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African women

Women plan Africa’s tomorrow at Paris Unesco meet

African female leaders share their experiences of leadership at Unesco (Janine Kacou Diagou is fifth from left)
African female leaders share their experiences of leadership at Unesco (Janine Kacou Diagou is fifth from left) Unesco

Business-friendly feminism was the dominant doctrine at the African Women Leaders conference at the UN’s cultural arm, Unesco, in Paris this week. Arguing that women’s vision can help shape the future - Africa’s in particular - a panel of successful women shared their experiences in the fields of politics, business and fashion, to teach others what it takes to lead.

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Over 500 people attended the event, jointly organised by Unesco and the NGO Femmes de Demain (Women of tomorrow).

It took up the feminist argument with gusto, notably by inviting a panel of outstanding women to throw their weight behind the cause for gender equality.

Panelists included two mayors, a former minister and business leaders at the top of their game, eager to eradicate the stigma attached to African women.

One drawback is still perception.

“African women have an image problem,” says Haweya Mohamed, the cofounder and CEO of Afrobytes a digital hub connecting Africa and Europe. “They do so much but they have difficulty marketing themselves.”

By “so much” Mohamed means, for example, the 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural production that Femmes de Demain says women are responsible for.

Unrecognised leaders

Unofficial leaders, many African women are still confined to childcare and household duties in the collective imagination, with girls’ rights leaving much to be desired.

“If you consider that women make up over 50 percent of the population and yet they’re still forced into child marriages in many countries,” says Unesco deputy director-general Getachew Engida. “It’s a tremendous waste of resources.”

Engida may take comfort in initiatives to curb child marriages in Gambia and Malawi, where president Joyce Banda recently annulled 850 marriages and sent all the girl brides to school. But there’s a big gap between education and leadership.

Change how men see women, early

To encourage more girls to become leaders Fatimetou Mint Abdel Malick, mayor of Tevragh-Zeina in Mauritania, says they have to be prepared early on.

“Mothers also have to break the mould,” she comments. “When they go shopping, for instance, they shouldn’t just take their daughters and leave their sons to play football or relax, because indirectly they’re reinforcing gender stereotypes.”

Janine Kacou Diagou nods in agreement.

The CEO of insurance group NSIA and mother of two has strong views about how to establish parity. It begins in the home.

“It’s important for my sons to see a woman managing a successful empire as something that is normal,” she comments.

Years of sacrifice

But normality is not a word you would use to describe Diagou. The 43-year old financially trained business director has come a long way from the status of daughter of Jean Kacou Diagou, the leader of Côte d’Ivoire’s bosses’ union and one of Africa’s most influential business operators, to emerge as his natural successor.

“I had to work twice as hard as any man to prove that I was one of them,” Diagou recalls, as the conference winds down.

It involved years of sacrifice, including one whole year without pay to protest against unequal pay.

“When I became the CFO [chief financial officer], they wanted to pay me less than the previous director and gave me a Hyundai, whereas he had a Mercedes,” she says. “I have nothing against Hyundai, but I want to be treated the same.”

When NSIA began expanding outside francophone Côte d’Ivoire to set up in 12 other countries, including Ghana, Diagou was able to prove how indispensable she was.

“I was the only who spoke English,” she says, thanks to her MBA from Middlesex University and a stint at Citibank.

She is now preparing to take NSIA onto Abidjan’s stockmarket, in what is likely to be a crowning moment of her 20 years at the family business.

When asked about how her track record can help inspire other women in Africa, she stops for a moment, before lighting up in a smile.

“My department has a majority of women and it’s the most successful in the company. When other directors see this, they say to me, if you can do it, my daughter can too.”

Inspiring future heiresses to lead Africa’s progress, that’s the status Diagou now wants to cultivate.
 

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