Rumbidzai Chisenga and Senait Fisseha discuss the challenges and opportunities for African women’s leadership at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2020

EJS Center Director of Leadership Programs Rumbidzai Chisenga joined the second day of the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2020, organized by Women Lift Health, for the ‘She Leads: African Women Shaping the Continent’ panel. Alongside Senait Fisseha, Director of Global Programs at the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, Ms. Chisenga discussed the key opportunities and challenges to African women’s leadership. 

To introduce the panel, Zain Verjee, Founder and CEO of the Zain Verjee Group, contextualized the importance of working to advance women’s leadership on the African continent: 

“70% of the world’s health workforce are women, yet they face extraordinary barriers to reach leadership roles. Women represent only 25% of senior leadership positions. Now, those inequalities are just compounded in Africa… Gender equality progress in Africa has stalled over the past four years. At the current rate, it would actually take Africa more than 140 years to reach gender parity.”

Ms. Chisenga and Dr. Fisseha kicked off the discussion by talking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought inequalities to light, which require intentional intervention and constant action to dismantle, as stated by Dr. Fisseha: “I really think in order to dismantle inequality we need to hold organizations, leaders, and ourselves accountable for how we each contribute to these inequalities”.

The panelists then went on to speak about how to rebalance power and overcome the social norms and policies that hold women back and perpetuate inequality on the African continent. To address these inequalities and push for change, Dr. Fisseha stressed the essential role played by the youth:

“From history, we know that it is often young people and leaders from affected communities who rise up and demand change. These are the people who are the engines of progress – in global health they already are – that’s why it is so critical to invest in young people, young women, young African women…We really must lift them, lift each other up. Whoever you are, find the moment, big and small, to elevate women.”

In this context, Ms. Chisenga highlighted two ways in which she uses her presence and influence to drive change: being authentic and excelling in her role. 

“I am aware that I am young and I am a woman and several other factors about my background, and I don’t think of it as anything to be ashamed of… All of these things that traditionally were barriers or were looked down upon are the things that have actually become strengths, particularly when it comes to conversations around policymaking, and influencing and driving change. 

The second thing that I am intentional about is to be excellent in what I do… Once you are seen as a representative of the young or of women, in places where there aren’t enough of us, there is just a responsibility for you to do well, so that the others who come behind you have a foundation that’s been laid on which they can also excel even further.“

The discussion ended with a powerful message – and call to action – from Ms. Chisenga: 

“For me, undoing gender discrimination will require more than women demanding change and women changing themselves. I think it requires men to recognize that issues that have been traditionally labeled as ‘women’s issues’ are actually societal issues, and I would like to see more men advocating for women’s dignity and safety as well as women’s participation in leadership and decision making.”

 To watch the full panel, click here (registration required).

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