Africa forum embraces the ‘Spotlight initiative’

Informal chat in preparation of the conference on “Political Empowerment of Women in Africa and in Europe”. On the right is Letty Chiwara. [Georgi Gotev]

This article is part of our special report Youth and the future of Africa.

Violence against women and girls is the root cause of discrimination and disempowerment, and this is not only about Africa, speakers insisted on Tuesday (26 September) at a conference on “Political Empowerment of Women in Africa and in Europe”.

The conference was part of the “S&D group Africa Week 2017”. This is the second year that the group of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament has organised a week-long conference on Africa-EU relations. This year the initiative is dedicated to the “youth and future of Africa”.

S&D group leader Gianni Pittella said he was proud his political force was spearheading the initiative to build a more mature partnership between the EU and Africa.

As an Italian, he did not overlook the tragedy in the Mediterranean, saying that instead of building a “fortress Europe”, legal channels for migrants should be made available, and real links between young Africans and Europeans should be created, including “visas for start-ups”.

An Erasmus for young Africans and Europeans

On 29 and 30 September in Abidjan, Africa and Europe have a date with destiny. It may sound a rather audacious statement in the face of the international community’s growing interest in the African continent, but it is not, writes Gianni Pittella.

European Commissioner for Development Neven Mimica said empowerment of women was a universal struggle as multiple economic, cultural and social barriers and gender stereotypes continue to hinder women’s and girls’ participation in all walks of life. No region or country in the world has truly triumphed in trying to solve the problem, he said.

“When women are elected to political office, policies are more varied and gender-sensitive. Health, education and social welfare improves, and there is also progress in terms of good governance and of the fight against corruption,” the Commissioner said.

During a recent election campaign in Kenya, women candidates were hampered by hate speech and this is by no means an isolated example, as recent elections on both sides of the Atlantic have shown, he said.

General elections were held in Kenya on 8 August. The results were annulled and it was announced that fresh elections would be held on 17 October.

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“The political environment remains a highly hostile battlefield for many women today, in all of our societies.  No female politician, or political activist, or mayor for that matter, should ever run the threat of violence or recrimination as a result of their political position or participation,” Mimica said.

“No women or girls should suffer the threat of violence simply because of her sex. Sexual and gender-based violence is a stain on all of our societies and one of the greatest obstacles to the full realisation of women’s and girls’ rights,” the Commissioner added.

He said he was particularly proud to have launched a major new €500-million initiative (named the “Spotlight Initiative”), together with the United Nations, to fight all forms of violence against women and girls. He voiced hope that this would become a truly global movement and reach every corner of every community.

Gender inequality is not a women’s problem, it’s one of the greatest examples of collective self-harm the world knows today, Mimica argued.

Letty Chivara, UN Women’s representative to Ethiopia, the African Union and the UN Economic Commission to Africa, said it was impossible to de-link the issue of women participation in politics with violence against women and girls.

“Violence against women and girls is the root cause of discrimination, it is the root cause of disempowerment,” she said, expressing her appreciation for the EU’s role in spearheading the Spotlight initiative.

Grace Maria Theresa Maipambe Malila, the mayor of Chilanga, Zambia, shared her personal experience in Zambian politics in a speech repeatedly greeted by applause. Zambia has 109 districts with 109 mayors, only nine of whom are women.

She introduced herself as “a 44-year old woman with family and children” who did not want the children to grow up in a country where things were breaking down and needed fixing. “Instead I’m saying: if I don’t do it, who will?”

Jumping the fence

Malila explained that before entering politics she had worked with the UN and facilitated a lot of policies, but saw the limits of what she could achieve.

“I saw how far I could go. I could not implement. And that was the push factor. You could do policies for women, for children, but you could not implement. And I said, OK, it’s time to put on my gloves, it’s time to fight. I have to jump the fence.”

She said she entered politics the hard way, becoming affiliated with the United National Development Party, the biggest opposition force in Zambia.

Malila said she had often been the object of hate speech from men, who treated her as if she were “a sex object”. This, she said, should not be ignored and women should fight back.

“You need to tell them exactly how you feel about that, and that they are not bringing down only you, they are bringing down their own daughters, they are bringing down their own wives, they are bringing down their own mothers”, Malila said.

As a mayor, she said, there were several occasions when people come into her office and said nothing, “waiting for the mayor to come”. When she told them they were already with the mayor, they started listening when she used the magic word that she could solve their problems. “It is about saying yes, I can,” Malila said

Women in Zambia, Malila added, often had very low self-esteem, and that’s why she was trying to help them improve their speaking skills.

“Hit back when men deserve it. Not physically, with your voice,” she said.