African Women are Blazing a Feminist Trail

Aminata TroureAminata Touré, the new prime minister of Senegal, in parliament in 2012.

What would have once sounded like a far-fetched feminist fantasy – namely women forming the majority of a parliament – is a reality in one country in the world, Rwanda.

Early reports from the parliamentary elections last Monday indicate that women now hold nearly 64% of the seats. Prior to the genocidal conflict in 1994, the figure was just 18%.

In fact, women have made significant gains all around Africa: indeed, the most successful social movement in Africa in recent decades has been the women’s movement, particularly in policy and legislation. Malawi and Liberia have female heads of state, and earlier this month Senegal elected its first female prime minister, Aminata Touré. Also, the African Union chair is female for the first time in its history. Africa’s strong legacy of female leaders is a hugely positive statement about the continent’s direction.

So why does the western feminist movement hardly look at African feminism for clues? Why does it only pay such little attention to the realisation of a once utopian fantasy of female majority leadership in Rwanda – where, since 2008, women have held over half the parliamentary seats? Feminists everywhere have spent decades campaigning for equality in political leadership, yet its achievement in Rwanda has been met with a loud silence.

NGOs and international bodies have addressed the changes – not a bad thing per se – but as a result, without feminist debate, gender equality in Rwanda is mostly discussed in terms of the 1994 genocide, which killed an estimated one-tenth of the population (800,000 people), most of them men. Or gender parity is attributed to the country’s quota system, which is indeed meaningful, though only responsible for allocating 24 of the 45 seats women hold. Even worse, the debate has, in Eurocentric fashion, all too often implied that women’s progress in Rwanda is a result of the adoption of western values and that westerners are “helping” local women achieve them.

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