A transformation is taking place in Africa as African countries elect more female leaders into positions of political power.
Kah Walla, a 2011 presidential candidate in Cameroon, sees the dynamic shifting.
“We are seeing a transformation in Africa moving from a continent where up to the mid-1980s and 1990s, very few women ran for office. Since 2009, in almost every single African election we have seen a woman candidate,” Walla said during an interview before the Vital Voices Global Partnership Awards earlier this month. As female leaders emerge in Africa more women across the continent step up and stand out creating a ripple effect of women’s empowerment across the globe.
Kah Walla is just one of the thousands of women connected with the Vital Voices Global Partnership. Vital Voices was founded in 1997 by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and grew over the past 15 years into a global NGO empowering women in 144 countries and building up a network of 12,000 emerging female leaders.
Vital Voices strives to find female leaders within communities and creates ways to support them through training, mentoring and funding. Alyse Nelson, CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership and the author of the recently published tome Vital Voices, says the NGO is working to place more women into political office but says they also “strengthen women currently in political office so that they can keep their seats but also continue to gain greater power.”
Women create a leadership style of their own and transform the way in which power is shared. “In our 15 years, we’ve learned some powerful lessons in the way that women lead, how they lead differently and how that could bring about great progress in our world and ultimately we wanted to share this new leadership paradigm,” Nelson says.
Vital Voices urges communities to recognize the enormous potential that can be unleashed when they mobilize women. “We are at a moment where people are recognizing that women are not only this economic force to drive change and opportunity, but we are also a tremendous leadership force,” Nelson says. The fact that women make up about half of the world’s population and are still being excluded, Nelson says, is incomprehensible. “You can’t leave half your talent pool behind and expect to compete in a global market place,” she says.
As African countries go through a period of transformation toward new systems of government they are able to draw on the lessons of other democracies and create a new model in Africa. Kah Walla envisions a new model where African women always have a seat, or numerous seats, at the table.
“African women are stepping up to the plate and it’s very interesting because in most African traditions, government was not conceived without the participation of women. So in some sense we are going back to the traditional African conception of governance one that is inclusive and where having the woman’s voice at the table is an obligation not a choice,” Walla says.
The change is palpable in Africa where two women have already become president and many more are encouraged to run for office. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first female elected as head of state in Africa after winning a 2005 election and kept that seat after reelection in 2011. Joyce Banda also paved the way for African women to lead after taking office in 2012 as president of Malawi, where she had served as vice president for three years.
Kah Walla says these two powerful leaders are changing the game in Africa. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is leading a country that’s post-conflict and it can be very difficult. She has made great strides in new Liberia. Joyce Banda has actually come out with guns-blazing, you can almost say, the way that she has made a very clear stance against corruption that they are going to clean up the leadership in the country."
Kah Walla campaigned in 2011 under the slogan “The Time is Now” and maintains that same motto for women’s empowerment. She says African countries need to tap into the undeniable resource that is African women.
“The time is now for women to become leaders. I am a very firm believer in the potential of Africa and in our potential to actually provide a new model for the world. We can draw from the tremendous natural resources that Africa has and tremendous human resources that we have. Because we are sort of new democracies we have the opportunity to do it right form the start,” Walla said.
The African Union has named this decade the “Women’s Decade,” indicating the opportunity for substantial change on the continent that holds some of the world’s fastest growing economies. “Africa is going to be a very important player in the next 10 years and I think African women are going to play an important role. Now we have to go beyond thinking and hoping and move into action in terms of programs that support women,” Walla says.
Women in Africa will be able to provide an innovative type of leadership. “We step up to solve a problem and we step up to empower people that we feel are either voiceless or are marginalized. My role is not to speak for people, it is to empower them to be able to speak for themselves,” Walla says.
As she moves forward teamed with Vital Voices Global Partnership to communicate this new model of leadership in Africa, Walla says one accomplishment that has been the most gratifying so far is knowing “that right now there are 11-year-old girls and 15-year-old girls in Cameroon who know that they can be president.”