24 May 2013

Africa: Investing in Africa's Women

Cape Town — Invest and empower other women on the continent. This is the key message that came from former South African first lady and head of the Graca Machel Foundation, Graca Machel. Her inspiring words were delivered during her keynote address at the Women Inspiration and Enterprise (WIE) symposium in Cape Town, South Africa - attended by some of the continent's most powerful women.

"We need to acknowledge that as women, we are facing the same challenges and we will only be able to combat these challenges when working together, we need to empower others, transformation in leadership, is woman working together," Machel said.

Machel lamented that despite the changing landscape, women were not yet "sitting where decisions are made".

"We have the right to shape institutions and we have to be accountable to millions of women around the world," she said.

WIE, a platform created for leading female politicians, CEOs and businesswomen to share their stories with the average women looking to better their lives and empower themselves, was launched in New York in 2010. Co-founder and CEO of WIE Dee Poku says it was an idea born from the valuable support she received from her mentors who "elevated" her career, something she felt other women needed to experience.

"We wanted to give women that access that we enjoyed, we went to a dinner filled with incredible people like former US secretary of state Hilary Clinton and that for me was a eureka moment. I thought wouldn't it be amazing if we could give the average woman access to this room, how could that change things and how would that change the dynamic at the top? We wanted to see how we could affect change on the continent," Poku said.

The symposium, which has been held in New York and London, then made its way to South Africa, coinciding with the World Economic Forum on Africa.

Poku says that the decision to bring it to the continent and aptly theme it Africa's Turn was primarily because her roots lie in Ghana.

It was also a move to showcase that there are successful women in Africa and to change the stereotype often seen in Western countries depicting a rural African disenfranchised woman.

"We wanted to showcase woman in a different light, the success that Africa was experiencing and show a more multi-dimensional view of Africa, we wanted to see how we could affect change on the continent," Poku said.

The Issue of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was also high on the agenda at the symposium with health, education and maternal mortality being the main focus. The 2015 deadline for MDGs is almost upon us but there is fear that specific goals will not be reached. Poku says she doesn't believe all the goals will be reached, but that strides are being made in the likes of health and education.

"Whether we reach the specific goals or not, the work that's been done and the awareness that's been created and the programs that have been put in place are all supporting the goal of making Africa a healthier better place for its people, their have been incredible progress in health and education," she said.

Jane Wales, CEO of the Global Philanthropy, agrees, saying: "We've seen some real advances in providing primary education for all, the issue however is retaining kids in school and the biggest drop out rate is among girls, we need to figure out the main causes of this and address them accordingly."

The issue of maternal and child health are persistent problems and require a sense of urgency. "These are addressable problems but we just need to get together and address them." Wales said.

The target is to reduce child mortality by two-thirds come 2015 and achieve universal access to reproductive health. According to UNICEF, about 29 000 children under the age of five die every day, mainly from preventable causes. More than 70 per cent of almost 11 million child deaths every year are attributable to six causes namely diarrhoea, malaria, neonatal infection, pneumonia, pre term delivery, or lack of oxygen at birth.

Fola Laoye Chair of Hygeia Nigeria, an integrated private health system in Nigeria that aims to increase access to health through health insurance, says even though Nigeria is considered a middle income country, healthcare is still very under resourced but says health services are improving slightly.

"Since the launch of Nigeria's Saving One Million Lives by 2015 initiative, an elaborate scheme to expand access to essential primary health care services for women and children, key areas like nutrition and family planning , have been identified, we need a more holistic health system that can tackle all these problems." Laoye said.

The WIE symposium in essence ended of on a high note with women in attendance reaffirming their pledge to invest in the future of Africa and invest in its people but most importantly its women.

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