Opinions & LessonsWomen's Rights

How Far Have Women’s Rights Come? | Lorna Abwonji

What is the Women’s Rights Movement?

The Women’s Rights Movement is a social movement also at times referred to as the Women’s Liberation Movement and it has to do with giving women greater personal freedom. 

This movement became more prominent in countries in the west as an aftermath of World War 2 and the fact that women had to take up roles at work especially in factories that were previously only done by men who were at war at the time. There was an expectation for the roles to go back to how things were before after the war ended but instead it sparked this movement that made women want more personal freedom outside the traditional roles. 

This freedom varies from country to country and in some cultures to this day they may still be fighting for some of the most basic human rights. 

As a modern African woman, I sometimes take it for granted that I live a life most of my peers on this continent do not. It’s easier for me to say that we have made a lot of strides as women over the decades but I have quickly learnt that it is not the same for everyone.

I was privileged enough to have grandfathers both maternal and paternal who saw that sending their daughters to school was just as important as sending their sons. They were also both educated in the colonial era of our country. So, I am basically a third-generation female who has had the privilege of going to school in my family. It is very rare for me to come across someone in the family who did not finish school to at least high school level of education, so, for me going to school and aspiring to work as a woman was a no brainer.

The more I interacted with people outside my circle the more I have come to understand that a lot of my peers have had to fight against their culture to finish school. This is despite the government mandate that all children have a right to go to school. And that is only the education aspect of the rights.

So, I started to pay more attention to what these rights mean to women globally and in Africa. Some of the rights I found we did not have before may still apply to some countries today.

Related: Bodil Jane Illustrates the Stories of Five Girls Speaking Out on their Human Rights

Some rights women didn’t have 100 years ago

  • Keep their own money or have a personal bank account
  • Work night shifts
  • Work while pregnant
  • Vote
  • Compete in the Olympics
  • Own property in their name if they are married
  • Have their own passport if they are married
  • Shop or eat in a restaurant without an escort
  • Join the military
  • Use birth control without permission
  • Refusing sex with their husbands
  • File for a divorce
  • Suing for sexual harassment
  • Smoking In public
  • Wear trousers
  • Drive
  • Finish school/go to school
  • Equal pay for work they do 

And many more

The rights efforts in Africa are more focused on reproductive and sexual health rights, which also varies from one culture to another. In many other ways African women have done better than their western counterparts with having high positions of political power. 

Joyce Banda - Former Malawi President - Women's Rights Activist

Joyce Hilda Banda – Photo from Council Women Leaders.

Here are some of the iconic African women you should know about

  • Joyce Hilda Banda-Former President of Malawi
  • Tabitha Karanja – Kenyan Founder of Keroche breweries 
  • Salwa Akhannouch-Moroccan entrepreneur founder of Aksal Group
  • Late Wangari Mathai – Kenyan Nobel Prize winner and Environmentalist 
  • Late Miriam Makeba- South African civil rights activist
  • Late Winnie Mandela -South Africa Civil rights activist
  • Late Huda Shaarawi – Egyptian Feminist leader and nationalist
  • Late Cesária Évora – Cape Verdean singer and women’s rights activists
  • Ellen Sirleaf Johnson -Former president of Liberia
  • Ammenah Gurib-Fakim -Former President of Mauritius 
  • Bethlehem Alemu -Ethiopian Founder of Sole Rebel Foot wear [18 stores globally]
  • Bogolo Joy Kewenedo – Botswana minister of Investment, trade and Industry [youngest African minister]
  • Bridgette Radebe- South African Mining Entrepreneur
  • Sahle-Work Zewde- President of Ethiopia
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Nigerian Feminist, Novelist and Author
  • Dr Ngozi Okonja-Iweala – [Nigerian] Director-General of the World Trade Organization

This is just a few of the women who have broken through barriers on this continent and still very many more that were not mentioned on the list. There seems to be a movement in the future to focus more on more women taking leadership roles especially in politics.

Women's Rights - Equal Rights

Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash.

Some ways to go

Yes, women have come a long way but there are still some ways to go. 

  • So many women and girls still do not have basic needs such as sanitary pads and most women and girls are still the most affected by poverty and wars. 
  • There are still harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation being practiced to this day and affect progressing in education
  • Reproductive health and rights are still not available to most women on the continent
  • There is still a need for more women in political seats and other influential spaces
  • Women still need more access to finance and economic empowerment to help raise their quality of life
  • There is still a lot of violence against women and most countries do not have systems to mitigate this or support women in any way

Each country deals with these issues differently and some are more ahead than others. We have indeed come a long way as women and we should and must soldier on to ensure it is the same for all women around the world.

Lorna Abwonji - For Creative GirlsLorna Abwonji is Head Designer/Creative Director at Mia Mara Creations.
She is the Project manager at Dress Up Kenya. RAFDA 2008 Finalist & FA254 Finalist 2014.

Lorna is a 2016 YALI Mandela Washington Fellow.




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