Activist promotes rights at home and abroadSo-called women’s issues are society’s concerns, not restricted to the female sex, said Gertrude Mongella, president of the Pan African Parliament and an internationally renowned feminist.
In her keynote address at the opening ceremony Monday of the 9th International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women, being held in Seoul this week, Ms. Mongella said the conference provides an opportunity for “creating a developed, peaceful world where justice and equality are respected and practiced for both men and women of all ages and social backgrounds.”
Noting the achievements of the 4th United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, she said, “Beijing defined the critical areas of concern for women and mobilized a consensus for a commitment to action from governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and other organizations.”
More concrete results include raising the legal age for marriage in some countries, and increasing women’s political representation. The Pan African Parliament, for example, has a 50-50 ratio of male and female legislators. “We have been strategic rather than aggressive,” Ms. Mongella said about efforts to increase the number of women in legislative and governmental bodies in Africa.
Still, there are tasks set forth in the Millennium Development Goals that need to be tackled, she said, such as the “eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, improvement of child mortality, and promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women.”
Ms. Mongella, 50, a former teacher turned politician, is in Korea to attend the conference, and received an honorary doctorate in philosophy from Ewha Womans University. She has spent her entire life campaigning for women’s rights both at home and abroad, and was the secretary general of the fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing 10 years ago. She has founded several non-governmental organizations, such as the Advocacy for Women, in her home country of Tanzania.
Born in Ukewere, an island in the Tanzanian area of Lake Victoria in eastern Africa, Ms. Mongella grew up in a “very peaceful family,” and attended schools set up by missionaries. She became a social activist and feminist, she said, because “I felt privileged [in my upbringing] and I needed to share that privilege with others.”
She left home at age 12 to attend a boarding school run by Maryknoll nuns, and later graduated from University College of Dar es Salaam with a degree in education. In 1975, she became a member of the East African Legislative Assembly. Ms. Mongella, who is married with three sons, held several ministerial posts before being appointed High Commissioner to India in 1991. She also participated in United Nations conferences on gender, development and regional issues, and served as a special envoy of the UN Secretary General on Women’s Issues and Development throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Ms. Mongella’s husband, who accompanied her to Seoul, is the director of the National Archives in Tanzania, and she praised him for the enormous amount of support he has shown for her political career even though the patriarchal system is strong in African society. She warned that young women should be careful in choosing their spouses, saying, “If you get the wrong man, you will be put back in the kitchen.”
When asked if she had plans to run for president of Tanzania, Ms. Mongella laughed and replied, “We’ll see.”
by Choi Jie-ho