Gender is a central concern in politics and development, as women have often been excluded and marginalised from public participation. This article highlights the potential that lies in women’s participation in politics and the workforce, and how their exclusion is limiting the development of African countries.

Why Focusing on Gender Matters in Development

However, it is clear that the long term development of African countries rests on their ability to harness their labour – all their labour – which would include women. According to the UNDP, gender inequality costs sub-Saharan Africa on average USD 95 billion a year. Therefore, African countries, our development may rest on our ability to break through this barrier and include women in decision making.

To date, you can find people arguing that women cannot do certain work or hold senior positions as they are naturally/genetically better at doing housework. This has led to the response from working women that they should work harder to ‘have it all’. In other words, the pressure to be successful in their careers, while also meeting their burdens as traditional housewives. Men do not carry this social responsibility to take care of their children or sacrifice their careers for their children.

The Costs and Contributions of Participating in Public Life

Moreover, the women who have made it through gendered barriers and risen to the ‘top’ of African political and work life show what a tremendous change one person could achieve if allowed to.

Dr. Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmentalist and political activist. As the first East African woman to earn a PHD, she was definitely out of place in the 90s and early 2000s political scene. In fact, her life is an example of the cost of following your ambitions. Maathai endured torture and beatings, and was even accused of being ‘un-African’ or westernised for her ambitions. She was often regarded as loud-mouthed and uncouth for her environmental activism. This led to her husband seeking a divorce, further enforcing her status as a social pariah.

Despite all adversity, Dr. Wangari Maathai championed environmental conversation. She founded the Green Belt Movement, which employed women to plant trees in deforested areas and stood against the government to protect public lands and parks. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and became the first African woman to win the prize.

Dr Wangari Maathai died in 2011. She has a national day in her honour where people all over Kenya plant a tree to commemorate her work. In the end, she was right. Kenya needed to conserve its environment and women were well suited to do that work. Her movement continues to sponsor rural women, who are often the poorest members of society, to plant trees. The ‘sins’ she was criticised for are now wiped away. She left the legacy of a titan, who paved the way for more African women to enter politics.

There is no way to develop with half of the population restricted to the domestic sphere.

Women have a right to participate through their work and discourse in shaping development and politics. And when they do, African women’s participation can work as a remarkable force for good.

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