Africa’s Women Belong at the Top
by Joyce Banda-ZOMBA, MALAWI – When I was eight years old, a family friend told my father that he thought I was destined for leadership. My dad never let me forget that heady observation, and as a result of his constant encouragement, I took every opportunity I had to pursue our friend’s prophecy. Today, I owe much of my success to my late father, whose belief in me was unwavering.
Unfortunately, most African girls are not as lucky as I was. While many girls possess leadership qualities, social, political, and economic barriers stymie their potential. This is especially true for girls in rural parts of Africa, where poverty, abuse, and tradition conspire to limit opportunity.
The heartbreaking story of my childhood friend, Chrissie, is illustrative. Chrissie was the star student in the village in Malawi where I grew up. But she dropped out of secondary school because her family could not afford the $6 in monthly fees. Before Chrissie was 18, she was married with a child; she has never left the village where we were born.
Chrissie’s experience is repeated millions of times over in my country, across Africa, and around the world. Today, more than 130 million girls worldwide are out of school through no fault of their own. By the time many African girls turn ten, their fate is already determined. Some are victims of harmful cultural practices, like female genital mutilation and child marriage, while others are unable to escape the poverty that grips their families and communities.
Economic bias is especially damaging to girls. When resources are limited, poor families must choose which children to send to school, and in many regions, boys are viewed as “safer” investments. Girls, meanwhile, are married off, or sent to work in the fields or as domestic helpers. These decisions about the allocation of educational opportunity severely stunt female leadership potential.