Empowering African women economically will transform society

Tuesday May 09 2023
Graca Machel

Former First Lady of South Africa Graça Machel, who is a human rights advocate and philanthropist. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG


Former First Lady of South Africa Graça Machel, a human rights advocate and philanthropist, who was in Nairobi to launch the ‘New Faces, New Voices - Kenya’ initiative spoke to Valerie Koga about her campaign to empower women.


What has been your best experience in the journey of rights advocacy?

When I was Minister for Education, all the women minister for education and culture from Africa came together to work and advocate for girls’ education to become policy.

We established a network called the Forum of African Women Educationalists (Fawe), which is still based here in Kenya.

We campaigned for every African country to put in the political agenda, particularly the education policy, priority to girls and to develop strategies not only for girls to have assets, but also to be successful within the system.


Today, there's no single African country that doesn't have a policy on girls’ education. Now it’s an African Union policy.

Of course, we still have challenges because we still have girls who are out of school. We still have girls who drop out. We still have girls who are falling into child marriage. The challenge is implementation.

Read: Why scaling up actions for women empowerment is inevitable

Kenya is one such country with a policy on gender balance, yet it has struggled for the last 10 years to implement it. What do you think can be done to promote equality?

It is in the constitution of Kenya that at least 30 percent of Parliamentarians must be women. We said, let’s begin by aiming for 30 percent so that one day you’ll get to 50 percent. More than 10 years later, we haven’t reached 30 percent.

It's not a question of policy now, it's a question of implementation.

When you are having elections, everyone who is participating in elections – political parties – has to make sure that at least 40 percent of candidates in that party are women. If you have 40 percent, then you could achieve the 30 percent.

It needs to be said that, if you don’t have 30 percent, you can’t participate in elections. You have to ensure that the right of women to sit in parliament is achieved.

Read: Senegal appoints first woman Minister of Economy

With the work at New Faces New Voices, are you beginning to see changes in the challenges women face?

Someone was reminding me that a few years back, I came here and with the help of one of our networks, they organised a meeting with all captains of industry, and we asked them why they don’t have women in leadership positions in their companies.

We said, this country has lots of women who are qualified, they have expertise and they have a lot of experience. Why don't these companies take them on board?

It was a tough conversation and we ended up saying, ‘It is in your interest, because if you have women in boards, in your executive committees (excos), your companies are going to perform better; you will be much more profitable.’

So it was not an issue of only human rights for me but a business case so that these companies perform better. Many companies now have women in positions in boards, as chairs of boards and even in excos.

We are improving women empowerment and emancipation through networks and even through initiatives such as Afrishela, a gender lens initiative to provide capital for women.

The objective is to provide an institution which is going to focus on putting financial resources in the hands of women; women who are already in the formal economy.

Read: CHOGM leaders key in promoting gender equality

Why women?

Women are marginalised. When they grow individually and collectively, they grow the economy. But more importantly, they will transform societies.

Some women believe they can only be small, but here they will gain the confidence to know we are not meant only to be small, we can be big.

When a woman is big in the economy, the conditions of her family are going to improve. Even in the extended family, she'll be assisting more people.

In a community if you have three or four women who are doing well, then you also reduce the levels of poverty.

What is your hope for Africa?

It’s more than just hope. It’s a question of resolve to improve the living standards of everyone. We are the continent with more poor people... where our education, health systems are not covering everybody. It’s about how we engage ourselves to provide equal opportunities for every single citizen.

It is the responsibility of this generation to do what it takes to provide equal opportunities to everyone so that we don't have these very high rates of inequality.

But in the midst of that, of course, how do we give the same opportunities to women, to young people, to those who are living with disability, and ensure we don't continue having abject poverty.