President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf John Moore/Getty Images

African Women on Top

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.

TORONTO – 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.