…Brain behind women empowerment

…Relishes creating path to gender parity in TZ

…How size of the room at UN shocked her

THE UN Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, marked a watershed in women empowerment and promotion of equal rights among men and women.

And, the driving force behind the Conference was none other than Tanzania’s Gertrude Mongella, who was the Secretary General of the gathering.

The ‘Daily News’ sought an audience with Mama Mongella to get details on her unmatched leadership experience, untold stories, what she sees and what she would love to see attained by the country.

Behind the crucial role of championing issues relating to gender equality and women’s empowerment is where the famous name ‘Mama Beijing’ was coined from as through the conference, the status and dignity of women in the global arena were elevated until today.

Gertrude was born on September 13, 1945 in Ukerewe, an island in Lake Victoria. In 1970, Mama Mongella graduated from the University of East Africa in Dar es Salaam.

Aside from her gender activist’s role, the 78-year-old also served as an educator, country’s diplomat and politician who rose to the ranks over the years. She was an educationist who taught at Chang’ombe Teachers College, Tanzania, from 1970 to 1974. She was also a curriculum developer at the Institute of Adult Education from 1974 to 1978.

In her early 30s, she served as a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) and between 1977-1982 as a young politician assumed the roles of member of the ruling party CCM National Executive Committee (NEC) and Central Committee (CC).

In the year 1980-1993, Mama Mongella became a Member of Parliament under the national seat, where from 1982 to 1990 she served as a minister in various dockets including in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for Regional Administration Local Government and Women Affairs (1982-1988), Minister for Lands, Tourism and Natural Resource (1985-1987) and Minister without Portfolio-President’s Office (1987-1990).

After years of service within the country, Mama Mongella was appointed to be Tanzania High Commissioner to India 1991-1992, where she also served Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

In the years 1993-1994, she assumed the role of UN Assistant Secretary General and Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. It was during this time that history and to-date the powerhouse name ‘Mama Beijing’ echoed really meaning human dignity and women empowerment.

Though Mama Mongella has played very crucial roles and held various high-ranking positions within and outside the country, one of the things that she is proud of until today and the world is going to remember her for, is when she took a leading role at the Beijing Conference to advocate women’s rights.

She referred to the conference as among the largest conferences ever to be held in the UN as it gathered together around 15,000 people from 185 nations meeting in Beijing.

Aside from the above-mentioned roles, the veteran politician also served as President and Member of the Pan-African Parliament of the African Union between the years 2004-2009.

Mama Mongella’s rich, inspiring and educative portfolio was generated from her own principle of confidence, showing own abilities, patriotism, always learning and volunteerism.

Recounting her first encounter after being appointed as the UN Assistant Secretary General upon reporting and allocated an office, the size of the room had shocked her due to its vastness and the fact that all of it was under her jurisdiction.

While she was in the office and decided to take her seat gazing around, she saw a map and tried to spot where Tanzania was and looked to see if she could trace Ukerewe Island; what was seen on the chart was just a single dot.

Coming to terms with reality she collected herself and came to terms that she was the bearer of the office and needed to act and deliver accordingly due to the crucial role which was ahead.

“It was during this juncture that I thought to myself that women needed to come out strong and bold and show their abilities and knowledge,” said Mama Mongella.

According to her, she realised that women remained stagnant due to norms and portrayal in societies as being shy and not showing abilities, adding that they should not take that as normal.

She noted that education was also a catalyst which instilled the ability of people as leaders.

Another leadership aspect is that of learning, for instance, during her time in African Parliament considering that it was the first one in its history.

“As a leader of the organ, you have to learn from others like what I did in generating knowledge and skills from various parliaments including the European Union, Latin America, other continent the sole goal being to learn and take charge in the operationalisation of the African Parliament,” she said.

Mama Mongella added: “In learning, one should not feel ashamed of not knowing something. Too much over confidence and pretending to know everything might lead to your failure. It’s important to learn from others, know the techniques so that you can demonstrate your abilities that you can deliver.

Mama Mongella noted that throughout her experience in leadership, she has learned a lot from others.

“A lot of women have the tendency of shielding their leadership potentials, citing an example when she had served in the Prime Minister’s office; she used to complain about the small number of female District Commissioners but was asked for a list of proposed candidates.

She was almost crying to herself because whoever she was touching did not express readiness much as she knew those people’s potentials from school and CCM Women Wing (UWT).

“I came to learn that it’s the norms that affect most people to see themselves as they cannot do or be greater things,” stated the Women Champion.

Due to her outstanding role in championing for issues of gender equality and women empowerment, over the years Mama Mongella has scooped various awards including the Charlotte Maxeke African Women Leadership Awards in 2023 (Women in Diplomacy) aimed at acknowledging and honouring exceptional African women leaders who played a role in advancing Africa’s development in various sectors of society.

Others in the list are the Secretary General Beijing Conference for Women by African Alliance for Women Empowerment (2021), Award for Outstanding Women in Tanzania (Mwanamke wa Mfano Tanzania) by UWT in 2018, and 2017 she received an Award for being the first President of Pan African Parliament by TNGP Mtandao among many others.

As a women right’s activist, Mama Mongella brags of the revolution made due to the conference from setting the global tone on issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment, whereby today women and men are looked at as equal citizens.

On the other hand, women are not considered as invitees and this can be reflected from the number of women globally including Tanzania who have rose and grabbed top leadership roles, significant example being President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Today girls can go to school, study subjects which were considered for boys, inherit properties and participate in decision making roles.

Mama Mongella is married with three children and 12 grandchildren and early this month the couple marked their 54-wedding anniversary.

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