During the Mandela Washington Fellowship Six week component that I undertook at a U.S institution (Bridgewater State University), all the Mandela Washington fellows were required to prepare a short (3 to 5 minutes long) Ted talk style ignite speech under the themes of servant leadership, empowerment, or innovation. I wrote a speech under the theme empowerment, particularly the empowerment of women. I share, in the speech, a snippet example of what I have come to realize was my cultural dis-empowerment as a young African woman and conclude by proposing some possible solutions.
I must add that while at the 2017 YALI Summit in Washington D.C. (which was the culmination of the six weeks spent by the 1000 Mandela Washington Fellows in the US), I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History. I was happy to see that the museum had sections dedicated to black feminism, race and gender, and women activists who played a role in the civil rights movement. Often, history has been recorded from a male perspective, with the role of women downplayed or not recognized at all. This is one of the reasons why one of the first projects that the organisation that I work with (Molaya Kgosi Trust) undertook was the Molaya HerStory documentary series, which showcased a series of in-depth one on one interviews of successful Batswana women in different sectors highlighting the pivotal roles they have played in development of their sectors as well as the challenges they had to overcome on their leadership journey.
Below is my 2017 MWF ignite speech…..
“I graduated from Law School in October of 2010. I, like many graduates believed that I was ready to conquer the world of work. In theory, there was nothing flawed about my thinking. After all I had successfully completed formal higher education. Eight months later, I sat in my first job interview and the interviewer asked me, “How much do you expect to be paid?” The question seems insignificant in and of itself, but in hindsight my response to this question would reveal the extent of my cultural dis-empowerment as a young African woman. At that interview, I told my first employer that I expected to be paid $400 less than what I knew a male friend of mine earned. I should highlight that my friend and I had graduated from law school with the same GPA. I downplayed myself because I believed that I would otherwise be asking for too much. This is but one example of an instance where I would make a decision that did not take advantage of an opportunity I had, even when the playing field was on the face of it equal.
Power, control, choice and options, these are terms that describe empowerment. And despite the fact that empowerment in relation to reducing poverty on the African continent applies to all socially excluded groups, women are the one category of our continent’s population that are a common feature in all the excluded groups. As a continent, we have recognized the need, and are taking steps, to include women by removing discriminatory barriers. However, inclusion does not equal participation of women in society. The question then becomes, how do we, as a continent, ensure that one half of our population not only considers itself as entitled to make choices but that it is capable of challenging the status quo and holding accountable the institutions that affect us?
The concept of empowerment has many facets. Our response to it as a continent must therefore take similar shape. One aspect of it is that we, as African women, can individually become forerunners by taking on roles that are untraditional, and mentor our young women. I am a beneficiary of this tool of empowerment because of amazing African women have taken me under their wings. These women remind me every day that it is okay to say that I am capable of anything, that I should always be proud of something and that I am good at something. On the other hand, it is important that all actors within our societies collectively become aware of the existing injustice to the largely disempowered African female population. We all have to take positive steps to empower young women in our homes, through our school curriculums, and in the broader context we should as a continent include positive images of the role and contributions of women in our societies. And if you are wondering why we should all do this, I will answer in the words of Kofi Anan “there is no tool for development that is more effective than the empowerment of women.”