New Internationalist

Change-makers: women of the African diaspora

African women throughout history have participated in social change  [Related Image]
African women throughout history have participated in social change John Atherton under a Creative Commons Licence

The African Union (AU) now recognizes the African diaspora as the ‘sixth region’ of the continent. This declaration has been met with some hesitation, but if you ask me, due to Africa’s complex history with migration, it makes perfect sense.

After all, whatever reason Africans have for leaving the continent, many of them – and their descendants – remain connected with it. This connection tends to be marked by varying degrees of responsibility. This is no surprise. If you have roots in a continent which has been subject to centuries of exploitation – from occupation to apartheid to land grabs – you are likely to feel a need to contribute to positive social change.

Women of the African diaspora are doing just that. The examples are numerous. There are artists like Fatoumata Diawara, an advocate of peace and women’s rights. There is Semhar Araia, White House champion of change and founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN) and Erinma Bell, who was awarded The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award for her organization, Carisma.

Women like these, as well as many others, are carrying the flags of their socially conscious foremothers. In fact, if there is one thing that characterizes African women’s history, it is stepping up to social responsibility with creativity and commitment.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that each and every African woman feels a sense of social responsibility, and nor does she need to, on the basis of heritage alone. But there is undeniably a sense of a ‘social contract’ in a lot of the work carried out by women of the African diaspora and within the continent, one which I suspect stems from a history of having to defend the right to simply exist.

In 1915, a Sierra Leonean woman called Adelaide Casely-Hayford gave a public lecture on women’s rights which resulted in her organizing scores of women to join the struggle to demand participation in the colonial government. The Sierra Leonean example was followed by Gambia in 1926 and in eastern Nigeria in 1928, where women organized so ardently against an unfair taxation policy that the colonial administration, aghast, retracted several laws that disadvantaged them.

Similar stories emerge throughout African women’s history. In early July, for example, the Nigerian National Council of Women’s Societies (NCWS) launched its diaspora branch. NCWS is an organization that was founded in 1958 to ensure Nigerian women’s participation in public life. This is a perfect example of how women’s work in mid-20th century Nigeria created ripples that continue to flow in 2013, in London.

The legacy of positive social change is one that African women – in and outside of the diaspora – also set international standards for. For instance, African countries are providing examples of gender-sensitive policy-making and innovative electoral mechanisms that could be models for other parts of the world. In Rwanda, more than half (56 per cent) of members of parliament are women, the largest ratio in the world; Senegal is not too far behind with 43 per cent. Organizations such as The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) are looking to the successes of Rwanda to understand how quotas can be used to encourage gender parity worldwide.

To accelerate and fortify the trend for women of the African diaspora to play a key role in social change, we should look to create parallel networks and forge alliances with other women of African heritage, across sectors, across the diaspora and within the continent. Co-operation is a vital means of enhancing the separate initiatives for social progress.

As Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai said, ‘We must make our choice, or others, less sympathetic, will make that choice for us.

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