The Women of Africa have the ‘Write’ to Speak
Real-life stories of determination and hope written by everyday women of Africa. Stories that will inspire women the world over to live a powerful and impactful life.
Ahead of South Africa celebrating Women’s Month in August, the Shared Value Africa Initiative (SVAI) talks to Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill, about Write to Speak, a collection of stories told by women from 23 African nations about their individual journeys along some of life’s toughest terrain – social justice and gender equality; of barriers, hurdles, struggles and the proverbial glass ceiling.
Ms. January-Bardill is the Chairperson of the Council of the Nelson Mandela University and the United Nations (UN) Global Compact Local Network in South Africa (SA). At the start of 2021 she was also appointed to the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Technical Assistance and the Implementation of the Universal Periodic Report in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
Q: Tell us about Write to Speak. What prompted you to put this publication together?
In a nutshell, what motivated me was my own desire to write. I had always wanted to write my own story but thought it would not serve our cause. Besides, my story was so linked to the lives of many other women throughout my life. So, I thought, why not encourage other women to write our stories – our own lived experiences. The COVID -19 lockdown in 2020 presented the opportunity to reflect and to take stock in the silence of our homes.
2020 was also the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 (exactly one year after we elected our first democratic government in 1994). I was at that conference, along with many other South African women who saw the event as an opportunity to contribute to the struggle for women’s emancipation.
It was also at that Beijing conference where women of the world united and called for a dedicated women-focused organisation at the UN, even though UN Women only came about 15 years later. The 2020 COVID event happened on the 10th birth year of UN Women. It also marked a watershed moment for the African Union (AU) in that it signaled the end of the first African Women’s Decade on Grassroots Approach to Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (2010-2020).
Amidst all the trauma and challenges brought about by the pandemic, last year created the opportunity to stop and reflect on what we have done since 1995, and not only tell that story but also acknowledge and celebrate some of the successes. After all, African women’s stories are not told enough. There’s a dearth in the literature and this cannot be good for current and future generations. We MUST give ourselves a voice and use the written word as a tool of struggle and for documenting our rich and varied lives. And why not now.
Through the help of friends, we identified 60 women from 23 countries in all regions of the continent and asked them to share their stories of leadership and how, through thick and thin they built themselves, and others and institutions to address the difficult issues that are faced by women in all societies. We invited the women to share their own personal experiences of gender oppression, and its impact on women in families, communities and their societies, and how each of them contributed to the advancement of equality and gender justice in their diverse environments. In their own words, they wrote about how they addressed the 12 areas identified in the Beijing Platform for Action – areas where urgent action was needed to ensure greater equality and opportunities for women and men, girls and boys.
Q: Who are the women involved in the book?
Through my own extensive business network and with the help of others, I was able to reach out and select 55 women from across all five regions of the continent – 32 are from South Africa and 23 from the rest of the continent; from the Lesotho, Botswana, DRC, Guinea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and more.
They are women from all walks of life, across the continent. They are social entrepreneurs, founders and leaders of organisations, across different sectors. They include executives and board members of large, medium and small enterprises. They are activists, civil servants, lawyers, doctors, sports women and students. The youngest writer is 16 years old and the oldest is a former ambassador over 80, accounting for an inter-generational span of seven generations.
Q: What do you see as the primary purpose of this book?
I am of the generation of people who were born here, left for the struggle, came back, and tried to change it, but failed dismally in so many ways. Now, we have all been given a second chance to do it and do it differently. I’m hoping that the writing will contribute to fixing our society and by fixing I mean facing the truth. By writing about it, we give a lasting voice to the truth of what happened and, hopefully, in doing so find a better way of changing it, together.
We have a shared history and we live in the same spaces; we live next to each other and we live alongside one another. Our history is a common one, but our stories are very different from one another.
How do we resolve our current problems by talking about them, by writing about them and by sharing with one another that which has happened (and is happening) to us? In doing so, I get to learn more about your life and you get to know more about my life, as I narrate it. More importantly, both of us are not sitting back and waiting for a third person to write our stories for us.
For me it is about creating literature about African women’s lives, but also to narrate our own histories and stories. How often do we write a different narrative, because it is too difficult to write truthfully? We are reluctant to talk about race in our country. Yet the only way we can overcome the race dilemma is to face it; to face that shared history that we have experienced together – differently, but together.
Many women I know in this country are very actively trying to seek solutions to our social, economic and political problems every single day of their lives. Through Write to Speak, I hope we can give everyone a channel/medium through which to express and capture their own stories. It is also very important for the next generation to know what happened during our lifetime, so that they don’t move into adulthood without that knowledge.
While not intentional, the underlying thread throughout all the stories is about how the writers tried to address transformation challenges within their own organisations. Some wrote about the ways in which they committed to the cause of women in their work places, making sure that they get the right salaries, the right training, and that their voices were heard. Others reflected on their own struggles and the glass ceilings they encountered along the way, as well as the ways in which they had to climb over the huge challenges were faced with. All the stories are packed with valuable insights, tips and advice to women from all walks of life.
Q: Any word of advice for business in terms of advancing gender equality?
I believe women deserve their rightful place in the annals of history. More importantly, we should not have to make so much noise to get our voices simply heard.
My message to business is simple: You don’t live in a vacuum. You live in a real society. That’s why they call you a corporate citizen. As business, it is your responsibility, as much as it is mine as a civil person, to help change the world for the better and remove the structures that perpetuate inequality. As business you have the power in your hands to make it happen: You can change procurement practices, ensuring more opportunities are made available for women businesses. You can certainly contribute more towards educating your staff, identifying talent and building on that talent.
As women, we deserve to be employed because we can do the job. In the same way that you employ men, give us the chance to be managers, give us the chance to be CEOs. Make space for women to climb the corporate ladder and break that glass ceiling. Women have led and will continue to lead. In fact, if you employ women, your business will actually do much better – a fact backed by scientific research that shows how women’s contribution in any company leads to higher profits.
Last, but not least, Women’s Month in South Africa (August) is not only a reminder of our history, it is also an opportunity for us to stand up and show the world how we are leading. Let’s leave the narrative of “we can do it”. Yes, of course we can – we have been doing it for a very long time.
That is what this book is all about – how women have led and their achievements. It is also a record for history and a much-needed contribution to African literature.