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Women speaking Africa
Nancy V Richards
February 06, 2007

Awut Deng Acuil, presidential adviser on gender and human rights in southern Sudan, speaks (in the soft, urgent tones of a troubled mother) about mobilising women to negotiate peace in her region. African-American Aids activist Sheryl-Lee Ralph rips a piece of tape from her mouth and lets out a mournful note that pierces the air like a stiletto. It is the opening of her one-woman performance, Sometimes I Cry.

These were just two of the 250 womenís voices that gathered from all over the world to speak at the Vital Voices of Africa summit ó in every shade and age range, from ebony to pink, girl-child to gogo.

Melanne Verveer, CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, said the objective of the summit was not to run a talkathon, but to arrive at solutions for the challenges that so disproportionately affect the women of Africa. While Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane pointed to the dangers of assuming that the women of Africa "speak with one voice", it was the diversity in age, culture and profession that gave this event its strength and maturity.

The breadth of age and experience of the participants was deliberately orchestrated, from girl guides to stateswomen, because, as the Honourable Mary Robinson, chair of the Council of Women World Leaders put it, "Womenís skills of leadership should be mentored and passed on." In a video message, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said: "We are all role models."

The three principal themes for the week-long summit were: Women as an Economic Force in Africa; Women Safeguarding Human Rights and Social Development; and Women Leading Change in Public Life.

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Nigerian minister of finance and dubbed "Trouble Woman" by the media, co-chaired the summit and identified corruption as a chronic disease on the continent. Okonjo-Iweala pointed out that where women lead, there is a greater emphasis on transparency. But she warned that we should "beware of putting women in office but not in power". She also underlined the importance of recognising and supporting women as entrepreneurs: "Whilst itís true that [women] need educating, skilling and training, we should not ignore the lessons they have to offer, not least in terms of survival strategies."

Roving microphones enabled all participants to speak: "Iím from Nigeria, from a polygamous marriage, one of 15 wives"; "Iím from Zimbabwe ó affirmative action for women in business doesnít cancel out the need to be a good mother."

HIV/Aids was high on the list of issues confronting most African women and children. It has, as Ralph said, assumed a womanís face on this continent, and increasingly in the United States. Her performance included two monologues ó and afterwards, visibly moved, women stood to talk: "Iím from Kenya ó youíve been telling my story, but how can you let it happen in America?"; "Iím from Uganda ó we were proud that our [HIV/Aids] numbers had dropped, but now theyíre rising again, amongst married couples."

A Madagascan arts activist was so struck by the relevance of the monologues that she invited Ralph to perform in her own country where, she says, women often smile and look happy "because they know no better".

As a networking machine, the Vital Voices summit hummed; opinions, names and numbers were exchanged over coffee breaks and a cyber-lobby meant that every woman could stay in touch with her desk, NGO, office or family back home.

"Weíre specialists in self-promotion," said Carol Pineau, director of the film Africa: Open for Business, at the Media as a Tool for Empowerment session. "It may not be the African way, the way you were brought up, to be humble and polite. But if you want your voices to be heard, you have to speak out, to raise your profile and image of Africa."

Dr Tami Hultman of All Africa Global Media volunteered its website ( as a platform, and a hundred women made a note of it for future reference. The real take-home factor from the summit was not the bright beaded lanyards or business cards, but the shared knowledge.

Verveer illustrated the point well: "Three women from Brazil came to our Latin American summit and within a week of returning they had passed on what they had learned to 800 more."

*Nancy V Richards is a freelance journalist and presents Otherwise, the womanís perspective on SAfm

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