Women Have Been Leaders for Generations in Africa

Melinda Gates speaks at ICFP 2013

The sentiment that women in leadership roles at every level need to be engaged was echoed by the panelists at Wednesday’s plenary, “Achieving Equity through Women in Leadership” at the International Conference on Family Planning.

Opening the session, Melinda Gates, co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, lauded the success reached by the Ethiopian government through its Health Extension Workers (HEWs) program.  Through the efforts of the HEWs, most of whom are women, the country has reached several of its MDG goals two years ahead of schedule and Gates reiterated how leadership on a large scale comes from the contributions of many individual women who are leading daily and on the ground in their countries.

H.E. Roman Tesfaye, First Lady of Ethiopia, expanded on Ethiopia’s experience and highlighted that under their constitution, family planning is considered one of the basic rights.  Beyond family planning, she also drew our attention to women’s economic empowerment and its importance in ensuring women have full access to family planning and other health services.

The plenary’s moderator, Professor Marleen Temmerman, Director of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research and of HRP at WHO, remarked that to her being a leader means being in a position to empower other women to realize their rights and become leaders themselves. The ability to galvanize on important issues such as family planning and contraceptive access is also an important leadership skill according to Temmerman.

Although very happy to hear many attendees of this year’s conference talking about ensuring that family planning doesn’t exist in a silo, Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women Development Fund, noted that we also need to make sure we move beyond rhetoric – “When we don’t move beyond the rhetoric, we get marginalization.”  She also reminded us that although it’s great to have a focus on women’s leadership in the panel and elsewhere throughout the conference, women’s leadership is not a recent development. “Women have been leaders for generations in Africa, let’s not pretend that’s not true, and let’s learn how to use that leadership,” Sowa said.