Africa: African regional meeting of women leaders on security priorities (Nairobi, Kenya; July 2007)

Realizing Rights via WUNRN
What are the biggest threats to the security of people and states in Africa? What can women leaders in Africa and women around the world do together to address these concerns?
In July, the Women Leaders Intercultural Forum (WLIF) team from Realizing Rights traveled to Nairobi to discuss security issues with 70 African women leaders.
A meeting convened in cooperation with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) explored how WLIF - an initiative dedicated to connecting women leaders across borders and providing a collective voice in prioritizing action for a more secure world – could make a difference in addressing the security challenges facing Africa. It also discussed plans for the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit which will be held in November in New York and will convene 75 women leaders including 11 current and former heads of state, government officials, and leaders of international and civil society organizations.

Mary Robinson stressed that in this century, women’s voices, priorities and vision must be heard. But for that to happen, more strategic approaches are needed and more links between grassroots and global leaders must be forged. Women leaders also have a responsibility to create the space where young women leaders can interact with older women leaders.

Several major themes emerged from the discussion: African security and human rights; women’s leadership; linking the grassroots to policymaking; and the security crises facing countries such as Somalia, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

African Security and Human Rights

People often talk about poverty before insecurity. They see the want before the fear. Similarly, in security discussions, most talk about the fear first, and not the want. But a humanitarian response, or a development response, without talking about human rights or integrating freedom from want with freedom from fear, is not sustainable.

African women leaders challenged WLIF to be a network that gathers in human security, state security, women’s rights and the responsibility to protect and makes sure that women are at the table when security is discussed. Participants at the Nairobi meeting stressed a range of issues from the importance of girls completing secondary education in achieving health and other MDGs to the need to build cultures and traditions that are liberating. As one participant put it: “How do we build from the best within our cultures?”

Women’s Leadership

The need for women leaders to be better organized and to speak out against injustice was stressed throughout the discussion. The comment of one participant summed up the challenge well: “If women in positions of power don’t speak out, who will?”

The strength of African grass roots advocacy networks was praised but participants argued that translating that activism to diplomacy at the global level for women’s rights was still a work in progress. There are not a lot of women in the places that link activism and diplomacy. Are women that have made it to that level of decision-making speaking out actively on behalf of all women? Elected women have huge access to speak to their constituencies, but it was felt that many still weren’t providing inclusive messages that were supportive of marginalized women communities.

Women’s organizations across Africa today highlight women’s issues but participants stressed that this all seems to break down at implementation. Why are women activists falling short in demanding that their governments support women’s concerns on security issues or economic policies?

Linking the Grassroots to Policy Level

Participants highlighted the lack of participation of very poor women as a significant problem. They are the subject of meetings and discussions, but women leaders are often not able to bridge the divide between themselves and poor women, nor able to bring poor women to the table. There is a huge divide in who gets the space. Unless new and stronger connections are made between these women, we will not make a difference.

Leadership potential at the grassroots is not unleashed. Support and mentoring for young African women and women at the grassroots has declined since the Beijing World Conference on Women over a decade ago. African women leaders believe that if women are to be empowered, greater efforts must be made starting in schools. We need to teach girls in rural areas the importance of leadership. The importance of mentoring young women to build their leadership potential was stressed by many participants. The positive role of small associations, even if women are poor and organize in a very small way, was praised as a way in which women can be supported.

Countries in crisis

Participants reflected on the humanitarian crises in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Somalia and the reasons for lack of effective action. Somalia has faced civil war and political upheaval for nearly two decades. There are no independent negotiations being conducted on the ground, and the peace negotiations do not include the voices of women. Can the women of Africa give a collective voice to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of crises like those in Somalia or Darfur?

Participants felt that in some countries such as Zimbabwe, there was potential to mobilize the women’s agenda for civil society. A number of possible follow up initiatives were proposed including woman-to-woman missions to address specific crisis situations and joint efforts to increase resources for initiatives aimed at enhancing gender equality - issues like these should be taken to the Security Summit in September. Women leaders in Africa believe the time has come to stand up and say, “I am a leader.”