The Year of the Woman

2011 was the year of pro-democracy movements and they were largely pushed and pulled by women.

The late Wangari Maathai.

It was a great year, maybe one of the best ever, for direct action in-the-streets in-your-face pro-democracy movements, and they were largely pushed and pulled by women. Starting with Tunisia, food uprisings spread quickly to Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere across the continent. Sometimes, big men were pushed out.

Leymah Gbowee was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, of Yemen, won the award for building peace the old-fashioned way: mass mobilization, individual courage, insistence on keeping one’s eyes on the prize, and identifying the prize itself as full and participatory, engaged and sustained democracy.

In Egypt, women of Tahrir Square moved a national conversation from one of reform to one of liberation and then they pushed Mubarak out. And what do we see when we look at the news from Tahrir Square today? Soldiers attack, beat and otherwise abuse women. And the women keep on keeping on. And keep on keeping on. It ain’t over til the women sing.

In Uganda, the Walk-to-Work movement, which didn’t get much attention from the mainstream media of the Global North (but maybe that’s a good thing, given the quality of coverage), was largely led and populated by women, like Ingrid Turinawe, who stopped work, proposed new forms of insurgence and intervention, and, not incidentally, called attention to the conditions in Uganda’s prisons, in this instance Luzira Prison.

Speaking of Uganda, over the weekend, the country’s government committed itself to reducing maternal mortality by 50%. Whether or not that commitment is real or in good faith, the simple statement is part of an important trend across the continent this year — the trend to recognize maternal mortality as a public health issue, a women’s issue, and a human rights issue. By issue is meant crisis. Too many women die in childbirth. Also the Kenyan government promised to reduce death in childbirths, while rural Kenyans organize new ways to ensure the safety of pregnant women and women in childbirth. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the state continues to make excuses, rather than support solutions.

In many ways, the global attention to maternal mortality as something governments can actually address, rather than bemoan, began two years ago with Amnesty’s report, “Demand Dignity: Case Studies on Maternal Mortality,” which focused on Sierra Leone, Peru, the United States, and Burkina Faso. Amnesty’s intervention was to see maternal mortality rates as human rights violations. It is a story that will continue into the next year.

Another major human rights story, across the continent, continues to be the rights, safety and well-being of LGBTIQ communities and persons. In South Africa, the trial of the killers of Khayelitsha lesbian activist Zoliswa Nkonyana draws to a close with sentencing hearings. Photographer, advocate, activist and organizer Zanele Muholi continues to open new pathways. In Uganda, gay rights activist David Kato was brutally murdered in January. In Kenya, gay rights activist David Kuria announced just this week that he will run for political office. That would make him the first openly gay candidate to do so — in the country’s history. And meanwhile the seemingly endless wave of homophobic legislation continues to sweep across the continent, but not without LGBTIQ activists and their supporters organizing in various venues. At the same time, gay and lesbian asylum seekers, like Ugandans Brenda Namigadde or Betty Tibikawa, struggle, often on their own, for refuge in distant and frequently inhospitable circumstances.

Finally, well almost finally, while women continue to be targeted by land grabs — in South Sudan and Uganda, in Kenya, and everywhere — African women workers also came to the fore this year in two particular ways. First, thanks to the International Labour Organization and local, regional and national domestic workers organizations, such as SADSAWU in South Africa, the concept of decent work for domestic workers began to take hold. This could begin to mean something positive in the lives of African transnational domestic workers, especially in the Middle East and in Europe, as well as at home. Second, the world began to recognize, formally, that small hold farmers [a] exist and [b] are a crucial component, and should be critical participants, in any discussion on food sovereignty, food security, health and climate change. And who are those farmers and farm workers? Women. Especially in Africa. They are not, as they’ve been described, “a low skill base.” Rather, women farmworkers, like those in the vineyards or the orchards of the Western Cape, or the sugar plantations of Kwa-Zulu Natal of South Africa, are not the problem. They are, or could be, part of a sustainable and sustaining food production chain.

Finally, it was a year in which we lost many. I will close with one, Wangari Maathai. Rest in peace. Hamba kahle.

Further Reading

The cemetery of cinema

Thierno Souleymane Diallo’s latest film traces his search for what is likely the first film made by a Guinean, in the process asking: how is a film culture possible when the infrastructure and institutions are lacking?

Whose democracy?

In Israel, tens of thousands have demonstrated against the new right-wing government’s plans for judicial reform. But what of the Palestinian question? In this episode of the podcast, we discuss.