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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 women’s voices that gathered from all over the world
to speak at the Vital Voices of Africa summit — in every shade and
age range, from ebony to pink, girl-child to gogo.
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.
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, "Women’s
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 it’s 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."
enabled all participants to speak: "I’m from Nigeria, from
a polygamous marriage, one of 15 wives"; "I’m from Zimbabwe
— affirmative action for women in business doesn’t cancel out the
need to be a good mother."
high on the list of issues confronting most African women and children.
It has, as Ralph said, assumed a woman’s face on this continent,
and increasingly in the United States. Her performance included
two monologues — and afterwards, visibly moved, women stood to talk:
"I’m from Kenya — you’ve been telling my story, but how can
you let it happen in America?"; "I’m from Uganda — we
were proud that our [HIV/Aids] numbers had dropped, but now they’re
rising again, amongst married couples."
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
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 (www.allAfrica.com)
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.
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."
Richards is a freelance journalist and presents Otherwise, the woman’s
perspective on SAfm
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