Women Taking Control of Power in Africa There's a new generation of female leaders in Africa, and they face the daunting challenges of poverty, famine, AIDS and genocide. Guests discuss the importance of female leadership in developing nations.
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Women Taking Control of Power in Africa

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Women Taking Control of Power in Africa

Women Taking Control of Power in Africa

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From NPR News in Washington, I'm Michel Martin. And this is TALK OF THE NATION.

It was news that made headlines around the world. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Harvard-trained economist, opposition leader, grandmother of three, was elected president of Liberia. With that, she became the first elected female head of state on the African continent. Here's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

President ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF (Liberia): My own leadership of the country will inspire and motivate women throughout the African continent. Women can demonstrate that they can bring not only the competence and courage and character, but also the extra sensitivity of being a woman.

MARTIN: And throughout the continent, women are beginning to try. The emerging leaders of Africa, a woman's place is in the parliament. Plus, a new report on AIDS in a U.S. prison. It's TALK OF THE NATION. First, this news.

(Soundbite of newscast)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Sometimes big stories don't get the attention they deserve. There are a lot of reasons why. But one reason is that sometimes there's no one single event to focus on, something that makes everybody sit up and pay attention. Last November 8th, one such event occurred that forced the world to turn its gaze to Africa. That event was the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia. That was newsworthy, in and of itself, because Johnson Sirleaf is Africa's first democratically elected female leader. But it's an even bigger story, because on the world stage it's not an isolated event.

Throughout Africa, women are moving into leadership in remarkable numbers. In Rwanda, for example, women make up 49 percent of the Lower House of Parliament. In the U.S., by contrast, women are 15 percent of the House and 14 percent of the Senate.

Today, we will hear from one of Rwanda's top government officials, Secretary-General of the Supreme Court Anne Gahaya -- I'm sorry, Anne Gahongayire. Later in the program, we'll talk about new data just released by the Centers for Disease Control on the spread of AIDS in prisons.

But first, join the conversation. Do you think it is important for women to be in government? And if so, why? Do you think women have a special leadership role in developing countries? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

And to begin our report, we're joined by Alexandra Poolos, former managing editor of Women's eNews. She edited an eight-part series on women's emerging leadership and she reported from Rwanda. She joins us from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. ALEXANDRA POOLOS (Former Managing Editor, Women's eNews): Hi.

MARTIN: Well, hi. And what made you take notice of the story of women's leadership in Africa?

Ms. POOLOS: Well...

MARTIN: Because you started that reporting before the Liberian elections, that got the rest of our attention.

Ms. POOLOS: Yes, we did. Actually, Women's eNews was lucky enough to get a grant and have a conversation with the Carnegie Foundation. And they asked us to take a new look at Africa. So we started speaking with some our reporters about what women were doing there. And we just got an overwhelming response from them saying, look, we're seeing women across the continent effecting change, both in political roles, in NGO roles, and even in just grassroots movements.

MARTIN: We're very interested, obviously, in heads of state and heads of government. But what about some of the people that you wrote about, talked about, who are less visible; like sort of just below the sort of the top tiers of leadership? Tell me some of the exciting stories that you've uncovered there.

Ms. POOLOS: Well, we're seeing women across the continent again doing grassroots work without, you know, financial help or even in many cases recognition of their own governments. For example, in Zimbabwe, many NGOs run by women, or women who don't even think of themselves as human rights activists, were protesting the Mugabe government. They were organizing campaigns, leading protests, and then as well getting relief out to women in villages and things like that.

In other parts of the country, we're seeing women, especially in Northern Africa, taking a prominent role in redefining Islam and how it interprets women's roles. So they're religious women, but they're looking at a more empowered role for women. And in Rwanda, where I was, I saw many, many women working, whether as local politicians, or just women in their villages taking a sort of leadership role, advocating for education on a primary level, advocating for better health resources, things like that.

MARTIN: I noticed that in this country education and health tend to be pathways into leadership for many women. At least in the first generation they were. You know, women as health advocates. Because women are nurses. And women as -- get an interest, you know, often, the first job that someone gets elected to is school board. And that becomes a springboard...

Ms. POOLOS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...to other leadership roles. Have you found that to be the case in Africa also; that women, their first leadership role tends to be something traditionally identified with women's concerns, like health or education? And then that becomes the vehicle by which they move into broader arenas?

Ms. POOLOS: Oh, absolutely. In Lesotho, several women who were working in AIDS education, for example, because it's being found now that AIDS is infecting women at a much higher rate, and is becoming a women's health concern, so there were several women who were working on kind of a grassroots level, and then they actually rose up to be health ministers.

Well, one in particular in Lesotho. And one of her main initiatives was, you know, rewriting rape laws there, to have a higher sort of punishment for men and that kind of a thing, as well as getting better sex education out there in the field.

In Rwanda, you're quite right to say that many women start as educators. I interviewed several local mayors who were teachers first. And they really felt like their experience as a teacher and dealing in a classroom setting allowed them to move into a greater arena, working in a community and using some of those teaching skills.

MARTIN: Rwanda has gotten a lot of people's attention, because it has apparently the highest rate of female representation in the world, in the parliament. Why do you think that is?

Ms. POOLOS: Well, you know, I'd like to put a really positive spin on this, and say because the Rwandan government recognized that women should be leaders. But to be frank, it's because women outnumber men, some say as much as seven to three, and that's largely because of the genocide. Many men were killed. Many are now in prison. And the ones who aren't in prison are off in Congo, you know, advocating another war there. So women kind of stepped into the leadership vacuum. Now, it's true though that the government of President Paul Kagame recognized that women needed to be fostered and trained as leaders. So he had specific initiatives. For example, he started a Ministry of Gender to advocate women kind of growing into a leadership role.

MARTIN: I think this is a...

Ms. POOLOS: It's...

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

Ms. POOLOS: No. I was just going to say it's two sides of the same coin, really.

MARTIN: I think this is a very good time to bring in another guest. And one of the women who is part of this trend, and we're very pleased to have her, is Anne Gahongayire. She is the Secretary General of Rwanda's Supreme Court. Previously, she was the Secretary General of the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, that Alexandra talked about. In addition, she's also a member of the Rwandan Women Leaders Caucus. She joins us by phone from Kigali.

Welcome, Madame Secretary.

Secretary General ANNE GAHONGAYIRE (Supreme Court, Rwanda): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: And I...

Sec. Gen. GAHONGAYIRE: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: And thank you for joining us.

And I also want to warn our listeners that they may be experiencing a slight delay, just because of the imperfect technology that we need to talk to each other.

Madame Secretary, do you agree with Alexandra's analysis that, in part, the reason that there is such a strong female representation in the legislature in Rwanda, is simply because so many men were killed? Is that accurate?

Sec. Gen. GAHONGAYIRE: Well, that might be part of the reason. But the real important reason we attribute to this, is the kind of governance policy we are implementing in this country, which means that we have to include all sectors of society. And (unintelligible) women. And in every kind of decision-making level we have to scrutinize and check that the women are very involved and they participate. So that leads and governs almost everybody and every sector.

You're actually recording the numbers in parliament. But if you look at the judiciary itself, if you look at the women in cabinet, recently we just had local government elections. And we have more than 40 percent women who are elected as local government leaders. So this is a broad policy. The reason, you know, we've both suffered very much from the poor governance of this country, which led to genocide. And we are making lots of efforts to check that, to correct that. So it's actually kind of a broader issue than usually is analyzed by some people who analyze the why is women involved so much in decision making in this country. They are very careful about participation.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, why did you want to be in public life?

Sec. Gen GAHONGAYIRE: I don't know if I actually wanted, but I just had to get moved. We all had to get involved because this was the reality in this country. And because of what happened, we found ourselves in a position where we had to be involved by all means.

The situation dictated that lots of things had to change, lots of, the future had to be forged because we had almost lost everything, life and everything else. And this very strong feeling became a mission to make things change and you're going to realize that from most of the population. And the elite population is very much involved; actually maybe not only the elite, but everyone else.

So we want to see different things happen to our country and very glad to note that it's happening.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, if I may, it was my understanding that you had been living abroad, in Belgium. Isn't that correct?

Sec. Gen GAHONGAYIRE: No, I was born and grew up in Uganda just next to Rwanda as a refugee. That's where I was born and grew up.

MARTIN: So you...

Sec. Gen GAHONGAYIRE: I've not been to Belgium at all.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, forgive me for that. That's why it's important to ask. But I guess that speaks to the point that you did have choice about whether to come back or not. You did not have to go to Rwanda to serve, you did have a choice. And I just was wondering what it was that...

Sec. Gen GAHONGAYIRE: We had to come back to Rwanda. The conditions and situations of growing up as a refugee and you grow up and you soon have your own children. Being born as refugees is not acceptable at all. So we had to come to this country.

But also, this part of this government's policy (unintelligible) which some of us experienced. It's the general situation that was happening in our country where there was a lot of oppression, lots of exclusion. The women were highly marginalized. And when this genocide happened, which was all a result of that kind of government, there was, women were very much affected and are still bearing the burden of the effects of the genocide.

So when I say that we've got to work very hard and we are all determined to make a difference in this country and see that our children don't go through what we've been through ourselves, that's kind of a determination from those who are refugees and from those who are in this country and also who, you know, experienced terrible horrors that happened.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break. We're talking about the women who, more and more, are leading the way in Africa.

And we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

We're talking about the changing face of politics in Africa. Across the continent, women are increasingly taking leadership roles in government.

Our guests are Alexandra Poolos, former managing editor of Women's eNews. She edited an eight part series on women's emerging leadership and she reported from Rwanda. Also with us, Anne Gahongayire, she's the Secretary General of the Supreme Court in Rwanda.

You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And let's take a call in San Diego and Jasmine. Jasmine, what's on your mind?

JASMINE (Caller): Thank you so much, Michel. What an important topic you guys are covering today. I wanted to bring to the picture the women of Somalia, an East African country that went into chaos and war in the early '90s. These women in the Diaspora pulled together, sent remittance to the country to save the people. Not only that, but a lot of women who were in America and in Europe went back to Somalia to train women in the grass roots.

And they've started doing - they've literally stepped into positions that were usually male dominated positions. Today, we have women in all aspects of society. We have women business owners, we have women who run all kinds of NGOs, the health sector, and we also have women in Parliament, which is the first time in Somalia that this is happening.

And these women were not handed the positions that they got as Parliamentary members. They actually had to fight for it from their own tribal leaders because it's traditionally a conservative society and women were really not allowed such positions, so these women had to fight, to really, really fight really hard to get to these positions.

And it's such a fantastic thing for Africa because these women are definitely changing the face of Africa and it's a good thing for the future.

MARTIN: Jasmine, thanks. You know, you've raised a lot of interesting issues here, and I want to have Alexandra talk about some of them.

The first thing you talked about is the fact that some of these women are being supported by members of the Diaspora, people who are from the country, whose heritage is in the home country but who have left, who have been educated elsewhere and who are in a position to support those efforts back home, either through remittances or through training or so forth.

And Alexandra, I'd like to ask, is that necessarily welcome? And Jasmine, you may want to join in and help us with this too, I mean because I can envision scenarios are criticized for leaving the country.

Ms.POOLOS: Right.

MARTIN: They are considered sort of less authentic, perhaps. That might be one term. So Alexandra, why don't you tell us what you sense in that?

Ms. POOLOS: Well, I certainly think that that's possible. But I really found that that's a very small minority in many of these countries. These women are so eager for the support and they're so happy that their fellow countrywomen outside of the country are able to access higher education, are able to access good jobs.

They understand why they're living in exile. And when they're sending money back or they're sending support back in different ways, it's very well received. I mean it's very similar to that fact that these exiled communities, whether they're men or women, are big parts of rebuilding communities back home. In fact, it's one of the major forms of aid that never gets tabulated when we do, you know, aid reporting.

And also, it's not just women who are moving to the West. I mean you see - Jasmine brings up a very interesting case. In Somalia many of those women were influenced by women in Kenya. So they weren't necessarily Somali by birth, but these Somali women were looking at what was happening in Kenya and they were saying, A-ha, they're advocating for change in their government. They're protesting constitutional laws that limit their ability to own land, to have sentences for rape, to raise the age of child marriages. We can do that too.

So it's very cross-bordered. The borders are extremely porous.

JASMINE: It's true. It's amazing how women affect each other and how women influence each other. And yes, I'm sure women in Somalia have seen the cases in Kenya and other neighboring countries, but they also tapped into an opportunity. I mean this was not going to happen again. There was chaos in the country, there was war, and women kind of united.

You know, the problem in Somalia is a tribal one, and it really breaks the country into sects and into, you know, people supporting different warlords. But women together - came together as one. They said we are women first and we have to talk about issues that, you know, face women on a daily basis. And they united at the forefront, at the beginning. And literally threw themselves at work. But the thing is...

MARTIN: Jasmine, thank you so much. We have appreciated your input here and we're going to - I think we're going to raise that question with Madam Secretary Gahongayire. Do you agree with Jasmine's analysis that women are perhaps more inclined to set aside tribal divisions?

Sec. Gen GAHONGAYIRE: Well, I tend to believe that women are human beings like everybody else. And in most cases they are very much influenced by the broader politics. In most cases, actually, you realize that they don't participate so actively, they are very much on the side. But being on the side also gives opportunity for them being a little more objective than the people who are directly involved.

For instance, if we take that case of Somalia, I think the women really may be able to play a very important role in bringing these people together. We - I can share maybe the experience of Rwanda because sometimes there are groupings and (unintelligible) initiatives because we speak the same language, we share lots of culture, what you've heard about Hutus and Tutsis. But the women here have played a very big role in merging these communities together.

Then after, there was the genocide where one of the grouping was - had planned to exterminate the other. So it's - the women have played a very big role in reconciliation, in bringing back the different groups together. And I think that Somalia can very much speak on some of these experiences, the Somalia women can play a very good role.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, this is - I'm going to go to another caller. But before I do, Jasmine's point, which was I think - you can hear her enthusiasm and her sense of pride in the country and her excitement about the future, but I've often wondered, do you, as a female leader, sometimes feel the weight of outsized expectation?

Which is to say that people assume that, not only that you'll be competent, but that you will be somehow superhuman, that you will have - you'll be a better human being than, say, a male leader would be, that you would be, you know, that - do you see what I'm saying? That people are so excited, that perhaps they have real expectations of you and your ability to do certain things and to be better, that create an additional burden for you. And I wonder if you ever feel that way.

Sec. Gen GAHONGAYIRE: Yeah. Yeah, completely. That's the exact reality of what women who are in leadership feel because the society's expectations of the women are just an ideal, you know, person who's supposed not to do the wrong, who's supposed to be objective, who's supposed to be fair, who's supposed - and in some cases, you know, there might be some influences on the women as well.

So I keep on picking some examples where there might have been some women who participated in the genocide, that's just an example. But you realize that it's a very small number, again, a very small number compared to the men. These society's expectations are there, they keep on pushing us; they put us at a very good position.

I think I don't mind them, I like them pushing us towards that so that there can be someone in our society who can really be fair and just and that kind of thing. But it brings a lot of burden on the women; that I can testify.

MARTIN: In Uganda, women have been making strides as well with several female ministers and a vice president. The vice president has been pushing a domestic relations bill which seeks to reform and consolidate the laws relating marriage, separation and divorce.

And joining us to talk about that is Rachael Scheier. She's a reported for the Christian Science Monitor and Women's eNews. And she joins us from Kampala in Uganda.

Welcome Rachael.

Ms. RACHAEL SCHEIER (Reporter): Thank you.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about the state of women's leadership in Uganda. Do some of the things we're talking about here sound familiar?

Ms. SCHEIER: Yes, they do. In fact, Uganda I believe was among the first countries to begin pushing so-called affirmative action, trying to put more women in positions of power and high ranking political offices and so forth. The administration of President Yoweri Museveni received a lot of credit early on for doing that.

And one of the ways, one of the central ways was by appointing the first woman vice president in Africa, who is, I should point out, no longer the vice president. She is resigned. She resigned a couple of years ago.

MARTIN: Why did she resign?

Ms. SCHEIER: There's a...

MARTIN: Why did she resign? Did she have political differences with President Museveni?

Ms. SCHEIER: Well, that depends on who you ask. Ostensibly, she went for her studies in the U.S. But actually, interestingly, I think a lot of this had to do with her private life. She had a very messy divorce and she actually went public with the fact that she was being physically abused in her marriage which became a very interesting thing publicly for her as a woman in such a high position because she sort of became an advocate for measures that would frame the issue of domestic violence, which is a very big concern to a lot of women's activists in Africa heretofore. And I think in the end her private life just became too messy, even though interestingly she was advocating for a very important cause.

MARTIN: Interesting, that's interesting. Hold on, let's go to a caller in Denver, Colorado, and Bruhani(ph). Bruhani, what's on your mind?

BRUHANI (Caller): Well, I'm trying to interject on this issue. I'm a man. I'm from Africa, a refugee. Been here in this country, in the United States, for about 20 years. I can see the frustration and I understand, in my experience when I was back in Africa, women never had this kind of opportunity. But seeing in Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, all over, the influence, it's not only for a woman's freedom, but it's men's freedom also. We have to consider it that without woman's freedom you cannot consider it a democratic country or a free country.

So everyone have this experience that woman has been degraded and humiliated and unfairly treated in African nations.

MARTIN: Bruhani, forgive me for asking. Did you feel this way before you came here?

BRUHANI: Oh yeah, I know this. I know, but I didn't feel as much as I'm aware right now, because the human right, the equal treatment in the United States or all over the world, that, you know, I'm more educated now and more understandable how a nation can grow with equal treatment. Otherwise we just, we had, as everyone knows on the panel, that Africa has been without hope for so long, tribal war or nation against nation or civil war, and so much, so many people have been lost. And the economy, instead of forward, we've been going backward.

So I think this is a good beginning and I'm very hopeful; it makes me feel with emotion, feel crying to hear the (unintelligible) from recently Liberia and hopefully that would interject to other countries, and we can see ourself in different situation and different roles, maybe down ten, 15 years from now.

MARTIN: Bruhani, thank you so much for calling.

BRUHANI: No problem.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

That must be very heartening to all of you participating in this conversation, to hear a man call to say that this, this development brings him hope. But I did want to use his call as a springboard to ask Madam Secretary, I'll start with you and I'd like to hear from the other guests as well, is this gentleman's point of view a typical one, to the degree that you feel comfortable sort of analyzing public opinion? I'm interested in whether, like the earlier caller, Jasmine, said, that sometimes these women face a lot of resistance from the traditional leadership in asserting their leadership; people just feel it's just inappropriate.

And so Madam Secretary I'd like to ask you, have you felt that way as a woman leader, that there are some people who just object to your position in the government on traditional, cultural grounds, they just think it's just not appropriate, and is that a common attitude?

Sec. Gen. GAHONGAYIRE: Yeah, that, that attitude is going to be with us for quite some time, but we need to look at it and the way it's changing also and understand where we are coming from and be realistic about it, because these are attitudes that have been with us for quite a long time.

So there is a lot of change here among the leadership, and you know that influences the majority of the population But there's also still kind of a resistance, especially at local, at grassroots level; it's still completely new. It's very new and some women are really having problems, especially within their families, within their communities. It's still new because some of them have to actually play, maybe, a smaller role in the family. The family role kind of gets shaken because you're spending a lot of time outside of your family, more than was expected, more than was happening. That's causing some bit of change and really you feel it. You still feel it a lot.

But we also notice a lot of support among the women, the men colleagues at national level and within the educational sectors. There's still that kind of reality. Though we have some support, like the gentlemen we just heard from, but we also have lots of resistance where, even when we changed the laws to implement them we still have problems, you know, getting them really into practice.

MARTIN: And what about women, do some women, are women reluctant to see women in leadership roles or are they reluctant to pursue leadership for some of these same reasons? Has it been difficult to recruit women to participate in positions in government?

Sec. Gen. GAHONGAYIRE: Women are completely part of this attitudes we are talking about. They feel almost the same. Actually after having been through this kind of thing for quite some time, you realize that the women may feel even more strongly about these changes, I mean negatively, than the men, sometimes. Under, they'll say this is, no, it's never happened so why is it happening? But in a short while what they see the benefits will be, we continue creating this awareness and being close to them, I think is going to be a very positive and eventually most of them get involved and we will create that awareness.

We have grassroots organization to impart the women, to sensitize them and to create that awareness.

MARTIN: Madam Secretary, you've been generous with your time, thank you so much for joining us.

That was Anne Gahongayire, she's the Secretary General of the Supreme Court in Rwanda, the former Minster of Gender and the head of the Women's Leadership Caucus. She joined us from Kagawa.

When we come back from a short break, how important is it to have women in positions of power? We'll wrap up our conversation in a moment.

I'm Michelle Martin, it's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Right now our guest is Alexandra Poolos, she's the former managing editor of Women's eNews and has reported from Rwanda; and Rachel Scheier, she's a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and she joined us from Kampala.

Let's go to another caller. Let's go to Baltimore and Babica(ph).

BABICA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say I completely agree with most of what your guests said earlier. I think that African women are making great strides right now and I'm very pleased by that and it's just common sense that no country can make any kind of progress if it excludes almost half of your population from participating.

And in Africa we do have a serious leadership issue. Now, what I want to say is I wouldn't want to be too idealistic about having more female participation because what I've noticed in my own country, which is Senegal, we've been having many women in positions of leadership; in government and ministries, even the Prime Minister. But basically they do behave just like men. Because the way I explain it is this: I think that being from the same generation, having the same mindset, they tend to just behave as badly as men in similar position.

MARTIN: And in what sense do you mean that? You mean in terms of corruption, in terms of, in what? What are you thinking of when you say that?

BABICA: Yeah, in all those terms. In terms of corruption, in terms of being ineffective leaders, in terms of not really caring about people, but caring more about staying in power and all of that. And I think it has more to do with the way, the kind of education they receive, the way they grew up, they are basically the same generation, so it's not very, it doesn't surprise me that they just behave the same as men.

MARTIN: Okay, thank you...

BABICA: So I think that the real problem that we have is a generation problem and less gender issue.

MARTIN: Babica, thank you so much for calling.

BABICA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Alexandra Poolos, an interesting point. Do you agree with Babica's analysis? At least in his situation, at least of Senegal, which is his frame of reference.

Ms. POOLOS: Sure, I think that's a really interesting point, and his perception that it's a generational one is accurate. I also think that it's a class issue; I mean if you've got people coming from an elite background, this is what they're used to. But, you know, the other side of that is that there are women out there making some big moves against issues like corruption; the Nigerian finance minister, which is a woman, has been really attacking this, and she's going after everyone. I mean it's not just men, it's women too.

And really, if you look at Rwanda, they're trying in a very gentle, very systematic and thorough way to address the issue of how do we train women to be leaders? How do we train them to maybe bring some of their female qualities to being a leader, but also how do we get them to overcome this notion that they have to behave as men or that they can be corrupt if they want to be?

And what they're doing is, they're establishing an understanding of gender development. And this is the thing I've found most fascinating in Rwanda, is that when talk about gender equity, they're not just talking about women and marginalizing men; they want men in the conversation too. So it's a very broad based approach, and I saw it trickling down. I mean I interviewed one young man who was a war orphan living on the outskirts of Kigali with sort of a tribe of war orphans; they had been forgotten there for a decade, and this local mayor came, she held a sort of town hall meeting in a house, you know, with no electricity, no floor, and she said I want to hear about your concerns. And she listened to everyone and the women and the men in that room listened to her and they treated her not as a woman, but as a leader.

And afterwards I started speaking with this young man who was sort of, you know, the eldest of the group and he is the one who actually has been able to go to school, which is quite hard for them. And he said, Yeah, I want to be an environmentalist. And I said, Where'd you get that idea from? And he said, Well, I was listening to the radio and I hear this woman, her name is Wangari Masai, talking about environmentalism as a way to reduce poverty and increase peace in these conflict-ridden societies. Of course Wangari Masai won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. I thought that was fascinating.

MARTIN: It is, it goes back to the age-old question, doesn't it? What difference does it make that people with different backgrounds serving in different roles? And does it, is it your identity that leads, informs the way you do the role, or does the role change you? I think it, we certainly have that debate in this country when we look at women moving into leadership in sort of non-traditional roles.

But Rachel Scheier, I wanted to ask you, from your vantage point in Uganda, do you think having, have you observed whether having women in leadership translates into social changes? Does it, or are these just sort of another group of elites that are in essence maintaining the same kind of structures and methods of decision-making as before?

Ms. SCHEIER: I think that the caller raises a good point, and you, the question was a good one. The question that a lot of people ask here, that I hear, is now that, it's wonderful that more women are being put into leadership positions and that people are recognizing that more women need to be NP's, need to be in high political offices, but its not enough to just have women at the top.

The real question is how much of it translates into real social change? Not only for women's issues but for, you know, all sorts of things, and how much of it is just window dressing for donors or whoever else is giving out the points here? And I think that is a good question. Here in Uganda, that's been an issue that a lot of people have raised to me.

You know, there's been a piece of legislation proposed here that's known as the Domestic Relations Bill. It's been on the table since '95. Women's groups have been pushing it. It deals with a whole spectrum of issues, from marital rape, which is still legal on the books here in Uganda, as in many African countries. It would make divorce easier for women. There's a double standard here. It's harder for a woman to get a divorce than for a man. It grants property rights to wives, excuse me. It would regulate polygamy. And these are all issues that are very sensitive here. And the former vice president, among others, has been, was a big proponent of this bill, but as of yet it's been, it's languished.

So I think that it is more, it is an issue of not just getting more women into positions but what they're able to do.

MARTIN: In some countries women inherit leadership positions, as in Pakistan. It's that, well, I mean, not, not allegedly, according to the books. But in some countries, you know, we've seen, like in Pakistan, with Benazir Bhutto, you know, her father had been in office and so it was almost, she didn't inherit it directly, but in essence she did. She inherited his mantle, his organization, and so forth. But it doesn't seem to have changed very much about how women in general are viewed in public life.

But many of these women that you have been writing about, that both of you have been writing about, got into power differently. And does that make a difference, how you achieve your position make a difference in whether people are wiling to grant you that authority? Alexandra?

Ms. POOLOS: Yeah, I definitely think it does. I mean this gets back to the class issue. One of the big things that's going on in Rwanda now and that I ostensibly went to Rwanda to report on wasn't so much on women in the national parliament, but how this is trickling down to the local level. And basically they had an initiative to go out and train women, many of whom were teachers, maybe they were leaders, youth leaders in a religious organization, and sort of single them out and cultivate them. They weren't made mayor in their first election, they were maybe made sub-sub-vice mayor.

And the idea was, we expect you to learn how to lead. We expect you to learn how to deal with a community. And so what these women told me is that they learned that they had to go out and listen to people, and listen to what they wanted. I mean, sure, their big agenda was primary education for girls, and they came up with a lot of interesting grass roots initiatives to do that, you know, from like offering special stoves to villagers so girls didn't have to go out and collect wood, to, you know, literally counting families to find out if girls were going to school. But they also took on men's issues. They said, hey, we've got a village without a road, this is affecting men too. We've got to build a road here.

MARTIN: That's great. That's very interesting.

Alexandra Poolos, former managing editor of Women's eNews. She edited their series, Africa's Rising Leaders, and reported from Rwanda. She joined us today from our New York bureau.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. POOLOS: Oh, thank you very much.

MARTIN: And also joining us today was Rachel Scheier. She's a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She joined us from Kampala. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us also.

Ms. SCHEIER: My pleasure.

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