With women in mind

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By Eunice Masunungure

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY (IWD), on  March 8, commemorates the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of women.

The 2021 IWD ran under the theme: ‘#Choose To Challenge’.

A look into various African leaders and women leaders’ sentiments regarding the 2021 IWD reveals, as important, the African perspective regarding solidarity, bailing each other out, trust and capacity building. 

Instances of solidarity are revealed in Zimbabwe’s First Lady Amai Auxillia Mnangagwa’s sentiments.

Speaking after a meeting with former Vice-President Dr Joice Mujuru at Zimbabwe House on March 8 2021 in the spirit of IWD, Amai Mnangagwa said women countrywide should embrace each other and avoid hatred. 

Embracing each other means loving, bailing each other out, encouraging each other by telling own stories, giving what one can give to the needy and holding each other’s hand whenever necessary, as the First Lady has been doing. 

She has touched lives, including could-be-school-drop-outs, alleviated hunger, poverty and even solved problems of rebel adolescents, helped girls and women and reached out to remote communities.

For instance, to date, she has rolled out clubs that make reusable sanitary wear for the poor while at the same time creating employment.

Therefore, IWD in Africa cannot be celebrated without consideration of such works.

The day makes sense in the African setup of celebrating indigenous-brewed solutions to local challenges.

Another instance of a woman who has provided women solutions in the African set-up is Huda Sha’arawi who created the first Egyptian philanthropic society for women, in addition to being the founder and head of the Egyptian Feminist Union.

She represented Egypt internationally at women’s conferences. Sha’arawi also established a school for girls and women-run social services.

Another example was the former first female Prime Minister of Mozambique, Luisa Diogo, who fought the spread of HIV and AIDS and advocated increased healthcare access in her country. 

She is also a strong supporter of gender equality and sits on the Council of Women World Leaders to promote political participation of women.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia, is another example. 

Upon entering office, Sirleaf made education free for all elementary school kids. 

She set legislation to increase transparency in the Liberian Government.

She sits on the Council of Women World Leaders.

Indeed, IWD must be rooted in such lived experiences and efforts of African women as noted by Okome, MO (1999) in Listening to Africa, Misunderstanding and Misinterpreting Africa: Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African Women.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi paid tribute to women, hailing them as ‘the inexhaustible source of benevolence, goodness’.

Said President el-Sisi: “On International Women’s Day, I paid tribute to the Egyptian woman who was (carrying), and still carries, the conscience of this nation on her shoulders, with determination, mettle and perseverance befitting her eternal position in history.” 

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa also acknowledged women’s contribution to his country’s progress so far despite them still being ‘under-represented in the boardrooms and corridors of power’.

Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba praised women and their efforts towards the building of nations. 

“To develop, Gabon needs all their skills,” he said. 

According to the UN: “International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

The IWD online portal encourages all people to, “…celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about women’s equality, lobby for accelerated gender parity and fundraise for female-focused charities.” 

IWD in retrospect

IWD is associated with Western women’s rights movement; labour movements in North America and Europe during the early 20th Century gender equality; reproductive rights and violence against women.

Its earliest version is a Women’s Day organised by the Socialist Party of America in New York City on February 28 1909.

Women begun agitating for equality and less oppressive working conditions around 1908 when 15 000 demonstrated on the streets of New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. 

The next year, the Socialist Party of America observed the first National Woman’s Day across the US. 

This inspired German delegates at the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference to agitate for annual ‘special Women’s Day’. 

On March 9 1911, IWD was comemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

More than one million women and men attended the rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination.

Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of February until 1913.

When the March 25 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire broke out in New York City, where more than 140 women and girls died, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants, significant attention to the working conditions and labour legislation in the country became a focal point of the subsequent IWD events.

After women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia in 1917, (the beginning of the February Revolution), IWD was made a national holiday on March 8.

It was afterwards celebrated on that date by the socialist movement and communist countries. 

The holiday was associated with far-left movements and governments until its adoption by the global feminist movement in the late 1960s.

The IWD became a mainstream global day following its adoption by the UN in 1977 but as preceding information testifies its mould is from outside Africa.

In the UN, it was celebrated for the first time in 1975 and in December 1977.

The General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by the member-states in accordance with their historical and national traditions. 

The UN observes the holiday in connection with a particular issue, campaign or theme in women’s rights.

Problem of taking the IWD as is

The IWD has a weakness of generalising women.

It is vital for the IWD proponents to project experiences of African women who are in need of minute things taken for granted; like sanitary wear, food, maternity services, encouragement and how they help each other. 

Therefore, it is crucial to narrate nuances in Africa itself with regards to IWD.

Obi Nnaemeka (2005:57) in Bringing African Women into the Classroom: Rethinking Pedagogy and Epistemology in African Gender Studies argues that “…African feminism should not stereotype African women as ‘problems to be solved’, but should portray them as people who are capable of setting their own priorities and agenda. A distinctively African feminism will portray women as strong, innovative agents and decision-makers in their specific contexts. It should empower African women and work for them…”

Although this is not about feminism, there is need for African-centred  projection so that true experiences of African women are revealed.

Nnaemeka’s perspective argues that IWD must acknowledge the agency and potential of Africa and African women to help each other.

Therefore, with regards to Africa, IWD ought to project a people who are moving at their own pace and not pressured by dictates from elsewhere but still finding solutions to local problems.

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