When I was eight years old, a family friend told my father that he thought I was destined for leadership. My dad never let me forget that heady observation, and as a result of his constant encouragement, I took every opportunity I had to pursue our friend’s prophecy. Today, I owe much of my success to my late father, whose belief in me was unwavering.
Unfortunately, most African girls are not as lucky as I was.
While many girls possess leadership qualities, social, political, and economic barriers stymie their potential. This is especially true for girls in rural parts of Africa, where poverty, abuse, and tradition conspire to limit opportunity.
The heartbreaking story of my childhood friend, Chrissie, is illustrative. Chrissie was the star student in the village in Malawi where I grew up. But she dropped out of secondary school because her family could not afford the $6 in monthly fees. Before Chrissie was 18, she was married with a child; she has never left the village where we were born.
Chrissie’s experience is repeated millions of times over in my country, across Africa, and around the world. Today, more than 130 million girls worldwide are out of school through no fault of their own. By the time many African girls turn ten, their fate is already determined. Some are victims of harmful cultural practices, like female genital mutilation and child marriage, while others are unable to escape the poverty that grips their families and communities.
Economic bias is especially damaging to girls. When resources are limited, poor families must choose which children to send to school, and in many regions, boys are viewed as “safer” investments. Girls, meanwhile, are married off, or sent to work in the fields or as domestic helpers. These decisions about the allocation of educational opportunity severely stunt female leadership potential.
One of the objectives of the Joyce Banda Foundation is to strengthen the financial independence of Malawian women, and thereby create the conditions for the development and emergence of young girls as future leaders. Evidence shows that when women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men. Furthermore, once women have their own sources of income, they are better able to participate in the political process.
Changing endemic cultural norms about gender and identity—and developing more female leaders—begins in the classroom. School-age girls must be taught to value themselves and one another, and that it is their right to be educated, healthy, and empowered. At the Joyce Banda Foundation School in Blantyre, Malawi, educators have adopted a curriculum based on four building blocks: universal values, global understanding, service to humanity, and excellence.
Parts of Africa are moving in the right direction. Today, nearly a quarter of Sub-Saharan Africa’s lawmakers are women, up from just 10 percent in 1997. Rwanda, meanwhile, has the highest percentage of female legislators in the world. And throughout Africa, women have been elected to leadership roles at all levels of government.
Still, much work remains. As the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will make clear in its annual Goalkeepers report later this month, governments must recommit to supporting female leaders’ development by investing in the health and education of women and girls. Delivering services to girls under ten years of age, especially in rural areas, is essential if Africa is ever to achieve lasting gender equality.
Over the course of my career in Malawi—first in civil society, then as a Member of Parliament, and finally, as president—I became convinced that the only way to change Africa’s misogynistic narrative is by helping more women reach the highest levels of power. Research from India shows that when governments increase the percentage of women in their ranks, social issues like health care, education, and food security receive higher priority. Having more women in leadership is thus good for everyone.
Leaders are born as well as made, but when they are born in Africa, they are not always recognised. To give more young women the opportunity to develop their talents and put their skills to work, today’s leaders must clear a path for the female leaders of tomorrow.—Project Syndicate, first published in September 2018.