Today, we are entirely preoccupied with the predictions and promises of future technology and new ways of thinking to provide us with answers to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Yet, we tend to invest less thought and consideration into exploring what we can learn from ancient history and civilizations to help us overcome some of the most harmful societal challenges.

Gender equality and the shortage of women leaders in global health is a case in point. At the current rate of progress, it will take 102 years to close the gender gap in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gender is a social determinant of health, and it plays a significant role in producing health inequalities. Women make up 90% of frontline health workers, and 70% of the overall global health workforce, yet hold only 25% of senior leadership roles. This creates a disparity between the policies that are being made and that women must implement or be on the receiving end of, and the level of input they have in the decision-making process, even though women continue to be disproportionately more exposed to global health risks than men.

African women are more likely to die from communicable diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and nutritional deficiencies than men. And despite improvements in maternal healthcare over the past two decades, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for around 70% of global maternal deaths. If we had more women in leadership positions driving research, policy, and healthcare priorities, we would have a global health system that would deliver more equitable healthcare outcomes.

Africa’s History is rooted in Women’s Leadership

African women in the precolonial period were visibly in places of authority, they were politically active and included in decision-making processes throughout several civilizations. Their private and public activities were often merged, so women’s power and privilege in the home were often mirrored in public. Women were queen-mothers; queen-sisters; princesses, chiefs, and holders of other offices in towns and villages; warriors; and the supreme monarch in the case of the Lovedu society (in present-day South Africa).

In West Africa, there were various forms of dual-gender systems of leadership with Ghana having the queen mothers of Asante sitting alongside tribal chiefs. Together, they both represented the centre of authority for towns and villages, with the queen mother of Asante and the king of Asante serving as the final authority. Yoruba women amassed enormous wealth and held prominent titles, also. A successful Yoruba woman might hold the chieftaincy title of iyalode, which means women leader and would wield great privilege, as well as political and economic power.

In my own historical tradition, in Senegal, the Lingeer in the ancient Senegalese kingdoms of Joloof, Kayoor, Sine-Saloum and Waalo, was the mother, sister and sometimes wife of the king. She had a leading role because she is said to make and unmake kings. In the Wolof state, in particular, the Lingeer’s political significance traditionally included control of some of the king’s land; provision of food and maintenance and integration into the clan system. Her leadership activities were carried out at the highest level, as a joint monarch.

The State of Women’s Leadership Today

Women’s leadership and by extension, gender equality is a different story today. Africa has only one female political head of state, H.E. Samia Suluhu Hassan, the President of Tanzania, despite women making up over 49.5% of the 1.46 billion population. In Senegal, there is an absence of women ministers in the new cabinet. Moreover, the removal of the words “women’’ and “child protection” from the “ministry of women, family and child protection” raises profound concerns.

When we look closer at Global Health, we also see a similar picture. Although the number of women entering higher education in sub-Saharan Africa has increased, gender disparity remains. Only 30% of science professionals in sub-Saharan Africa are women. The lack of female researchers in this region reduces the diversity of scientific perspectives thereby threatening gender equity in health research.

Going back to go Forward

Whilst, we do not have statistics from ancient civilizations to assess the real power that women in those times wielded, we know they were visible in private and public areas of life and these examples cannot be matched today.

What I hope we can do is explore the wealth of knowledge and learnings that can be gleaned from our past histories to inform a better way forward for gender equality in Africa, on our own terms and using our own historical and cultural understandings to underpin our future. This should be centred on changing perceptions so that women are perceived as intellectually equal and providing opportunities and spaces for women to have a seat at the table like in pre-colonial periods. This step forward should also be matched by the willingness to be heard by others and capacity-strengthening support for women seeking and already in leadership roles.

Art as a driver for retelling and preserving Women’s Leadership in Africa

Given where we are in our trajectory for gender equality, about 102 years away, according to WEF’s global gender gap report, we will also need to find more creative ways to share our historical stories and build bridges of understanding. Art and culture are uniquely placed to help us do this. People can come together around art to share an experience even if they see the world from radically diverse perspectives. Thanks to more than two thousand years of African social history, including art history, that we have been able to preserve the understanding of women’s authority, power, and status in Africa’s precolonial period.

Art can amplify the voices and stories of marginalized, oppressed, or silenced groups, and create spaces for dialogue and collaboration. Art can challenge stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, and celebrate diversity, identity, and culture. In our own work centred on transforming societies throughout Africa and making sure every man, woman, and child is empowered to live a long and healthy life, we are using art as a tool to celebrate African LeadHERs from Senegal through an art photo showcase showing them championing their role in achieving the sustainable development goals.

The showcase is named “Lingeer” a reference to the power of our historic narrative on women’s leadership and in tribute to women innovators, visionaries, and changemakers today.

We must look to the future for progress and change but let us not discount what has worked and can be preserved from our past to deliver on gender equality, support women’s leadership and ensure that women and girls, in all their diversity, can significantly participate in decision-making spaces for improved public health.

By Yacine Djibo, Executive Director, Speak Up Africa

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