved in an anti-rape campaign. All of these women are taking advantage of the faster communication offered by cellphones, text messaging and social networks.

More and more women are no longer willing to be treated like house slaves and unpaid workers. And more and more are rebelling against their husbands -- the abusers, rapists, drinkers and good-for-nothings who exploit their families instead of providing for them.

Mao said that women hold up half the sky. In Africa, they hold up at least three-quarters of it. The Washington-based International Center for Research on Women estimates that women in sub-Saharan Africa produce about 80 of all food products, and yet they own only 1 percent of arable land.

In chronic crisis and war zones, like eastern Congo, it is primarily women who fight for peace and, with their reconciliation programs, attempt to heal the wounds of conflict. International aid organizations prefer to employ women, because they are more reliable and less susceptible to corruption. Women-run projects are generally more sustainable. Microloans are more effective when entrusted to women, with a repayment rate of 95 to 98 percent. Development experts agree that the continent would be in far worse shape if it weren't for women.

Challenges for Women in Business

In the United Nations Millennium Project, which aims to cut global poverty in half by 2015, fostering women's efforts in health and education is given top priority. When the education level among mothers increases, infant and child mortality decline. And girls who stay in school longer are likely to have fewer children later on. The African Union declared the period from 2010 to 2020 the "African Women's Decade," and vowed to strengthen its support of women-led efforts.

"Most African women have never heard anything about this," says Dr. Nondumiso Mzizana, as she checks the instruments she will use with her next patient. "But it's all the same to them, because such declarations of intent are ineffective."

Mzizana, 41, is a dentist. She can tell many stories about what can happen to African women as they seek to improve their lot, and about how many obstacles they must overcome. When she was developing her practice in downtown Pretoria, the South African capital, she was derided at first. The bank rejected her business plan and refused to grant her a loan, and even the landlord didn't trust her. When she finally opened the practice, the patients failed to materialize.

White people only seek treatment from black dentists when they are in terrible pain, says Mzizana. "But even more affluent blacks prefer to go to white dentists," she says. "They simply don't believe that a black woman is capable of doing professional work."

Bottom of the Social Ladder

She also encountered resentment from the health authorities, even from black officials. "They are shaped by the patriarchal notion that women belong in the kitchen and should be good mothers," Mzizana says. "Even our president feels that way." President Jacob Zuma is a staunch polygamist whose six wives have had 14 children. He also has several children out of wedlock.

Black women are at the bottom of the social ladder in South Africa. According to official statistics, only about 30 percent are employed. Their average hourly wage is the equivalent of €1.68 ($2.28), while white men earn an average of €6.68 an hour.

Africa is still miles away from gender equality, says Mzizana. "If fathers value their daughters at all, it's mostly for their market value," she says. "They choose their daughters' husbands, and they collect the bride price. And husbands view their wives as private property, with which they can do as they please."

The head of the South African intelligence service offered a vivid example recently, when he beat his wife for refusing to cook and iron on command -- and he insisted that he was entitled to do so. "If the mentality of African men doesn't change radically, we won't be able to make any progress," fears Mzizana.

Creating Hope

A mother of three children, she carved out her career against all odds. Today she only occasionally works in her practice, "so I don't forget my trade." Otherwise, she represents a Dutch electronics company in South Africa and is the founder and CEO of a company that supplies high-tech medical equipment to hospitals, with annual sales of €20 million. The South African Businesswomen's Association named her businesswoman of the year in 2011.

When she goes to the bank today, the director asks her how many millions in loans she needs to buy new equipment. "My success presumably comes from my entrepreneurial gene," Mzizana says. "I was already selling oranges in the schoolyard as a little girl."

Her company is called Sikelela, or "hope." Of its 25 employees, 23 are women from the townships. Most of them had no proper education and had to be painstakingly trained. "Africa lacks qualified specialists," she says. "In our businesses, we are making up for the failures of our school system."

During trips abroad, she often wonders how Africans, with their massive deficits in education, can prevail in global competition. She gives seminars to encourage black girls to run their own businesses when they grow up. "If more women were active in corporate management, we would have much higher growth levels," she says. "Africa needs businesswomen to overcome underdevelopment!"

So are Africa's problems male and the solutions female? Liberian President Sirleaf has no doubt that this is the case. Sirleaf proclaimed that women are better politicians before her reelection to a second term. She also said women are more honest, committed and sensitive, and benefit from maternal intuition.

'Nothing But Bling-Bling'

But even a role model like Sirleaf is not immune to the temptations of power. When the Liberian president appointed three of her sons to key positions in politics and business, she was accused of nepotism and corruption. Activist Leymah Gbowee resigned in protest from her position as chair of the National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative.

"Women can be just as greedy and brutal as men," says Pharie Sefali. "In my neighborhood, there are even gangs led by girls." The 24-year-old student lives in Khayelitsha, an enormous township on the outskirts of Cape Town, a sea of tin shacks and wooden huts with a population of 700,000, unemployment of 60 to 70 percent, an extremely high incidence of AIDS and a high crime rate.

"There are plenty of girls running around in Khayelitsha who have nothing but bling-bling on their minds: money, fashion and glamor," says Sefali. "They want to get out of poverty, so they become kept women for sugar daddies, rich old geezers."

Sefali isn't one of those girls. She is wearing a threadbare tracksuit top, cheap jeans and sneakers full of holes. She wants to become a journalist and write about conditions in the slums. She experienced firsthand what can happen to a vulnerable girl in a township.

Her parents died when she was young, and a neighbor sexually abused her for years. She dropped out of school, struggled while living on the streets, became an alcoholic and drug addict, sold her body and was raped several times.

"Not a minute goes by in Khayelitsha in which some girl or woman isn't being beaten, mistreated or raped," says Sefali. South Africa has the world's highest incidence of rape, with most sex offenses occurring in the black slums.

A caring aunt rescued Sefali, who sometimes feels as if it were a miracle that her nightmare is over. Today she helps others who are trying to escape from the poverty trap. She works with Equal Education, a nationwide grassroots movement fighting for better schools.

Supporting Their Families

The offices of Equal Education are located on Capital Drive in Washington Square, which sounds like an upscale address. In fact, the building sits next to a trash-strewn empty lot in Khayelitsha. The people who work there are almost all women, young, self-confident activists like Sefali. They document the miserable condition of schools, establish libraries, collect subsidies for teaching materials, write petitions to the education ministries and organize protest marches to the parliament building.

"The government has failed miserably in education policy. But we are no longer willing to accept this predicament," says Sefali, as she sticks a stack of documents under her arm and heads for Thembelihle High School, where she works as a tutor on Saturdays.

Young men are hanging around in front of a bar, their faces still flushed from drinking the night before. The sight of them infuriates Sefali. "You can't expect much from the men," she says. "They drink and fight and complain. Most of them are lazy and useless."

Like in many parts of Africa, in Khayelitsha it is mainly the women who do what they can to support their large families. They sell roast corn on the cob on the side of the road, gather firewood and balance water cans and sacks of flour on their heads. They make sure that their families have food, they raise the children, care for the old and the sick, repair the leaky metal roofs on their huts and tend small vegetable gardens.

In many cases, they also slave away as maids so that they can pay school tuition with their meager earnings. Women spend 90 percent of their income on their families, compared with only 30 to 40 percent for men.

'Africa's Future is Female'

Student and activist Sefali admires Lindiwe Mazibuko, the outspoken politician. Another one of her role models is Mamphela Ramphele, a doctor, business executive and former anti-Apartheid activist who formed a new opposition party to challenge the inept ANC government. "But the true heroines of Africa," says Sefali, "are ordinary women."

They include women who fight battles on several fronts with limited means: for sexual self-determination, for the abolition of patriarchal property rights, for access to investment loans, to give their children a good education, for a decent healthcare system, for a voice in politics and opportunities for professional advancement.

A dozen students, mostly girls, are waiting for Sefali at the Thembelihle School. She hands out worksheets for a math test. The final examinations for the school year are about to begin, and Sefali's students want to improve their grades so that they'll be able to attend universities in the future. The girls are sitting on broken chairs, the classroom is drafty, there is garbage in the corners of the room and rain drips through holes in the plastic roof. The history test will cover the Kenyan struggle for independence, the Vietnam War and the Soweto Uprising, which was led by high school students. It's quiet in the room, as the teenagers concentrate on their work.

Battling Illiteracy

"We're catching up on emancipation now," says Sefali. "We will force the men out of power in the next 20 years."

But according to ONE, a campaign and lobbying group, more than two-thirds of adult illiterates in Africa today are women, while 12 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa have never gone to school.

This translates into the loss of tremendous development opportunities, since limited education and employment opportunities reduce annual per capita growth by 0.8 percent. "Had this growth taken place, Africa's economies would have doubled over the past 30 years," the ONE study concludes.

"Africa's future is female," the organization predicts, noting that it is time to finally unleash the dormant potential of 430 million girls and women.

"We're working on it," says Pharie Sefali.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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