Last Thursday, the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies hosted two distinguished visitors. Yes, two! Not just United States President Mr Barack Obama. A couple of hours after his uplifting town hall meeting, another speaker of equal stature, Dr Nkosazana Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), delivered the 8th Lucille Mathurin Mair public lecture.
The first woman to chair the AUC, Dr Zuma has broken barriers of gender that seemed as insurmountable as the stumbling blocks of race that have been put in Mr Obama’s path. I will never forget the euphoria of attending the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. On a very cold January morning, I stood in line with hundreds of others for more than two hours just to get on a train to the Capitol.
But I almost turned back when the train got more and more crowded as we approached Washington, D.C. My sister, Donnette, had to remind me that I’d come all the way from Jamaica for the inauguration and couldn’t miss it. When we got to the Capitol, I was glad I hadn’t given up. To be part of that massive crowd on that historic occasion was truly awesome.
I felt a similar sense of awe as I heard Dr Zuma tell her heroic story of the struggle for gender equity on the African continent. As the African Union website notes, “She was born on 27 January 1949 in KwaZulu-Natal, a time when black women’s career expectations did not go beyond domestic work”.
As a medical student in South Africa, this politically engaged young woman became an underground member of the African National Congress. In 1976, she went into exile in the UK where she completed her degree. On her return to South Africa, Dr Zuma was appointed as minister of health and introduced reforms that made basic healthcare free. In the spirit of much later Obamacare! Dr Zuma also served as minister of foreign affairs and minister of home affairs.
SEMAJ TAKING BETS
Quite early in her lecture, Dr. Zuma used the vivid image of the hoe to symbolise the difficulty of life for many women on the African continent.Women farmers have long been complaining that the backbreaking work of digging the ground with a hoe makes them age rather quickly. A woman of 40 begins to look like 60.
By the way, according to Dr. Leahcim Semaj, this prematurely aged woman would definitely have to stay in her lane. No ‘ageable’ man is going to want her. Then would you believe that Dr. Semaj is taking bets on his Mind Spa blog that no ‘ageable’ man is going to look me? “The bird will soon learn” is how he puts it. What a prekeh!
Seriously, though, the AUC has make a commitment to ensure that women farmers have access to new technology that will make their lives far easier.
One of the big issues Dr Zuma addressed was the effectiveness of quotas in increasing the number of women in representational politics. At a “Phenomenal Women” breakfast on Friday, she told the amusing story of how the AUC handled negative responses to the decision that each of the five regions of the Union should send two representatives, one male, the other female, to the Commission.
Only two regions complied. The other three claimed they could not find any qualified women. They were told that their quota of women would be given to other regions. And they would just have to explain to their constituents why they couldn’t find appropriate female representatives. All of a sudden, suitable women appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
Dr. Zuma also settled the non-issue of “token” women. Some pompous women, opposed to the quota system, keep saying they don’t want to be seen as “token” women. But, as Dr. Zuma put it, “quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive”. Quotas force men to acknowledge the existence of qualified women who are routinely overlooked for leadership positions.
This indisputable affirmation of the value of quotas reminded me of the easy way in which Mr Obama applied the principle of gender equity in his fielding of questions at the town hall meeting. Simple alternation: boy/girl. But this is not the usual practice in the ‘real’ world of male domination! Men don’t usually like to share power.
If only we could apply this boy/girl system in all areas of public life. At the University of the West Indies, for example, we could institute the principle of quotas to ensure gender equity. Boy Chancellor, followed by girl Chancellor; boy Vice-chancellor, girl Vice-chancellor. On and on, all the way up and down the University’s hierarchical systems. And we could put in place term limits. So more people would get the opportunity to provide leadership.
Dr Zuma’s visit has received very little coverage in the local media. She has been overshadowed by Mr Obama. But for those of us who knew she was here, her presence has been a most welcome affirmation of woman power. Twenty years after the Fourth World Conference on Women, convened in Beijing, the African Union has declared 2015 as the African Year of Women. We in the Diaspora must join forces with women on the continent to claim our full of quota of rights.