On Saturday, January 21, more than 500,000 women, men, and children swarmed United States capital, Washington, for the Women’s March. Reports have estimated that 2.5 million people from cities across the United States and on seven continents, including Antarctica, participated in a global protest against new United States president, Donald Trump, and in support of equal rights for women and other marginalized groups.
As an African woman, I was proud to join the crowds in D.C. to march for the issues affecting my community: immigration reform, racial justice, and education being high on my list. Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Nigeria, and South Africa were among the many countries that participated in Sister Marches around the world.
But as I boldly held my makeshift #BringBackOurGirls sign in a sea of knitted “pink pussyhats”, surrounded by echoing chants for women’s reproductive rights, “Free Melania”, and Black Lives Matter, I began to feel an uneasy mix of excitement and doubt. “Would these women also stand in solidarity for gender issues in Africa?”
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My initial thought was “no”, as I ran through countless examples where women in the United States have been quick to point fingers at African nations for discriminatory policies and practices towards women and girls. Ironically, America’s newly elected leader ran a campaign based on sexism and misogyny, and was even recorded boasting about grabbing women’s private parts. But this blatant hypocrisy, a trademark of American foreign policy, wouldn’t stop the US from vilifying African countries. I was also skeptical knowing that women of color, particularly Black women, in the U.S. continue to struggle for representation within mainstream feminism. If White women in the U.S. can’t make room for the issues most affecting their melanin compatriots, I highly doubted that they would prioritize gender issues across Africa.
But as I watched Beninese musical icon and activist, Angelique Kidjo, belting her soulful rendition of Sam Cooke’s classic, “A Change is Gonna Come” at the Washington March, the optimist in me remained hopeful. Dressed in a beautiful and brightly-colored Ankara gown, Kidjo unapologetically represented the true essence of an African woman; beautiful, confident, and strong. Her presence on stage compelled me start to think of what solidarity with African women would look like. Here are some thoughts:
A vital step towards a transnational feminist movement would be for the United States and other Western nations to stop removing themselves from issues that plague women and girls in developing countries. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it became evident that America faces similar challenges of gender inequality as those for which African nations have been placed under great scrutiny. Lack of representation of women in government, gender pay gap, inadequate funding for sexual and reproductive health services, and gender-based violence are just a few examples. While the scale and context of these issues vary, they disadvantage women and girls in society, nonetheless, and urgently need to be addressed.
Another step would be to exchange notes. Politics is one area that African nations have made more progress in achieving gender equality than the US. In 2005, Liberians stepped up and elected Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Other African countries, most notably Rwanda, have since made significant strides in increasing female participation in government.
Distraught Hillary Clinton supporters therefore need to recognize that America’s failure to elect the first female president does not eclipse political advancement that women have made in other countries. Instead, they should start highlighting and celebrating success stories of women in Africa, and other region, which will energize domestic feminist movements to make similar advances. In addition, collective outrage over 1000 days since the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls as well as Congress’ decision to defund Planned Parenthood will pressure world leaders to intervene in solving these pressing gender issues.
There is great potential for the Women’s March on Washington to facilitate a persistent global network of future campaigns and actions in support of women’s rights. But it’s time to stop talking about transnational solidarity, and put it to the test.