An Open Mind and a Hard Back: Conversations with African Women Leaders

Belkis Giorgis

Senior Technical Advisor for Gender and Capacity Building

Elly Mugumya

LMG Liaison, IPPF

Hearing the perspectives of women leaders is an effective way of amplifying the collective voices of women to bring about change. Women often do not have a platform to tell their stories. These stories are personal and resonate with those of other women who aspire to leadership positions. The Leadership, Management & Governance (LMG) Projects has captured some of these stories in our newest publication, "An Open Mind and a Hard Back: Conversations with African Women Leaders." 

This publication seeks to provide insights on ways women lead and govern in their respective communities and countries, and the qualities and characteristics they have as leaders. It is a summary of interviews conducted with over a dozen women leaders working across the fields of government, health, law, and social reform from Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Uganda, and Zambia. The interviews took place from January to March 2013. An Open Mind and a Hard Back is a joint publication by Management Sciences for Health and International Planned Parenthood Federation as part of a series of publications and toolkits on leadership, management and governance within the health sector system.

To accelerate the process of bringing about gender equality and good governance in the health sector, it is important to understand the leadership role women play. While there has been increased attention focusing on the impact of women’s leadership, more is needed to prove that investing in women leaders is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

We hope that this publication encourages us to continue to invite women leaders to voice their perspectives to acknowledge and celebrate their contributions. As role models to younger generations, it is important to document the experiences of these women leaders to inform, educate, and inspire a critical mass of new leaders who can influence the agenda for peace, development, and prosperity in sub-Saharan Africa.

An Open Mind and a Hard Back explores key themes including: what makes a woman leader, what are the opportunities and barriers to women’s leadership, what are some of the factors that contribute to inspiring leadership qualities, and what is the impact of women’s leadership in development within a variety of fields.  Based on a composite of interviewee’s experiences, this publication offers the following approaches to create a framework for promoting women into leadership positions:

  1. Strengthening Collaboration between Men and Women to Promote Gender Equality: As more women ascend leadership roles and demonstrate their capacity to lead, unfavorable views of women in decision-making roles often decrease. Having men and women collaborate across all realms of decision-making can help ensure the emergence of governance structures that are more inclusive, democratic, transparent, and responsive to the needs of communities.
  2. Providing a Forum for Increased Involvement in the Global Movement for Change: The post-MDG agenda provides a mechanism to involve women leaders to define and own new goals which are linked to empowering women and girls in their countries. Including women leaders from sub-Saharan Arica in these efforts will allow them to hold meaningful positions and create powerful alliances with global movements.  
  3. Investing in Early Support for Young Girl Leaders: Efforts which seek to achieve parity in school enrollment must be accompanied by programs that cultivate leadership skills in young girls to encourage them into decision-making roles.
  4. Acting as Role Models and Mentors Really Matters: Mentoring was seen by the interviewees as a way to capitalize on the gains made by current women leaders. Mentors can serve as positive role models for young women in Sub-Saharan Africa, and help develop the capacity of the next generation of women leaders.

See firsthand what these women have to say: "An Open Mind and a Hard Back: Conversations with African Women Leaders." 

The Leadership, Management & Governance (LMG) Project would like to sincerely thank the women interviewed for this publication. We are grateful for the time they spent sharing their stories with us and continue to be inspired by the impact of their leadership.

Photo credits: Warren Zelman, Todd Shapera