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J'L.G. Liese: Gender Issues in Africa

Excerpts of address to UPF Assembly, New York, New York, September 2007

Français, Español

I think I was born in love with Africa. As a little girl, all I remember was dreaming about Africa. There’s something about the word Africa that brings feelings into my heart and into my soul. In fact, my son will be turning three next week, and he has already been to twelve African countries, many of them eight or nine times. Already he talks about Africa to everyone he meets along his way. 

Unfortunately, though, the West does not always have the same positive feeling about Africa and the continent of Africa as I do. When I speak with my colleagues in the United States or Europe, people look at the war and conflict. They see the corruption, HIV and AIDS, malaria, and famine, and ask me, is Africa going to survive? Is Africa going to make it? All you have to do is set foot on the continent once and meet one person, and you know that the continent is going to not only survive but thrive, because there is a passion and a strength in African people that is unsurpassed. There is a joy in living life every minute in communities in Africa that I never find anywhere else. You have to be there and feel it. 

One of my passions is around the gender issue. I work with women in a lot of different countries. This summer I spent a lot of time in Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. I believe that women in Africa especially represent that strength. The women are able to overcome things that you wonder how anyone could ever overcome. They succeed in spite of having to walk twelve miles a day for water, not having any rights to their sexual well-being, and not being able to inherit land. These are issues that women face every single day throughout the continent. 

This conference is about the idea of seeing peace in one another. I really believe it starts with men and women being able to see peace in each other. I cannot tell you how many schools I have been to where young girls want to be abstinent until marriage and be faithful to their husband when they marry. But they don’t have a choice when their teachers go to their parents and offer them money or blackmail them by saying, “If you want good grades, then you must give your daughter to me.” Girls in Africa do not have rights over their bodies or their sexuality, and therefore they are the number one risk for HIV and AIDS today. They are not the ones who are transmitting it; they are the ones who are receiving it, because they do not have those rights. 

I work in South Africa and other countries where rape is very prevalent. In Kenya, rape is becoming not only more prevalent but also brutally violent. There is anger in the violence against women today. I have been studying this violence and wonder why the anger is so palpable. I work with police, I work with rebels, and I work with child soldiers. In every country I have been in, if I bring a group of men together, there is anger about gender equity. They feel threatened by gender equity. 

We keep hearing about how peace is not just the absence of war. Well, gender equity is not the absence of men. We need men. We need men and women to work in partnership together. The Baha’i faith compares men and women to two wings of a bird, and a bird cannot fly with only one wing. The bird of humanity has a broken wing. Our wing is broken, and the only way to heal that wing is for men and women to come together in partnership. We have to value one another as resources and partners if we want to have healthy families and safe and loving children. If we want to have peace in the world, we need to start with seeing peace both with each other and in each other. We should not feel threatened. We are meant to be on this planet working together in partnership.