African Women on Top
by Shona Bezanson,Peter Materu–TORONTO – Africa has a long history of female leadership. Yet leadership can be a challenging aspiration for the continent’s young women, owing to enduring barriers to success. If African countries – and Africa’s women – are to meet their potential, this must change.
Women were leaders on the frontlines of Africa’s decolonization struggle. Queen Anna Nzinga, the monarch of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms in what is now Angola, spent decades fighting to protect her people from the Portuguese and their expanding slave trade. In 1900, Yaa Asantewaa, queen mother of the Ashanti Empire (part of modern-day Ghana), led a rebellion against British colonialism. Nearly three decades later, women in southeastern Nigeria organized a revolt, known as the Aba Women’s Riots, against British colonial policies.
More recently, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – led her country to reconciliation and recovery following a decade-long civil war, managing a devastating Ebola epidemic along the way. Former Rwandan Minister of Health Agnes Binagwaho has dedicated her career to achieving equitable access to health care in her country and beyond. As a young teenager, Kakenya Ntaiya agreed to undergo female circumcision (a traditional Maasai rite of passage) in exchange for the opportunity to get an education. After earning a PhD in education, she founded Kakenya’s Dream, which focuses on educating girls, ending harmful traditional practices, and uplifting rural communities in Kenya.
Yet barriers to women’s leadership in Africa today remain systemic, widespread, and they begin early. They start at home, where girls are expected to take on more responsibility, including chores like childcare, cooking, and laundry. This, and other factors, undermines African girls’ educational attainment: 47% either do not complete school or never attend at all.
Girls’ paths are no easier when they grow up. From limited land rights to the enduring expectation that they perform the majority of unpaid household labor, women in Africa face major economic, legal, and cultural barriers to advancement. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, Sub-Saharan Africa has closed the disparity in economic empowerment by only 68%, with women still far more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or hold precarious employment in the informal sector.
But while the barriers to women’s leadership are formidable, they are not insurmountable. Whether in politics or health, law, or engineering, African women are showing the world how to unleash their fellow women’s leadership potential.