Feminist socialist, Micheline Ravololonarisoa is an expert activist and professional . Born and bred in Madagascar she left since 1974 after the student revolt of 1972. Move to different countries but essentially established herself with her family in Nairobi ,Kenya and then in the UK since 1991.Has thirty years career in international development with specific emphasis on gender equality and women’s rights within international NGO and with the United Nations, where she retired in 2010 as the Head of the Africa division at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM, now UNWOMEN). Is now an independent expert consultant working mainly in Africa and Asia .
- Tell us about yourself and what inspires you. How did you find your way to being such a passionate women’s rights and gender equality expert and advocate?
My active engagement on women’s rights and gender equality spans more than 4 decades. It started in my family when I defied my father‘s rule , asking me to be as quiet as possible, especially when there were visitors in our home, but allowing my brothers to be part of the conversations and discussions !
As a student leader at the University of Madagascar in the 70’s, I was actively involved in politics and the struggle against French neo colonial policies through the reform of the education system in Madagascar. Having been elected General Secretary of the Federation of Students associations (FAEM-Federation des Associations des Etudiants de Madagascar), I soon discovered that all were not equal even in this public and supposedly progressive place. Even though the position of General Secretary was suppose to be a decision making position in the hierarchy of the movement,!! In fact majority of the men leadership would prefer that women be “their secretary” typing documents, reproducing them and distributing them and more than often to be “their accredited “ girl friends! Most of us women were either from the social science or law faculties, (I was the rep from the Faculte des lettres et des sciences humaines),whereas men were from the economics, medical, sciences faculties. “Hard discussions “on political issues were taken place between the male gender in the Federation and women were expected to listen and their views sought once in a while. The situation was untenable. We, the four women members of the federation bureau, who were voted to the leadership of the Federation (out of around 15 men) decided that we had to make our voices heard and that we were not just going to accept to be part of the furniture. So we did. First by telling the men comrades that their practices did not show anything of a progressive mind! Then step by step by taking up responsibilities that was not expected of us, such as the task of mobilising teachers, church leaders, civil servants, trade unions, to denounce the flaws in the education system in our country.
In doing so we were subjected to a trail of mockeries, humiliation, vilification. Apparently we were not “women” we were“ hens pretending to crow but just making squeaking noises!( literal translation of a Malagasy saying) . This experience of unjust and unfair situation was the beginning of my revolt against patriarchy and its attributes.
Later on, doing political work and mobilisation around Madagascar, I found the same alienation, subjugation and exclusion of ordinary women among peasant organisations, trade unions, and government institutions. I soon discovered that anger and revolt were not enough. For although they gave you the impulse to denounce what was wrong, they did not lead to change, and in fact could be destructive. That is when the thirst for well researched and well crafted arguments emerged. Visiting a number of African countries, in the course of my first job as programme officer of the World Student Christian federation (WSCF), I realised how similar the condition, position and status of women in Africa were. My membership to a number of women’s organisation back home and on the African continent , brought me to the conclusion that the only viable ways for us to change our condition was to understand what the origin of our condition and to get organised to define our own vision, aspiration, objectives for ourselves, for our family and our country and ultimately for our continent. Through this journey what amazed me most are the resilience, determination and complicity of women.
So a combination of anger, revolt, passion, compassion, vision and a sense of direction led to my commitments to fight for women rights and feeds my passion to advocate for gender equality.
Issues of gender equality and women empowerment and rights must be seen as legitimate outcomes of scientific processes that are based on facts and not just emotional factors. Demands for these equality and rights are not just technical in nature they are eminently political backed by rigorous scientific arguments which confers them a universal character.
ii.Research reveals that whilst all African constitutions grant women the same civil and political rights to men, electoral systems and institutions lack effective means to guarantee women candidates’ equal access to political representation. What mechanisms you believe to be instrumental in strengthening women's constitutional rights to political representation at all levels (national/local)?
The issue of women representation is fraught with a number of challenges. At the institutional level, it is not enough to have just the Constitutional framework although we should ensure it is there. The Constitution must be a live document whose implementation is seen through the way citizens everyday lives are being enhanced and protected. What is the point of having a Constitution clause that guarantees rights of men and women alike and still have high incidence of violence against women and if there are less than 10% of women in decision making spaces ?
It has been said that there has been an increase in the proportion of women in national assembly’s over the past decades or so, however this rate of increase cannot be sustained unless countries continues establishing quotas or other temporary positive actions measures, such as a reform of the electoral list for example. Political parties have to play a determinant role in changing attitudes towards women’s leadership and ensuring proportional representation, which will allow more women to compete, rather than simple majority. Constitutional and electoral law quotas are the strongest means of increasing women’s engagement in political competition. Political parties conscious decision to change the way the electoral lists are build is an other mechanisms. Otherwise elections are just a farcical exercise.
iii.How was your experience as the Chief of the Africa section of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and how has your experience been advocating for women’s rights in Africa? How successful do you think your endeavours been?
My experience in the position of “Chief” of the Africa section has been extremely challenging but also eye opening on the reality of power, its use and misuse. First one has to realise that the UN is a huge bureaucratic outfit with several layers of “powers” residing in the various agencies, departments, units , committees etc... I had to oversee, coordinate and provide leadership on policies and programmes to four sub regions in Africa. I had to listen and be informed about what the African women movement was saying and struggling for, what African governments were doing about what was being said, what the Institutions responses were, especially the UN, to address what was being said and done. Very often some of the most determining voices who wanted to effect changes were not heard or listened to and there was not always political convergence between the agenda of those various actors and their competing interests. Financial consideration did take very often the upper hand . So he/she who pays the piper called the tune.
Talking to states representatives in the UN and advocating for women rights has not been an easy tasks, It was a struggle. Behind the rhetoric was stagnation, or fear to move beyond the given. “Women issues” and the woman question are not part of “hard” politics of States. So on some issues it was possible to convince states representatives to vote for this or that ideas at the General Assembly, to take the leadership on certain issue pertaining to women rights , on others it was an uphill battle and it took a lot of emotional, intellectual and physical energies to manage the “ politics of development” especially given the eurocentric vision, perception and narratives on Africa . The success in doing so can only be measured in the changes that have occurred and not my own personal achievements. For I understood my role to have been one of a catalyst for those changes .
iv.In your expert opinion, what has been the biggest change in favour of gender equality across the continent?
Given the past and present historical narrative about Africa, and the place for women in this narrative, such as the restriction and reduction of their agency to a pre-defined “role in development”, I am of the view that the biggest change in favour of gender equality across the continent is the breaking of personal and institutional barriers by the African women movement and the appropriation of the issue of gender equality and women rights by African institutions.
It is in Africa that the feminist stand claiming the “ personal is political” takes it full meaning especially in making violence against women a political issue to be tackle by institutions in Africa and worldwide.
In the same way as it was the African region who brought the issue of the girl child during the Beijing conference, it was the relentless efforts of the African women movement, their “dare to fight and dare to win” attitude that put issues of women rights on the political agenda.
This being said still a lot need to be done to have the change we need and want and we should not be too complacent but galvanise our efforts to reach higher heights.
v.You are/were a member of a number of several African women's networks (such as Akina Mama Wa Afrika etc), what do you think is different working from the policy-level versus in civil-society organizations?
There are of course a lot of differences working within civil society organizations and within state institutions. Both work on policy issues but outcomes and results of policy implementation are different. The work ethics, work processes, organizations culture and objectives are different. Women's civil society organizations and non-governmental organisations play a critical role in realizing change and commitments on different issues, from micro-credit to women in trade, to peace and security. They implement the words and resolutions, they struggle to make decision-making inclusive, they document, they respond, they organise and make a difference in women lives. Civil society organisations based on their lived experience and situation, propose and shape policies and make recommendations for their adoption by States. They play the role of advocates and influencer.
Margin of manoeuvres for policy at the level of institutions is more restricted as decisions must reflect the consent of States and be implemented by States. Outcome of this consent can however provide a global framework that can be used by all.
vi.What role do you think the African female diaspora should play in advocating for the advancement of women’s rights across the continent? How important is this, to you?
African women in the diaspora have a determinant role to play for the advancement of women’s rights across the continent and this is a mission which should be important for all African women in the diaspora. Not only because they have the right to do so but also because they are an important constituency for the continent both at economic and political levels and they have the leverage to influence policies in the countries where they immigrate.
There are two aspects of this work. One is to work for the advancement of African women rights in their country of immigration, given the many hurdles and challenges African women are confronted with in the diaspora at social, economic and political levels. The second one is to be the relay for the African women movement and bring their concerns and issues in the policy and decision making arena in the diaspora.
This is extremely important as the coordinated voice and influence of African women in the diaspora can be brought to bear on Africa’s development given the multiple and diverse talents African women in the diaspora have.
vii.In October 2010, the AU launched the African Women's Decade,do you think this decade represents for women in Africa? What is your take on the Decade ?
It is important to have benchmark that enable us to measure progress and to see setback within a given set of time. During this decade we had a number of frameworks the progress of which we had to measure, the Beijing Platform for Action, the CCPD, the MDGs to name a few. The danger is to have too many measurements and lose sight of what the real issues are and what needs to be done based on the measurements results.
What is important is for Government to be able to use these results and frame their policies to attend to the most pressing issues. Figures and indicators only have a meaning if they are actually used to develop policies and processes that goes towards improving the record. This does not happen on its own by Government reading the figures, but by the organisations at grassroots , medium and institutional levels taking concrete actions to guide the implementation of policies to effect real changes in ordinary women’s lives. So ordinary women should be given the possibilities to express their views on what should be the indicators of achievement of well being in all sectors, use the reports to make the Government accountable and answerable to women. It cannot be a simple technical exercise measurement. It should be a political exercise in ensuring Government accountability to women’s rights. And be a continuous process where Observatory made up of women organisations and Government as well as international institutions are equipped to monitor, look at the most pressing issues , alert the government and guide the development of policies to address the issues. In that sense we cannot leave it solely in the hands of the African union. A process must be devised for all countries and all associations in a country to own the Decade.
viii. As the world moves into the Post-2015 development agenda the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have expanded a lot from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). How attainable do you think the SDGs are? What is the best way to approach integrating them into national contexts?
As a globally agreed agenda to be applied in developing and developed countries alike, the SDGs are likely to become the major point of reference for development actors at all levels and will have a significant impact on the women rights agenda for many years to come especially as there is a standalone goals for gender equality and women rights. While the MDG were adopted with a top down approach, the SDG at least have the merit of having been the result of a process that aimed to be participatory. Governments, bilateral donors, multilateral institutions, civil society organizations and corporate actors are all likely to align their policies and programs with this new framework in the post-2015 world.
17 goals and 169 targets will certainly not be easy to reach unless there are coordinated processes and mechanisms to ensure their implementation and the full accountability of States for their implementation . Countries might not be in a position to reach all the targets but will choose those that are most relevant to their context. Each country will then be able to integrate the targets into their own development targets and not as a separate exercise different from it.
The minimum which has to be attained by all countries for each targets should however be defined.
The approach would be to empower countries to reach the targets. It could be the setting up at country level of a monitoring body that will be tasked with
Consolidating existing data for the country in relation to each targets.
Identifying and highlighting the areas where the country has to put emphasis in order to reach the minimum achievable for each targets.
Developing the process , programme and policies for achieving the targets based on those existing data.
Developing policy options to facilitate reaching the targets within a defined time span.
Looking at the financing mechanisms to achieve targets and the source of financing ( look into the FFD 3 outcomes even if it is not as satisfactory as it should be )
Setting up a participatory process for the establishment of a monitoring body nationally whose main task will be to look at the challenges faced by all implementing actors in reaching the targets and develop the tools to support them meet those challenges. Monitoring will however have to be decentralised and the role of the national monitoring body will be coordinate the work of those decentralised entities.
The monitoring body will also be looking at accountability mechanisms to ensure compliance and to guide in case of non-compliance.
ix.What do you think are the most pressing issues for women in Africa? And what are the primary actions to take in response to those issues?
The most pressing issues in my views are to step up our fight to combat all forms of violence against women and girls. Here we need to look at the definition of violence beyond physical, psychological and emotional violence to cover violence caused by policies that have a disastrous impact on women and deprive them of their rights to live in dignity such as the present neo liberal economic policies most African countries are implementing.
As long as incidence of violence still prevail we cannot talk about the full realisation of women rights.
The issues of democratic representation and participation in political and economic governance will be the second most pressing issue. Because that is where we can make a difference to shape national, regional and global politics and ensure that women rights are given full consideration .
The primary actions to take to address those issues is to support the mobilisation of women to understand those neo liberal policies, how they are connected to their present conditions, and to support women organisations working to combat those policies.
- x.What does Feminism mean to you? Do you have your own brand? If so, what are the three most important features?
Feminism is both an ideology, an analytical framework and a strategic framework. It is also a guide to our being and our everyday practice and how we relate to each other as feminists. Sisterhood is a word whose meaning include all these.
The principles of equality, justice are central to feminism. To be a feminist is therefore to work towards the transformation of power relations especially gender power relations which are at the heart of all social change processes and are sine qua non conditions for a truly just society. In that sense feminism is an ideology that will lead to a fair, equal and just society which is advocated by socialism. There is no straight line or ready made models or solution to reach this ideal we need to build this society through our everyday struggles and dare to fight, dare to win.
 UNWOMEN –PROGRESS OFTHE WORLD WOMEN -2008/2009