Finland took over global news towards the end of 2019 with the election of its youngest-ever prime minister. Not only is Sanna Marin, the PM-elect, a young woman, she is also backed by a cabinet that majorly comprises young women – most under 40 years of age! A breath of fresh air, don’t you agree?

This is just one of the many examples of women globally, who have risen to highest echelons of leadership in both political and corporate spaces. The Finnish cabinet is a perfect depiction of the power and leadership capabilities that women have. A lot has been done over the past decade towards women empowerment – from equity in distribution of resources to equality in access to opportunities. This has greatly contributed to the rising number of women in leadership. A lot more remains to be done, with gender equality designated as one of the Sustainable Development Goals that the world is gunning for by the year 2030.

Left to right: Finland's Minister of Education Li Andersson, 32; Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni, 32; Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34; and Interior Minister Maria Ohisal, 34 Source: VESA MOILANEN/LEHTIKUVA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Left to right: Finland's Minister of Education Li Andersson, 32; Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni, 32; Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34; and Interior Minister Maria Ohisal, 34

In Africa, women have risen through ladders of political leadership to become heads of states. These women have defied cultural biases in Africa’s majorly patriarchal culture to lead their countries. Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female head of state in Africa and who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts in furthering women’s rights is yet another great example of a female African leader. She served for two consecutive terms, battling crises of youth unemployment, ballooning national debt, Ebola scourge, security threats and promoting rights of women. Other great examples include Joyce Banda of Malawi, Ameenah Gurib of Mauritius and Sahle-Work Zewde - who was unanimously appointed President by Ethiopia’s parliament just recently. Saara Amadhila, the current Prime Minister of Namibia served as the minister of finance and is best remembered for minimizing government spending and leading the country in first budget surplus case.

Women’s participation in political leadership is not just at the helm, though. At the moment, half of Ethiopia’s cabinet is comprised of women. In Rwanda’s parliament, women take up 61.1% of the seats.

These are just but a few examples of phenomenal women that have led Africa in different capacities. However, will it be fair to talk about current women in leadership without mentioning those who went before them? There is the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Prof. Wangari Mathai who stood up for peace and sustainable development, even when it meant risking her life. The late Winnie Mandela who stood in place for her incarcerated husband and led the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Graca Machel Mandela, who was among freedom fighters in Mozambique and a benevolent humanitarian, has continued to gracefully serve Mozambique, South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world especially in advocating for rights of women and children. It is clear that whether in power or in supporting roles, women have contributed immensely towards the leadership of Africa.

But does Africa trust women to lead?

In Kenya, for example, affirmative action to promote women representation in public offices is yet to be fully operationalized, with institutions such as the National Assembly failing to implement the two-thirds gender rule in the Constitution. There have been cases of public institutions appointing an all-men board, which begs the question of whether there is a shortage of qualified women to take up some of these positions. Currently, Kenya has six female cabinet secretaries (who, by the way, are excelling at their roles) out of the 21 slots. This goes a long way to show just how deep patriarchy is entrenched in Kenya. Whilst there are programs aimed at empowering women to take on leadership and become financially and socially independent, women are still marginalized. Of what benefit are these programs if the empowered women do not get equal opportunities to exercise their leadership skills?

Perhaps it is worth also reviewing the performance of some of the Africa women that have assumed significant leadership positions and how this has impacted attitudes of Africans towards women leadership.

Left to right: Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Left to right: Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Source: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras and DON EMMERT/AFP

It is interesting to note that just like their male counterparts, some of the African women who have risen to leadership positions have been subject to a fair share of criticism. For example, while her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, did a tremendous job in peacefully leading Liberia after years of horrific civil war, many women have expressed their disappointment in her lack of effort to actively promote women's participation in politics. Consequently, many bills touching on the welfare of women in her country did not receive the much attention and seriousness they ought to have. Mrs. Sirleaf also continues to face allegations of nepotism which include the appointment of her three sons to top government posts as well as corruption scandals that tainted her legacy. On the other hand, Joyce Banda who served both as the first female vice-president and later president of Malawi faced serious corruption allegations including the infamous ‘Cashgate Scandal’ as well as misuse of money she acquired from selling the presidential jet during her tenure.

Nonetheless, the verdict of UN Women is that no single country can claim to have attained gender equality. This calls for a paradigm shift. There is a need to embrace women as equal leaders. As we start a new decade, we need to change tact. Just as we have focused on empowering women, let us learn from Finland and Rwanda and Ethiopia, and other countries that are making progress on this front. Let us ensure that women have equal space on the decision-making table!

‘As Africa’s first woman president, I believe our future leaders must be female’ – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (First female president of Liberia 2006-2018)