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'A Century to Close Gender Gap': UN Women

Mehjabeen Alarakhia, the UN Women regional advisor on Women’s Economic Empowerment for East and Southern Africa (U.N. Photo).

WASHINGTON — Women’s History Month in the U.S. is being commemorated under the theme "Celebrating Women Who Tell Stories," recognizing the contributions of women in media and storytelling. The annual recognition, marked since 1987, coincides with International Women’s Day. 

To discuss the ongoing contributions of women, in particular women in Africa, VOA’s Ignatius Annor spoke to Mehjabeen Alarakhia, UN Women regional advisor on Women’s Economic Empowerment for East and southern Africa.

Annor first asked Alarakhia if women who share their stories face any threats and about the importance of hearing from them.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Mehjabeen: “Women do face threats when they tell their story, and generally this is because some of the stories are their truth, which is very difficult for people of other truths to sometimes understand and accept.”

“This is what we saw through the 'Me-Too' movement for example. As women came forward to tell their truth, the people who were maybe not aware of what they were doing or how their actions were affecting women and other people, were a little bit on a defensive.”

“This is where the threat starts to come about, and it is faced by women but also other groups and minority groups as they come forward to tell their truth. It can be very threatening for those who don't realize what the impact of their actions are.”

VOA: On Wednesday, the world marked International Women's Day. Are women being empowered enough to climb the political, social and economic ladder particularly in Africa?

Mehjabeen: “There are many initiatives ongoing to look at how we can help women to take their space in society as equal members. But, I think some of the recent data also shows that it will take approximately 100 years looking at different areas of the world to actually close that gender gap. So, that means not my lifetime, not your lifetime, not our kids. Maybe the grandkids will be the ones that are able to benefit from that.”

“There are a lot of partners that are working together on this and that's kind of the spirit of International Women's Day, is also to celebrate the progress that we have made so far, but then to acknowledge that we need to continue to invest in this area to really achieve gender equality.”

VOA: Statistics show that in Africa, Rwanda is leading with nearly 62% of women holding seats in national parliaments while Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation has just 3.61 % of women as parliamentarians compared to 28% in U.S Congress. What is contributing to the wide gap?

Mehjabeen: “There are a number of factors that come into it - one is the political will from the government themselves. In Rwanda, there has been a conscious decision from the highest levels of government to ensure that women are represented, are in the decision making roles and in positions of power.”

“The other is around social norms. It's common to hear that women don't belong in parliament, shouldn't be in leadership, and that politics is that dirty game for women. If we say that we want leadership of democracy to really represent the people, then we also know that in most countries women make at least 50% of the population, and so, the leadership in parliament should be representative of the population.”

“There are countries that allocate a specific number of seats for women. In most countries it's about 30%. So, this is a way to break those barriers down.”

VOA: What can you show to be examples of how women have performed?

Mehjabeen: “We saw this a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a lot of awareness around the responses of countries where women were in leadership and the responses of countries where women were not in leadership. There has been some documented evidence very clearly around this.”

“We also have evidence that when you have women in leadership in the private sector for example, they have a lot more emotional intelligence and so are able to bring in the resources and the skill sets of the people in their teams to be better balanced and have more productivity.”

VOA: The International Women's Day celebration was themed “digitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” Is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education for African girls the window for equality within this field?

Mehjabeen: “STEM is definitely one of the areas that would be a window of opportunity for women in this field, but it is also one of the areas where women are least represented. In the context of Africa, we particularly need to look at the full ecosystem of the digital space. So, for women in Africa what that means is that we need to look at first and foremost literacy.”

“The second is access to a gadget that allows them to do that. We all know gadgets can be significantly expensive. Women are less likely to own a device and more likely to share a device with somebody else in the household. We know for example that in Africa, it's about 25% of women who access the internet and 35% of men in urban areas. But when we move to the rural areas that percentage falls down to about 15%.”

“Beyond that, we need to start looking at the role of governments, the private sector and different partners to ensure that women are able to access the internet in a fair and justified manner.”

VOA: What's your message to African leaders and innovators even after the celebration?

Mehjabeen: “Women need to be the center of any development strategy and the development plans of nations - be it economical, political or social, and not as an afterthought. Women's empowerment should be the central focus, and the reason we say this is because if we are able to ensure that women are empowered, the other populations will also be empowered as a result.”

'A Century to Close Gender Gap': UN Women
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