THREE WEEKS before my third birthday, in 1987, then Burkina Faso leader, Captain Thomas Sankara delivered a speech on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Several thousands of women from all walks of Burkinabe life gathered to listen to the speech and many more accessed it across various media. As a man himself, the irony of the occasion was not lost to Sankara.
“It is not an everyday occurrence for a man to speak to so many women at once,” he began by saying, adding: “Nor does it happen every day that a man suggests to so many women new battles to be joined.”
It is in a similar context of thinking that I frame this entry this week. “A man,” Sankara further says, “experiences his first bashfulness the minute he becomes conscious he is looking at a woman. So, sisters, you will understand that despite the joy and pleasure it gives me to be speaking to you, I still remain a man who sees in every one of you a mother, a sister, or a wife.”
Readers familiar with Sankara’s speeches and outlook on governance will not be surprised at this. Before it became fashionable to speak about and include women in governance processes, Sankara was already doing it. Not to score cheap political points or win the confidence of donors but as a very conscious and deliberate initiative aimed at allowing women to take up their rightful position in society and quite importantly, in history.
The premise for this thinking was, of course, that the revolutionary gains made, and the good fortune that thrust Sankara and his people into power could not be consolidated without the systematic advancement of women in Burkina Faso. To appreciate how far ahead of its time this thinking was, you only have to look at the state of women across Africa, in 2016.
In the past few weeks, some of the columns I have written have focused on the vulnerabilities faced by children and women in Malawi. This has not been accidental. The physical and structural violence being suffered by girls and women in this country is not only disturbing; it is also very counter-productive and is slowing down our progress. If we were serious about the emancipation of women in Malawi, we could have, by now, achieved far greater things than we so far have.
Yet, most women continue to struggle to see through each day they live in this country. The burdens they carry are burdens to nurture Malawi and they deserve firm support structures they can rely on in order to do more. These structures are laid out in the numerous recommendations, plans and frameworks that have been designed at various forums but have since suffered the misfortune of being relegated to filing cabinets. Frankly speaking, there is no need to develop new ideas, we have those in abundance.
What is quite clear, however, is that there is no sincere political will to make the emancipation of women in Malawi a living reality, especially in the public space. For a country that enjoys cultural diversity, with certain cultures, insisting on women leadership in households and communities, it should be a no-brainer that women are allowed to command similar presence and respect in the public life. In fact, that should be the source of our national pride!
In this regard, therefore, efforts by the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus (PWC) to get more women in Parliament need to be lauded and encouraged. As it is, Malawi only has 32 women parliamentarians out of the 193 legislators in the country. This is a serious indictment on our system and a blot on our national aspirations for women as the majority population.
That PWC intends to encourage more women to vie for parliamentary positions in the next elections is an idea that is long overdue. It is an initiative that should capture our imagination as citizens and give us insight into what a transformed and emancipated parliament will look like and what the dividend for the country will be at large.
Given the Burkina Faso experience, under Sankara, there can be little doubt that Malawi has more to benefit from having more women in leadership positions than not. This is not something that should be supported by women only. Men, too, have a crucial role to play in contributing to the strengthening of women’s capacities in this country.
Captain Sankara has the last word: “We must understand how the struggle of Burkinabe women today is part of the worldwide struggle of all women, and beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. The condition of women is therefore at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here, there and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.”