AS more women continue to venture into politics and government manning highest posts in the world, Tanzania recently recorded another milestone by swearing in the first female President, Samia Suluhu Hassan after the sudden death of late President John Magufuli.
Africa has been slow to embrace women leaders in politics, but there is an exclusive group of female presidents who have laid the foundations for future female leadership in Africa.
Wielding power, Samia becomes one of two serving female heads of State in Africa, alongside Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde. Others include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Liberia, Sylvie Kinigi – Burundi, Rose Francine Rogombé – Gabon, Monique Ohsan-Bellepeau – Mauritius, Joyce Banda – Malawi, Catherine Samba-Panza- Central African Republic, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri – South Africa and Ameenah Gurib- Fakim – Mauritius.
Two years ago, in an interview ahead of women’s day commemoration, Ms Samia was quoted as saying Tanzania could have a female president because it has been possible in other nations, especially in the ongoing efforts to eliminate oppressive systems and give women the opportunity to scale up.
President Samia becomes the tenth woman who has held the presidential title in African politics and the first in Tanzanian politics, some women become presidents through the election process and others in an interim capacity at a time of need.
All of them have made their mark on politics in their respective countries while their presence as heads of state has been positive for gender equality in Africa. In July 2015, CCM’s presidential nominee, John Magufuli chose her as his running mate for the 2015 election, making her the first female running mate in the party’s history.
She subsequently became the first female vice-president in the history of the country upon Magufuli’s victory in the election. Due to President Magufuli’s death on 17 March 2021, Samia, as the vice president, was sworn in as President and will serve the balance of Magufuli’s second five-year term.
Ms Samia was born on January 27, 1960, in Zanzibar, a former slaving hub and trading outpost in the Indian Ocean. Then still a Muslim sultanate, Zanzibar did not merge formally with mainland Tanzania for another four years.
Her father was a school teacher and her mother, a housewife. She graduated from high school but has said publicly that her finishing results were poor, and she took a clerkship in a government office at 17.
By 1988, after undertaking further study, Ms Samia had risen through the ranks to become a development officer in the Zanzibar government. She was employed as a project manager for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and later in the 1990s was made executive director of an umbrella body governing non-governmental organisations in Zanzibar.
In 2000, she was nominated by the CCM to a special seat in Zanzibar’s House of Representatives. She then served as a local government minister – first for youth employment, women and children and then for tourism and trade investment. In 2010, she was elected to the National Assembly on mainland Tanzania.
Then- President Jakaya Kikwete appointed her as Minister of State for Union Affairs. She holds university qualifications from Tanzania, Britain and the United States. The mother of four has spoken publicly to encourage Tanzanian women and girls to pursue their dreams.
“I may look polite, and do not shout when speaking, but the most important thing is that everyone understands what I say and things get done as I say,” Mama Samia said in a speech last year.
President Samia is the only other current serving female head of state in Africa alongside Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde, whose role is mainly ceremonial. It should be noted that Estonia is the only country where both women leaders are elected by the people.
New Zealand, Barbados, and Denmark are three other countries with female prime ministers and heads of state, but the latter in these countries are monarchs and therefore not elected. Tanzania has seen recent progress on issues such as girl’s access to primary and secondary education and women’s representation in decision-making spaces.
For example, from 2010/11 to 2014/15, the proportion of women in senior positions increased from 33 per cent to 41 per cent. Although the country is yet to attain a 50/50 gender threshold, it had managed to surpass the Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of having at least 30 per cent of women in decision-making organs and there were 136 women featured in the 11th Parliament formed after the 2015 General Election - then recorded a slight increase, to 139 Member of Parliament after the 28 October 2020 elections.
To prompt further gender equality progress and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the government of Tanzania has made some efforts to align SDG implementation strategies with its national development plan. By engaging civil society organisations, the government has localised the SDG implementation.
Tanzania has ratified both the 2030 SDG Agenda and the long term 2063 Agenda, as well as regional development plans, such as the SADC and the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (2005- 2020). Yet, current national plans still don’t fully capture gender equality issues and women’s empowerment.
Women’s equality and empowerment is SDG goal number 5, but also integral to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development. While gender equality is essentially a question of power, in a male-dominated world, equal power will not happen by itself.
According to an Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report released recently, the number of women holding the top job — president or prime minister — rose by only two to 22. More than half of countries led by women are in Europe. It further revealed that the number of countries where women hold half or more of ministerial portfolios dropped from 14 to 13.
Twelve countries have no women ministers at all — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brunei, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Vietnam and Yemen. According to UN Women, as of 2020, women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 22 countries and 119 countries have never had a woman leader.
At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years. IPU Secretary-General Martin Chungong said discrimination against women prevents them from becoming parliamentarians. In some cases, he said, governments have laws that prevent women from running for office.
“We have in recent years brought to light the phenomenon of violence against women, and there is ample evidence out there that women are now refraining from entering the dangerous terrain of politics on account of harassment, sexism and outright violence, which is something we need to combat,” he said.
The IPU report finds progress has been made in all regions of the world. It says the Americas once again tops all other regions with women making up 32.4 per cent of MPs. This, the report says, was despite political upheaval across Latin America. It notes women represented nearly 27 per cent of membership in the U.S. Congress, the highest level in its history.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the report finds Mali and Niger have made significant gains in women’s representation, despite grave security risks. It says a few countries in Europe have achieved 30 per cent female representation, while the Middle East and North Africa have lagged with 17 per cent. The worst-performing countries are in the Asia- Pacific region.
The IPU says Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea have no female representation. IPU officials call this a matter of great concern. The report shows the COVID-19 pandemic harmed elections last year, noting that national parliamentary elections were postponed in nearly 20 countries due to restrictions.