DUBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - African women in politics need financial support from the West to help them forge ahead rather than leadership training, Malawi’s former president Joyce Banda said on Sunday, adding that advice she had received in the past had backfired.
Ensuring women’s full participation at all levels in political, economic and public life is one of the targets of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious plan to end poverty and inequality agreed by world leaders last year.
Just over a fifth of parliamentary seats in sub-Saharan Africa are held by women, according to U.N. data, but there are wide variations between countries.
Banda, Malawi’s first female president and the second woman to lead an African country after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, told delegates at a conference on African women’s empowerment that a confrontational western style would not work in Africa.
She described how she had once received women’s leadership training in New York, where participants were told to be assertive, stand straight and look people in the eye.
“If I had done that, for example while talking to a traditional ruler in Africa, I would have been rejected immediately,” Banda said, explaining that she believed in feminism and in equal rights for women, but also in “doing things the African way”.
“If you want to take the western route, all you will get is rejection, frustration. Confrontation will never work,” she said in a speech at the Sheroes Forum in Dubai.
Banda described how, following the 1995 Fourth World Women Conference in Beijing where delegates called for international efforts to boost women’s political representation, she had printed a banner for a follow-up conference in Malawi with the slogan “99 Women in Office by 1999”.
But she said this prompted instant resistance from many male politicians who felt threatened about the men who would be unseated in order for the 99 women to take their seats.
“If you want to fight men to get equal rights, you will get frustrated,” said Banda.
Banda, who was in power from 2012 to 2014, runs the Elect Her In Africa (EHIA) initiative which aims to encourage women to run for elected offices and to spur governments to appoint women to key positions.
She said the best way the West could help African women gain political power was through helping their economic empowerment.
“When you don’t have the money, you can’t stand for elective power, not in Africa,” she added.
The Sheroes Forum is a biannual event bringing together African women who are blazing a trail in the public and private sectors to discuss how best to promote women’s empowerment in politics and business.
Editing by Emma Batha; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.