Botswanan Sakhile Reiling (left) became Air Botswana’s first female pilot
African women are world leaders when it comes to taking top jobs in the aviation industry
In December 2017, a Boeing 777 made African history when it flew five hours from Addis Ababa to Lagos, Nigeria with an all-female crew. Captain Amsale Gualu piloted the plane, with the help of women cabin crew, check-in attendants, flight dispatchers and ground staff. Captain Gualu told the world media on landing: “This flight shows us that if women get equal opportunities and work hard, I’m sure they can achieve whatever they want in all fields, including the aviation industry.”
Two years earlier, Air Zimbabwe flew an all-female domestic flight, making pilots Chipo Matimba and Elizabeth Petros the first female pilots to fly internally on Air Zimbabwe. The women took to social media: “History has been made! First all female flight deck crew on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737!”and “Two CAPTAINS!! #FLYBABES. #PaintingTheSkyPink!”.
These women-only flights were no accident; both airlines were making a point, pushing an agenda to encourage African women to think about the career possibilities available to them within the heavily male-dominated aviation industry. Women in aviation around the world make up at least 50% of personnel – mostly as cabin and ground crew. This figure dips dramatically as positions become more senior.
Figures recorded by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show that less than 5% of airline CEOs are women. The figure for female pilots falls to between 3-5% worldwide. Women are less represented in aviation than in any other industry. But, not in Africa. An IATA meeting in Sydney in June this year announced that African airlines, and the aviation industry on the African continent, are bucking this trend.
Air Namibia’s acting managing director, Mandi Samson, told the conference that her airline had four top management positions filled by women. “For once, Africa is leading in something,” she said.
Samson is correct. In South Africa, for example, women hold significant positions. Poppy Khoza leads the critically important SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) as its CEO, while Zuks Ramasia is general manager of operations at South African Airways (SAA). And it is now 20 years since Asnath Mahapa made history in 1988 by becoming South Africa’s first female African pilot.
But success has not come easily for the women at the top. For Mahapa, flight school came with challenges, and she remembers being “the only woman in my class and I had to work ten times harder than the men”. Since then, while the global average of women captaining aircraft stands at around 5%, the actual number of female pilots in South Africa is in the double digits. And the number of black female pilots is steadily growing across Africa, much more quickly than in the rest of the world.
The number of women in senior positions in the aviation industry in Africa has impressed the airline industry sufficiently to ensure that they are constantly called on to give motivational speeches or talk to aviation conferences.
Siza Mzimela is the recently appointed interim CEO of South African airline SA Express. She also has the distinction of being the first black woman in South Africa to start and own an airline, Fly Blue Crane. (The airline is no longer operating. It was suspended by IATA in September 2017 and bankruptcy proceedings are under way).
However, Mzimela’s list of accolades includes being the first black executive vice president of SAA as well as the first woman to make it onto the IATA board. Mzimela is not surprised that Africa ranks as having the largest number of women within the global aviation industry. But she points out that the numbers are coming off a ridiculously low base.
“There might be more women engaged in aviation on the African continent, including here in South Africa,” she told Africa in Fact, “but make no mistake; it’s the toughest environment for women and we have to work twice as hard as our male counterparts to prove ourselves. It is still challenging for women, and there is vast room for improvement. We need more women pilots and technicians and women in key organisational positions.”
Mzimela believes that the reason South African women in aviation have had more success than their global sisters is due to race rather than gender bias.
“When men have to promote someone, they choose one of their own,” she said. “Fortunately, and unfortunately, black men did not automatically come through as pilots. It was the preserve of white men for a long time and black men and black women were equally disadvantaged. We, therefore, are on a fairly equal footing regarding entry into the aviation field, and therefore we have a better chance of getting into the industry.”
Mzimela points out, however, that while 50% of South Africans are women, the number of CEOs and captains of industry does not reflect that split. “We need an aviation policy to correct the imbalances of the past. In this industry, there is a low turnover of pilots – nobody leaves until they retire. That has meant that transformation will take longer because it will take longer for pilots to work their way up the chain of seniority.”
Khoza notes that an “overdue dialogue” to improve the numbers of women in the African aviation industry has begun. “This assertion was corroborated by women from various corners of the world during discussions at the first-ever Global Aviation Gender Summit hosted by SACAA,” she told Africa in Fact.
“Close to 500 top-ranking represen- tatives of the aviation industry – including airlines, aircraft manufacturers and airports, as well as governments from across the world – gathered in Cape Town in August  to chart a new path that will bring about meaningful gender transformation and equality in aviation.”
“From our discussions,” Khoza said, “we heard that the challenges of a female aviator in Chile are the same as those faced by a female aviator in China. It was encouraging to note that everyone at the summit agreed that the status quo cannot continue unchallenged. In South Africa, in particular, we are witnessing some improvement, even though women still constitute less than 10% of aviation technical personnel.’’
More young women, Khoza insists, have to join the ranks of other pioneers who “trounced gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the aviation industry. We do have success stories and each one of them deserves recognition and acknowledgement.”
Refilwe Ledwaba is one of those success stories. She is a pilot, a flight instructor, and the first black woman in South Africa to fly helicopters. In 2009, she also started a non-profit organisation for young women in the SADC countries, Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry (SAWIA). “I wanted to ensure that the aviation industry provided a platform for women to grow, to find mentorship and guidance and to fund the opportunities for young women who wish to join the sector in the future.”
Ledwaba introduced the Girl Fly Programme in Africa, aimed specifically at high school girls. The non-profit organisation, endorsed by the SACAA, has an informal database of about 1,000 members from all over the Southern African Development Community (SADC). “I’m passionate about the development of women, which is why I saw the need for such an organisation,” Ledwaba told Africa in Fact.
It all started when, on a flight to Cape Town, she heard the woman piloting the plane, Captain Margaret Viljoen, say: “This is your captain speaking”. “Until then, I had not even considered that a woman could fly a plane!” she said.
Botswanan Sakhile Reiling, who became Air Botswana’s first female pilot back in 1988, now describes herself as “an aviation consultant (with Saxon Wings Aviation Consultants) as well as an aviation safety auditor currently involved with a number of significant clients around the world. I travel to where the work is.” Reiling’s career includes two years spent as CEO at Botswana Air and five years in senior management positions at Comair. She also spent time as the GM of Air Safety Operations at SACAA and spent five years in senior managerial posts at SA Express Airways.
“Africa has made significant progress in ensuring that women are not overlooked for aviation-related jobs,” she told Africa in Fact. “However, more still needs to be done to dismantle legacy practices that continue to hamper growth. For example, support is required at policy level to mandate current industry players to play greater roles in accepting women within their various organisations.”
Reiling agrees with other female aviation executives that young women must be exposed from an earlier age to the possibilities of an aviation career. “Many do not realise that they too could enter the aviation industry and contribute in an important way,” she said.
Zuks Ramasia, GM of operations at SAA, believes it is up to women to help women in aviation.
“In aviation, most opportunities for women in meaningful management echelons are still determined mainly by men since there are few women in senior roles to influence and motivate women in junior positions across the value chain,” she told Africa in Fact. She blames the high attrition rate on the promotion limitations placed on women with potential.
“We, the women in influential positions, need to mentor and coach women, challenge the status quo and not be deterred by the men in office who often pretend we do not exist.”
“As women in the industry we need to stand together to promote awareness, to develop, to nurture, to celebrate and to empower women in our industry, starting by shaping young minds at school.”
Khoza points out her success rate at helping achieve parity. “In the organisation that I lead, when I took over, the executive management committee was male dominated. Five years later, 50% of the executive is female and black. It starts at grassroots level.”
SACAA funds the training of young South Africans, especially female students from economically deprived households, who want to become aviators.
“Transformation is not a responsibility of government and regulators such as the SACAA only,” Khoza said, “but a collective responsibility of all, including the business sector. Transformation is a moral obligation and a human rights issue that should not be limited to race only but extended to gender and business opportunities.”
Stereotyping, she said, is the hardest challenge that women face in aviation, “coupled with unconscious bias”.
“The picture that people imagine of a pilot is not likely to be that of a Captain Boitumelo or Fatima in the cockpit. Our young girls cannot picture themselves following in the footsteps of women pioneers in the aviation sector primarily because aviation is still seen as a preserve for men.
“What then becomes important is the socialisation of young girls, to instill a belief that they can be anything they want to be. We need to move away from creating a mindset of categorising industries based based on gender.
Young girls can be aeronautical engineers, they can be air-traffic controllers, they can successfully pilot any aircraft of their choice. However, the limiting mindset, which we instill in them at a young age, only perpetuates the stereotypes, which we must demystify.”
In 2017, 26-year-old Second Lieutenant Thokozile Muwamba broke another glass ceiling when she became Zambia’s first female fighter pilot. She told the BBC her ambition was to become the first female Zambian air force commander. “Wow, to be in the air… it feels… it’s wonderful,” she told the broadcaster then. “You feel like you don’t want to come back onto the ground.”
Muwamba joined the military in 2012 and was chosen to be part of a Zambian airforce programme specifically designed to shift the gender bias towards men.
She told the Times of Zambia: “Women should begin to participate and realise their abilities. Because I understand this, I am ready to undertake this task ahead of me.”
And she is not the only woman who’s taken to the skies as part of her country’s airforce. Lieutenant Ouma Laouali, 31, became Niger’s first female pilot in 2015. As a member of the Nigerien airforce, she was trained by the United States to help in the fight against the terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
The women who are important in Africa’s aviation industry are clearly united in what they see as the way forward: expose young women to the world of flying and work tirelessly to reverse the stereotyping that has discouraged young women from taking flight, accompanied by policies to facilitate transformation.
The African story abounds with great women whose achievements are often reduced to prurient anecdotes
Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter. So, says the Igbo proverb, which became a rallying cry for a generation of post-colonial African historians. But what of the lionesses? Are their tales being told? But enough with animal adages. Neither lions nor lionesses write history, while people do. The key question is: do the current written histories of Africa adequately include the experiences of the continent’s women?
Depends where you look. And who you ask. Since the 1960s, the university-based study of African women’s history has become a dynamic, global field. Where once the economic, social and political contribution of African women was regarded as an historical terra nullius – with women either entirely absent or relegated to minor roles in textbooks and tomes – there is now an ever-increasing body of research that includes analysis on a wide variety of societies, over 50 countries and hundreds of thousands of years.
Academia is acknowledging that African women enter the historical narrative from a variety of geographies and climates and that they carry diverse status, education, culture, age and other attributes. Moreover, all of the above can change or stay the same or circle through a combination of both within the endless ebb and flow that is human life and lives over time.
Academic historians recognise that what they study is not the past per se but rather an interpretation of the past, which is subject to revision and reinterpretation whereby distinct interest groups apply different standards, priorities and values and reach different conclusions. There is general consensus that interest groups with more social, political and economic clout have the power to dominate the narrative.
There is now widespread acknowledgement that the gendered nature of modern power is such that male stories are disproportionately present and that women’s stories are often assigned less value. The growth of African women’s history as a discipline demonstrates that spaces can and have been created to examine and challenge such power dynamics.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that almost all such scholarship sits behind paywalls on university websites. Non-professional historians are largely excluded from this information and the debates that such study stimulates. Outside of ivory tower academe, what passes for historical “knowledge” in the general chitchat of daily life more often than not either ignores them entirely or depicts women in terms of their perceived impact on men.
Historical evidence of African women is as old as humanity. Sometimes older. Humans evolved in Africa and so it is Africa that provides the backdrop for the first minimising of prehistoric women in the paleoanthropological corpus. Until the early 1980s archaeologists overlaid modern Western gender norms and sexual divisions of labour onto pre-historic, sometimes pre-human hominid peoples. Man the Hunter was widely considered to be the key evolutionary driver of human brain development and subsequent tool-making innovation.
Frances Dahlberg’s 1983 monograph, Woman the Gatherer, set forth a strong case for an alternative evolutionary trajectory in which Woman the Tool Inventor played an equal part in the human story. Which is all well and good – but for the fact that, over three decades later, that message doesn’t appear to have gotten through to the masses. Museums are the point at which the public and professional historians ought to intersect, but Africa’s pre-historic women are all but invisible at such sites. Androcentric stereotypes abound. Almost invariably, graphic material explaining the hominisation process depicts individuals of the masculine sex making their way from australopithecine to homo – thereby rendering the earliest African women invisible.
As Myra and David Sadker argued in Failing at Fairness (1995), “each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” How much more so if she isn’t even in the diagram exploring the essence of our species?
Yet it is debatable as to whether exclusion is preferable to defamation. African women who achieved scientific, political or economic success have often been pulled into warped morality tales masquerading as history, which reduce a plethora of complex characters to wicked women who drew men into their beds and on into their death. The deeds of women in times past are subjected to such treatment worldwide but the practice seems particularly prevalent when it comes to telling tall tales about successful African women, who are almost invariably subjected to what amounts to a form of “ye olde” slut shaming. The accompanying character assassination is seldom supported by the sort of historical evidence-based scholarship found on the other side of the paywall.
Consider Cleopatra. Mary Hamer’s Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (2001) offers us vast quantities of contemporaneous written records demonstrating the diplomatic, naval, linguistic, cultural and philosophical skills of Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-10 BC), the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Her tenure alone speaks to such skills. She ruled for 21 years and at the height of her power controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the region. And yet she survives in the popular imagination through a distorted depiction of her romantic relationships. She built fleets, suppressed several insurrections, controlled a currency and guided a nation through plagues and famines but she is remembered as a bare-breasted seductress bathing in milk.
Linda Heywood and Louis Madureira’s 2015 article, Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo/Matamba: African Leadership, Diplomacy, and Ideology, 1620-1650 offers chapter and verse on their study subject’s skills as a military leader, strategist, diplomat and exponent of realpolitik par excellence. Research reveals the woman who defined and dominated what is now Angola in the 17th century to be a complex and contradictory character. At times, she profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while at other times she protected escaped slaves. For over 40 years, she successfully limited the Portuguese colony at Luanda to a few square kilometres. How is it that her achievements are less well known than gratuitous and unsubstantiated gossip about her immolating a harem of male lovers?
Publicising the achievements of African women from previous generations has the potential to impact on the development of self-respect for African girls and women going forward. There is inspiration in knowing about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Asante-born Nanny of the Windward Maroons (c.1686 – c.1755) who escaped from slavery in Jamaica, led a successful armed rebellion, freed more than 1,000 previously enslaved people and achieved a 1740 peace settlement with colonists, under the terms of which she negotiated a land grant of 500 acres at what became known as Nanny Town.
In the face of Boko Haram’s terror and intimidation tactics, which threaten girls’ access to education across West Africa, there is strength to be drawn from knowing that in 859CE an African woman, Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco. UNESCO describes it as the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree-awarding educational institution in the world. Female alumni include Fatima al Kabbaj, member of the Moroccan Supreme Council of Religious Knowledge.
At its most pernicious, observations of a past that never was are used to support patriarchal practices that exclude women from power in the present. During Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel he responded to a question about his wife’s political opinions with the comment that, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room” because he could “claim superior knowledge over her”.
Indeed, 2016 was a banner year for Nigerian patriarchal put-downs. In the same year, that country’s senate rejected a Gender and Equality Bill that included equal rights for women in marriages, divorce, property ownership and inheritance. Several senators stated that they opposed the law on the grounds that it was “un-African” and “anti-religious” to accord women equal rights with men.
Such statements invoke tradition, but the historical record shows otherwise. Kamene Okonjo’s studies of women’s political participation in Nigeria show that pre-colonial West African women were often much more economically, socially and politically independent and powerful than modern “traditionalists” would have us believe.
Their disempowerment came about by way of colonial Eurocentric, not indigenous African values. Chima J Korieh’s Gender and Peasant Resistance: Recasting the Myth of the Invisible Women in Colonial Eastern Nigeria, 1925-1945 (2003) offers evidence that while Nigerian women had historically participated in the government, the British colonial authorities saw these practices as “a manifestation of chaos and moral disorder” and would only engage with the political institutions headed by men.
Struggles over alternative views on the desirability of female political and economic power sparked significant anti-colonial revolts, including what modern historians tend to call the Women’s War of 1929 (Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo), which was described by colonial authorities as the Aba Women’s Riot.
A watered-down version of the Nigerian Gender Equity Bill was subsequently passed in 2017 but the claiming of tradition to support female subjugation illustrates how a patchwork of patriarchies can cross the hunter/lion duality. There are times when hunters and lions form alliances around their common predator paradigm and call on faux history in support of shared interests. As we recognise and rectify the exclusion and misrepresentation of female African lives from the study of history, let us take cognisance of life’s complexity.
Even if certain sorts of lions and lionesses now have/are historians, accounts of their times past are likely to be incomplete unless the experiences of the earthworms and the elephants and the E.coli are included. Not to mention the valuable perspectives provided by the trees and the reeds. And the wind and the rain. Ultimately, ours is an interdependent ecosystem.
Female activists and politicians in Kenya say misogyny and violence against women are an all-too familiar aspect of political campaign periods
“They threw raw eggs at me as they abused me, saying I am a woman and therefore not fit to be their leader. At a shopping centre, where I was holding my final campaigns before the voting in the 2017 elections, an elderly man stood up and angrily shouted at me: ‘So you want to be a member of parliament? Who will take care of your family? Your place is to bear children and cook for the family.’ Then he sat down amid cheering from the crowd.”
Janepher Wanyonyi, who ran for a parliamentary seat in western Kenya in 2017, is describing just one of the interactions she faced every day during her eight-month campaign; none of them attracted the condemnation of the authorities. In Wanyonyi’s view, the old man’s statement is typical of a view of women that is common in Kenyan society. Women should be seen and not heard, she says; they are not expected to lead. Their place is on the periphery – mainly in the kitchen and on the farm.
“Women are not only discriminated against, they are beaten by their husbands, while some are denied education,” says Wanyonyi, who has since started the process of registering a non-governmental organisation, Sauti Ya Mama (The Voice of Women) to help tackle violence against women.
The organisation aims to champion the rights of Kenyan women, particularly in remote areas where violence against them is prevalent. The plan is to train women to know their rights, and the organisation will also act as an SOS centre that offers women help, including counselling in cases of sexual violence, while also seeking to empower them economically. Sauti Ya Mama plans to have regional offices in all 47 of Kenya’s counties, making it easy for women to access its services.
Entrepreneur and politician Esther Passaris, who won the women’s representative seat for Nairobi county in 2017, says political campaign periods appear to offer men the opportunity to display overt misogyny. The 2013 general election in Kenya, in which she unsuccessfully contested for the same seat, provided her with first-hand knowledge of this. She was faced with physical attacks and attempts at sexual assault, as well as attacks against her on social media, which, Passaris says, women in politics constantly have to endure.
“There were thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts assigned to attack me,” she told Africa in Fact. “The accounts would carry feminine names so as to give the public the impression that it was a women-women affair. Despite the attacks, I did not give up. Neither did I respond to their abuse. You fight your enemy with love. That is how I won the seat last year.”
A December 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report observed that widespread sexual violence against women and girls was a feature of the 2017 elections and the post-election violence that followed. According to the report, the violence involved rape (including vaginal and anal rape), gang rape involving two or more perpetrators, mass rape, attempted rape, rape with an object, putting dirt into a woman’s private parts, unwanted sexual touching, forced nudity and beatings on genitals.
Many of the affected women, HRW said, reported that their rapists were policemen or members of Kenya’s security forces and militia groups. About half of the assaults, HRW said, involved gang rapes, with the majority of the victims contracting sexually transmitted diseases as well. “Many women and girls said they suffered incapacitating physical injury or experienced other health consequences that left some unable to work or care for their families,” according to the HRW report. “Most had not received post-rape medical or psychological care, including medication to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 35% of women globally have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Violence against women is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights, it argues. In Kenya, meanwhile, cases of physical violence such as wife battering have declined, but intimate partner violence and sexual violence are on the rise.
The causes of violence against women are many and complex, according to WHO. But its research shows that men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have low literacy levels, a history of maltreatment and neglect as children, were exposed to domestic violence against their mothers, are subject to alcoholism and exposed to gender norms that tolerate violence and a sense of entitlement over women.
“Dress nicely and just walk around the streets of Nairobi or any other major town – men will give you funny looks,” says Dr Joyce Laboso, the governor of Bomet county. “They will attack your modesty. Sometimes they will ask, not politely, for sex. To them, there should never be a ‘no’ from a woman.” Whereas domestic violence against women mainly involved physical beatings, more recently it had increasingly involved intimate and sexual violence, she says.
This is something that Suzie Kimeu, a mother of five in Nanyuki, central Kenya, experienced for herself in 2013. “(That day), I had just come from a farm, where I worked as a casual labourer, when my husband asked for food,” Kimeu told Africa in Fact. “I said I had not prepared anything because there had been no food at home. He slapped and kicked me while my children wailed, and then he ordered me to go the kitchen and prepare the food that I had brought from the farm.”
Later that evening, Kimeu says, her husband, who was drunk by then, asked for sex. “I told him I was tired, having been in the fields for more than eight hours, but he did not listen. He forced me to have sex. I remember bleeding a lot. He threatened to chase me from our matrimonial home and said that he would marry another woman if I did not sleep with him.” After a series of similar attacks, Kimeu says she divorced her husband three years ago and is now “happily single”.
Women governors, MPs and senators are now partnering with non-governmental organisations to deal with the increase in cases of intimate partner sexual violence, says Laboso. “From past experience, we know that sexual assault in a relationship does not occur in a vacuum,” she says. “It often occurs alongside other abusive behaviours. For instance, the majority of women who are physically assaulted by an intimate partner have also been sexually assaulted by that partner.”
One of the non-governmental organisations addressing sexual assault and other abuses against women in Kenya is the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), which was founded in 1995 to respond to “the silence of Kenyan society” regarding violence against women and girls. COVAW chair Carolyne Odula-Obonyo says the organisation supports research on gender-progressive policies and legal and institutional frameworks, as well as their implementation, besides providing input on critical social themes relating to gender.
“We generate and share new knowledge relating to the development and well-being of girls and women, as well as solutions to the problems they face,” says Odula-Obonyo, a gynaecologist and obstetrician by profession, who works at the University of Nairobi’s College of Health Sciences. She notes that the biggest challenge in the fight against men’s violence are deeply ingrained cultural practices, which forbid women from revealing what they go through (such as being beaten by their husbands) in public.
Kenya’s global scores on gender-related violence paint a gloomy picture. Some 43% of married women have experienced sexual violence, while 32% of young women aged between 18 and 24 have experienced sexual violence and an estimated 23% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Violence against women and girls, UN Women says, can be arrested by expanding women’s access to services that deal with their sexual and reproductive health needs – including post-rape care and counselling if needed – and facilitating their access to the justice system and safe-house networks.
The UN Women’s Safe Cities Initiative is an example of how this can be achieved. The project, which the global body conducts in partnership with other UN agencies, local and national governments and community groups, works to create safe public spaces for women and girls. It has been established in 21 cities across the globe so far, including Cairo, Cape Town, Kigali, Maputo, Marrakech and Rabat, and that number is growing. These include environments that are sexual harassment-free and safe public spaces.
But Odula-Obonyo says there is still much more to be done. As the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed in a speech to the Inter-Agency Video conference for a World Free of Violence against Women in New York on 8 March, 1999: “Violence against women … knows no boundaries of geography, culture, or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.”