The cost of women’s leadership… in Niger

Some of the changes that I see in Niger are encouraging. In recent years, an increasing number of women, young and old, are making a valuable contribution to the construction of our country, in different fields in public sphere. However, everything is far from perfect as many challenges remain. Any honest discussion with some of these women brings to light fears and sacrifices they have had to endure in a society that prescribes often rigid gender roles.

No human being succeeds alone. There is a common adage that says, “Behind every great man there is a great woman – behind every great man there is a great woman”. A telling example is the Obama couple where Michelle put her full weight behind her husband’s ambitions, not without major sacrifices of her own. She knew she had to be the perfect woman for her husband to gain power in a society that still has deep misogynistic roots (Hillary Clinton knows something about it). This adage is especially true for women who aspire to leadership positions, especially in Africa. Behind every great woman is a great man or a man who could not handle it and missed out on growth. How many African men, or in this case Nigerien men, would be ready to support their partner in their professional development? How many will do it without “punishing” the woman in one way or another? How many would do it without forcing her to massage their ego, sitting on their own insecurities?

Many African women leaders suffer: more than any other, they find themselves in situations that require impossible choices and constraints they must assume … Those who ignore these constraints choose to live in “social isolation” by default. We must teach our brothers and sons that their greatness does not lie in the suppression of their partner’s dreams – quite the contrary. The lack of active support is also a suppression because no one succeeds alone. Models exist – known or hidden, historical or current. Here in Cambridge, a friend from another country had an exceptional scholarship to do her doctorate – her husband took a momentary leave to come and support her by keeping the children, still small. When I tell her story in Niger, people ask if her husband is normal or if he is white. It is joint sacrifices and compromises that make a balanced and fulfilling professional success for the individuals who make up this family. It is very common to see women who follow their husbands for study, for positions outside, etc. But a woman, in general, even tries not to “aspire” to many opportunities for fear of …. (complete with what you already know)

For those who would like to build a family one day while having personal aspirations that go beyond traditional roles, one of the most important choices is choosing one’s partner. Conference after conference, discussions after discussion, women who are older, who have managed to combine family life and exceptional career, or who admit to having failed in one or the other explain that the key lies in the type of support that we have (or do not have) at home. When work challenges you, when your drive to have a significant impact asks for your commitment as a young Black African woman, what do you find at home? A partner who relieves you in tasks and supports you or someone whose support does not go beyond rhetoric? A partner who will be happy to see you bury your dreams or someone who will not be afraid to make sacrifices for your dreams are as valid as his own? Certainly, there is never any guarantee, but it is one of the innumerable unknowns that the Nigerien woman who wants to see her professional dreams flourish juggles with. And for those who like mathematics (like me), we know that in a multivariate equation, interdependence is key.

I salute these Nigerien women leaders who, in their moment of calm, find themselves in the changes they have brought about despite the challenges; I salute these women who have challenged social norms that were thought to be irremovable; I salute these women who, in their fight, have taken a lot of blows and get up defeat after defeat; I salute these women who have been called all sorts of names, simply because they also wanted to build their community and their country in addition to the important work they do in their homes; I greet those women too, who felt obliged to bury their dreams. Leadership is also transmitting one’s dreams, in our struggle, our silences, and our sacrifices, to future generations.

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