Mar 31, 2010

Thin Pink Line

A few weeks ago I caught a discussion on BBC’s World Have Your Say program about women needing to be as assertive as men to get ahead. The discussion was driven by Clay Shirky’s recent Rant about Women which appeared on his blog, and sparked a firestorm. Shirky is a professor at NYU and observes that many of his female colleagues and students are often hesitant to self-promote and as a result lose out on rewards to their male counterparts. In his words, “there is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less”.

So, is there any truth in Shirky’s words? Yes, there is. And I agree, to a point.

Women who are more assertive and who are not afraid to ask for more are perceived to be “less nice”, and as studies have shown, are subtly penalised. Dare I even mention the strong feelings that spring forth at the mention of Hillary Clinton, or even Nancy Pelosi (politics aside)?

We still raise girls to fit into the role of a demure woman. Good girls don’t make waves. Those that follow the rules and fit the role are rewarded with praise. We don’t like pushy, bossy and conceited girls and label those traits as “boy-ish” and undesirable in a female - in other words, those traits are more suitable in boys.

So, is it any wonder that women will often play down their skills and achievements, and want to be perceived as likeable and non-threatening?

Even with the great strides taken by earlier generations, barriers still exist such as the glass ceiling and the good ole boys network. Coupled with the aforementioned psychological barriers and societal stereotypes it’s a tricky situation for women to navigate.

What’s the take away from this?

Be a “nice girl” by being respectful of the people around you. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable by asking for the things you want, and stepping up when opportunities arise – it’s amazing what doors can open by just raising your hand, and saying “yes, I can do that”. In the long run what do you have to lose?

Mar 29, 2010

The danger of a single story

I watched this talk given by Chimamanda Adichie (author of Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun) a while back, and it really resonated with me. She warns that hearing only one story about a people or nation leads to ignorance. In her words, "a single story can deny some people their humanity and their complexity."

We are all guilty irrespective of race, age, and gender of holding onto single stories.

Mar 26, 2010

Open Letter to First Lady Thandiwe Banda

Madam First Lady, you hold one of the highest profile positions in Zambia’s government, and this is indeed a position of honour. With it comes great responsibility; which I am sure you already know. Your husband’s election came at a very tenuous time with the ongoing global economic crisis coupled with the fact that despite economic gains more than 7.6 million people out of Zambia's estimated total population of 12 million people are still wallowing in poverty.
It has been interesting following your husband’s presidency over the last year. He has been criticised by many for being out of touch with the Zambian people, and for not delivering on his campaign promises to improve the lives of Zambians. It is within this context that I write this message.

Being a first lady is not about being arm candy anymore

Gone are the days were the expectation for a first lady was to simply act as a hostess, and ribbon cutter at charity events. We're seeing remarkable evidence of what can happen when men and women partner together – the current U.S. president and his wife Michelle being a wonderful example. Michelle Obama transcends the moniker of being a fashion icon and has set her own mandate to fight childhood obesity through the Let’s Move campaign. This movement has partnered with community leaders, doctors, educators, and parents nationally to tackle the challenge.

Madam Banda, I have seen you call attention to the issues of child abuse and the empowerment of women in Zambia, and yet very few tangible efforts follow. It is not enough to speak at catered lunches and dinners, and think that’s the end of your involvement. Why are you not using your position to garner pressure to strengthen our laws to protect children from predators, or even working with the education ministry to improve the levels of school attendance for girls in both rural and urban areas?

Do not rely on International NGOs or foreign diplomats to do work that can be done for Zambians by Zambians

It is irresponsible and shortsighted to constantly seek help from outsiders to “provide assistance to various initiatives aimed at helping the underprivileged people in society”. Do not buy into the mindset that real and effective solutions always come from outside – many times they are homegrown. You do not have to look far to find men and women who would prove advice and guidance on these issues. Tap into the talent available locally and in the Diaspora. Zambians have been sidelined for too long in issues that affect us, and this has negatively affect our psyche, but with these gestures much can achieved and we will take ownership of our success and failures as they come.

Speak up for society’s forgotten people

In the last few months many areas of Lusaka have been affected by flooding resulting in the loss of life and property. A disproportionate number of the people affected are inhabitants of the ‘informal’ settlements which surround our cities. These unplanned and unserviced settlements have no proper drainage or sanitation, and are rife with diseases such as cholera and dysentery which are exacerbated during the now annual flood season.

Their lives have value too, and someone needs to speak up for them. Where is the push to provide safe and affordable housing? Local authorities have sat back for too long, turning a blind eye to the plight of these Zambians and someone needs to step up and lead the movement towards change.

Madam First Lady show us what it means to be an empowered woman by standing up to the injustices that exist in our society. There are many issues that need attention, and it would be naive to expect you to tackle them all, but Madam pick one and make your time in the State House noteworthy. You hold a position of almost limitless possibilities; hold our government, corporations, and civic community accountable to their promises.

Mar 25, 2010

Half the Sky

In February, I picked up a copy of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I am a regular reader of Mr Kristof’s Op-Ed column in the NY Times, and often appreciate his insights into issues surrounding girl education, maternal mortality, and other such issues in the developing world.

Kristof and WuDunn highlight four main areas worthy of our attention: sex trafficking, maternal health, financial empowerment through microfinance, and education. This is no easy feat, and where other authors would have been inclined to throw in dramatic and overused statistics to make a more gripping story, this is not the case in Half the Sky. The book also explores the reasons for discriminatory practices including attitudes toward religion and traditional cultural beliefs.

These individual stories bring to life the struggles and courage of unforgettable women. The authors lend a credible voice to those often kept silent, and this is backed up by extensive research. The power in the writing is that while the stories are often profoundly sad, the authors are able to convey the sense of hope and the zeal that these women have mustered when given just a little help, support, and encouragement. Even more powerful is the persuasive case the authors make that if we can improve the lot of women, we are in effect "helping their families, their villages, and indeed, their entire countries."

This is not a book filled with platitudes for international NGOs or do-gooders that go in and proverbially “save the day” but rather tells of the ability for human triumph over adversity when brave men and women challenge the status quo and take it on themselves to make a difference where they can. These are the people leading the change to ensure that women everywhere have the opportunity to rise to their fullest potential and become a major presence in the global society.

A minor criticism I have of the book, is that some complex factors that exacerbate gender discrimination are not fully covered, and this somewhat narrows the scope of what can be done to help the women affected. The best example I can give is the situation described in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The book rightly calls attention to the violence faced by women there (mass rapes, torture, etc), and yet it fails to link this to the larger context of the struggles faced by the DRC. The violence in the Congo has its roots in its brutal colonial occupation, the fallout from the Rwanda genocide, and conflict-driven mineral trade.
Kristof and WuDunn are effective in conveying their central message – lifting women, lifts the world. 

This is a moving book, and I would recommend it to anyone who cares about human rights. It will leave you angry, sad and perhaps even overwhelmed but most importantly it will leave you inspired.

Mar 23, 2010

Women in the World

On March 12 – 14, the Daily Beast sponsored the “Women in the World” event in NYC. Among some of its attendees were Jordan’s Queen Rania, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Dambisa Moyo (quite possibly Zambia’s most famous person in the world today), Sheryl WuDunn (co-author of Half the Sky) to mention but a few. It was billed as “an extraordinary three-day event at which some of the most powerful women on the planet met to discuss global challenges and propose solutions”.

The most heart wrenching clip to watch from this event was the panel discussion led by Christiane Amanpour on Rape as a Weapon of War. Women and girls are not just killed, they are raped, sexually attacked, mutilated and humiliated in Eastern Congo in this meaningless war! As easy as it is to despair at the sheer desperation that comes from hearing about children as young as 4 and 5 years old getting gang raped, inaction is unacceptable!

I agree with the sentiments of Annie Rashidi-Mulumba and Leymah Gbowee, pressure needs to be put on the government of the Congo not just by grassroots movements and international NGOs but also by the International community. This is not just a women's issue; this is a human rights issue.

I understand that a lot of Americans are weary from their country’s involvement in various foreign issues, and argue that there are domestic issues such as healthcare reform and unemployment to deal with first. And this is why I believe it would be a golden opportunity for the African Union to show some backbone by showing a united front, and condemning these acts of brutality and demanding action by the Congolese government. Let’s take a lead for once in issues that affect our continent and our people!


I have always looked at blogs with a jaundiced eye because I remember when they first gained popularity a lot of people I knew ran out and got one, kept it updated for a few months, and when the initial interest waned the posts became fewer and farther between, to the point where each new post started off with something along these lines “…sorry, I haven’t updated this in a while”. With that said, there are of course exceptions, and I have found a number of blogs that are regularly updated and keep me engaged in the issues that fuel my passion! And of course, how can I can resist my friends' blogs that show me beautiful pictures of their growing families? J

So, I have to ask myself “why am I doing this?” Well, first off, this is not intended to be a diary documenting my daily activities. If that was my goal I would have joined Twitter.
At the very basic level here is my reasoning.

  • I have been an avid user of Facebook for the last few years, and find it to be the most useful social networking tool I have used to date. I use it to keep in touch with friends and family who I don’t get to see on a regular basis, and with the introduction of the status update feature, a while back, I’ve found myself using it more and more as I would a blog entry. So, I think it’s more prudent to set up a blog to voice my thoughts and concerns on a variety of issues, in a way that is therapeutic for me, and allows others to engage with me if they so choose.

  • This is not to forward my agenda on any particular issue, but if you know me personally you know the burning issues in my heart are Economic Development in Africa as a whole and Zambia in particular, and Women’s issues (the education of girls, maternal and infant morbidity, HIV/AIDS, property rights, etc). So, these issues will most likely be the focus of this blog.
I personally declared 2010 to be my year of action. I need to seize the moment at any given opportunity, and I believe this is one of the ways to do this. It’s my belief that blogging will allow me to interact with other Zambians (and non-Zambians who care about Zambia) thinking about the same issues. There’s much to be gained from such interactions, and I want to provide a platform for the exchange of ideas.