From limited land rights to the enduring expectation that they perform the majority of unpaid household labor, women in Africa face major economic, legal, and cultural barriers to advancement. But while the barriers to women’s leadership in Africa are formidable, they are not insurmountable.
By Shona Bezanson and Peter Materu
Africa has a long history of female leadership. Yet leadership can be a challenging aspiration for the continent’s young women, owing to enduring barriers to success. If African countries – and Africa’s women – are to meet their potential, this must change.
Women were leaders on the frontlines of Africa’s decolonization struggle. Queen Anna Nzinga, the monarch of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms in what is now Angola, spent decades fighting to protect her people from the Portuguese and their expanding slave trade. In 1900, Yaa Asantewaa, queen mother of the Ashanti Empire (part of modern-day Ghana), led a rebellion against British colonialism. Nearly three decades later, women in southeastern Nigeria organized a revolt, known as the Aba Women’s Riots, against British colonial policies.
More recently, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – led her country to reconciliation and recovery following a decade-long civil war, managing a devastating Ebola epidemic along the way. Former Rwandan Minister of Health Agnes Binagwaho has dedicated her career to achieving equitable access to health care in her country and beyond. As a young teenager, Kakenya Ntaiya agreed to undergo female circumcision (a traditional Maasai rite of passage) in exchange for the opportunity to get an education. After earning a PhD in education, she founded Kakenya’s Dream, which focuses on educating girls, ending harmful traditional practices, and uplifting rural communities in Kenya.
Yet barriers to women’s leadership in Africa today remain systemic, widespread, and they begin early. They start at home, where girls are expected to take on more responsibility, including chores like childcare, cooking, and laundry. This, and other factors, undermines African girls’ educational attainment: 47% either do not complete school or never attend at all.
Girls’ paths are no easier when they grow up. From limited land rights to the enduring expectation that they perform the majority of unpaid household labor, women in Africa face major economic, legal, and cultural barriers to advancement. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, Sub-Saharan Africa has closed the disparity in economic empowerment by only 68%, with women still far more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or hold precarious employment in the informal sector.
But while the barriers to women’s leadership are formidable, they are not insurmountable. Whether in politics or health, law, or engineering, African women are showing the world how to unleash their fellow women’s leadership potential.
In Uganda, Favourite Regina is keeping refugee girls out of early marriage and pregnancy, as part of an initiative led by CIYOTA, a youth-led, volunteer-based organization established in the Kyangwali refugee settlement. In Nigeria, Blooming Soyinka employs a half-dozen economically disadvantaged and disabled artisans at Africa Blooms, creating conditions for those employees and their families to thrive and educate their children. In Kenya, Fanice Nyatigo is developing MammaTips, an app that will provide timely information on pregnancy, breastfeeding, immunization, and other important health matters to new mothers. These are young people – all Mastercard Foundation Scholars – to watch, as they are only just beginning to demonstrate the breadth of their potential as leaders.
Africa needs more such remarkable woman leaders. And, though research on how to champion female African leadership is sparse, early findings from the scholars program suggest that there are several pathways that young African women can take – and that we can support – to assume their rightful place among the continent’s leaders.
For starters, while education plays an important role, experience shows that it is not enough. Deliberate investment in leadership programs for young women are also essential. Young women need opportunities to practice leadership, whether in school, the workplace, or the community. And they need supportive spaces where they can hone these skills, build networks, and obtain support.
Moreover, recognition of young women’s talent and potential is needed to nurture their confidence and self-esteem, and to raise their profile beyond their immediate community. Mentors and role models – especially female ones – are also extremely valuable.
This is a job not only for African governments or local NGOs. All global policy discussions concerning education, the environment, science, and health must explicitly address how to develop woman leaders.
Africa’s aspiring young women are often motivated by the desire to give back to their communities. We should empower them to do just that.
If we provide young women with the right support, they will transform their communities, their continent, and the world. They will provide ethical leadership inspired by shared values, passion for community, and a commitment to a brighter future. For those of us who believe in their potential, it is a privilege to accompany them on this journey.
Shona Bezanson is Senior Manager of Education and Learning at the Mastercard Foundation.
Peter Materu is Director, Education and Learning and Youth Livelihoods at the Mastercard Foundation.