Over the last three decades, the advent of the Internet age coupled with rapid globalization has enabled us to be better connected as global citizens. Despite gains in connectivity and interconnectedness across borders, societies around the world are still plagued by fragmentation and inequity. The well-coordinated action of civil society has become pivotal in countering such destructive forces. One certain solution to ensure a vibrant and engaged citizenry is to educate women and encourage their active civic participation.
The year 1990 was perhaps the beginning of the interconnected world as we know it. It was when Tim Berners-Lee launched the world wide web, that panoptic network of networks that brought the global community closer than ever before. Quickly becoming one of the most visible forces of globalization, it has removed barriers of communication and fostered connections between people unhindered by geography. It has formed for us the modern Forum Romanum, a virtual and far-reaching platform, where voices of agreement and opposition mingle freely and a space where society evolves.
However, as this giant leap for mankind was being made, over 600 million of the world’s women had never been to school. Even before this new technological world came into being, millions were already excluded from its tangible and virtual realms. A well-educated female collective, however, is necessary to the advancement of any society, especially in this tech age. While there is a considerable gender imbalance in STEM fields, there are increasing numbers of women in these fields exercising their civic duty and finding solutions to global challenges. Female scientists are developing vaccines and women tech coders are creating technologies that are changing the world in which we live. While we know women make up a minority of the world’s research community, with only 30% of the world’s researchers being women, UNESCO reports that a closer look at the data exposes some surprising exceptions. For example, in Bolivia, women account for 63% researchers, compared to France with a rate of 26% or Ethiopia at 8%. We must encourage girls and young women to explore STEM subjects and support their aspirations to pursue careers in these technical fields if we want women to play a role in their governance.
The keys to challenging the tide of divisive, destructive isolationism can be found in the powerful fruits of education and civic participation.
Access to education, in the most holistic sense possible, must be any society’s imperative. If ‘women carry half the sky’ then education allows women and girls to be full citizens, and enables their communities to reach their highest potential. Education equips women to fully utilize their talents in political, economic and social spheres, and opens doors to the global community where they can take center stage.
Education provides awareness of civic responsibilities and rights, which then enables citizens to see it as their duty to exercise these rights. This sense of civic mindedness and ownership over one’s political fate have perhaps never been more important than now. In the complex world we find ourselves in today, forces of hate and intolerance are galvanizing. The keys to challenging this tide of divisive, destructive isolationism can be found in the powerful fruits of education and civic participation.
We have seen this power most recently unleashed in March 2017 where millions of women took to the streets in over 600 rallies in 60 countries in defence of women’s rights. This unprecedented galvanization of women across the globe demonstrates how commanding they can be when equipped with the connectivity and moral imperative to become active citizens. When women come together as change agents, it becomes impossible for them to go unrecognized in the political discourse of the day or marginalized in the development of their societies.
This is not just theory. There is evidence of how powerful the tools of education and civic participation are in empowering women to hold leaders to account and becoming leaders in their own right. In Rwanda, for example, where female literacy rates actually surpass that of their male counterparts, we have seen women dominate in the nation’s governing structures. In fact, in 2016, this small East African nation was the world leader in that regard, having 64% of its national legislature comprised of women. In a fantastic example of a society’s ability to regenerate and reconstitute itself, Rwandese women are claiming their right to sit where the decisions are made and shaping the policies, plans and strategies for their futures and those of generations to come.
But women simply being present at the helm is not enough; the other critical role of education is to prepare women to be the leaders their nations require. Beyond occupying leadership positions, a calibrated education in ethical leadership is just as important. The African Leadership University (ALU) is an innovative model of higher education that is preparing the African continent’s leaders of today and tomorrow. They employ a unique pedagogy to empower leaders that will be prominent in global and national organizations as well as at the grassroots, inspiring creative and positive change in both formal and informal settings.
Part and parcel of ethical, civic minded education is the task of connecting to a global citizenry. If the genius of the Internet is in its global series of interconnected networks, imagine the revolution that could occur if women organized into international ‘networks of networks’ themselves.
There is power in networks. At the Graça Machel Trust, our approach to women’s empowerment is to establish and strengthen networks that drive the advancement of women and increase their participation and visibility in key sectors of society. Based on the belief that development is hinged on the sustained participation of women in socio-economic spheres at all levels and across sectors, we have 5 networks operating across the African continent which aim to amplify female voices throughout society at large. We build networks, underpinned by a philosophy of citizen engagement at the country level that cascade upwards to the sub-regional and continental levels. Subtly, all of these networks are galvanizing into a movement for the social and economic transformation of Africa.
Well organized networks have the reach to shape development agendas on multiple levels – national, regional, continental and global. For example, CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, is a network of international partners and organizations that work towards building a global civil society that is vibrant and free. They are also one of the biggest proponents of the advancement of women internationally. In fact, 66% of their staff is comprised of women and many of the organizations within their alliance are women-led. Literally, they are an example of women leading the charge in building a global movement, not only for themselves, but for humanity as a whole.
We as global citizens are the sum of our parts, and it does not make sense that we would continue to tolerate the marginalization of those who are holding up our own sky.
Graça Machel is an African stateswoman whose decades long professional and public life is rooted in Mozambique’s struggle for self-rule and international advocacy for women and children’s rights. Machel sits on a large number of international boards and advisory groups, with a particular focus on education and the rights of women and children. She is a founding member of The Elders, and the Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Chancellor of the African Leadership University and the President of SOAS. She founded and serves as President of the Foundation for Community Development and the Zizile Institute for Child Development. She is also Founder and Board Chair of the Graça Machel Trust.