This article was originally published in June 2009, in celebration of Cabo Verde’s 34 years of independence. I am republishing it here with some revisions. Since then, we have lost two of our great revolutionaries, Paula Fortes (Cabo Verde) and Carmen Pereira (guine-Bissau). As you read this piece, I urge you to reflect on how far Cabo Verdean women have come since 2009 and how far we still have to go as a community, both in Cabo Verde and throughout our diaspora communities in securing gender equity.
Invisible No More
Zezinha Chantre, Lilical Boal, Isaura Gomes, Maria Ilidia, Dori Silveira, Elizabeth Reis, Ana Maria Cabral and Paula Fortes. Many of us have never heard these names before. In fact there are many more names. We often hear of the revolutionaries Amilcar Cabral, Aristides Pereira, and Pedro Pires. When we discuss the movement for the independence of Cabo Verde and Guiné-Bissau, we focus on the men, rendering invisible thousands of women who were actively involved in the successful revolutionary struggle to end Portuguese colonial occupation of these two states. The limited documented accounts on Cabo Verdean women in the independence struggle is in Portuguese, thus not reaching a wider, more global audience.
As a Cabralista, my intention is not to minimize the role of Cabral and others in the independence struggle. It is, however, to highlight the women who have actively participated in the development of their countries. The women I mention by name above were critical in the development of the Cabo Verdean state. Among other very critical roles, they were the founders of the Organization of Cabo Verdean women (OMCV) and responsible for the improvement of the status of women in Cabo Verde since the founding of the state.
African Stories The Media Does Not Want to Tell You
Much of the news produced by mainstream media outlets are sensationalized stories of Africa’s corrupt leaders and civil wars. We seldom hear about what is right with Africa. In 2008, while American citizens decided if they were ready for a female or African American president, Rwandan citizens had already taken a firm stand. On September 16, 2008, Rwandans elected 44 women to its parliament. A whopping 56.25 percent of the parliamentary seats were allotted to women, setting a world record. This had never happened on the African continent or the world. Prior to this achievement, Rwanda was widely known for the genocide that occurred more than two decades ago, violently claiming the lives of more than one million people. Although some of the world’s poorest nations are on the African continent, the level of female representation in governments is higher than in many wealthier countries such as the United States, Japan and France. We can find women in positions of leadership not only in Rwanda and Cabo Verde but also in other states such as South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Uganda, Liberia, and Mozambique. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia is the African continent’s first female president.
Like many other African nations, Cabo Verde has a rich history filled with brave women who have served as role models to younger generations. From the independence period to modern times, women in this small island nation have been involved in its development, as combatants in the independence struggle, nurses, teachers, small business owners, and high-ranking government officials. Cabo Verde, one of the smallest nations in the world, has one of the most progressive governments. As of 2009, women currently hold 8 cabinet positions in its government: Minister of State Reform and National Defense, Maria Cristina Fontes Lima; Minister of Finance, Cristina Duarte; Minister of Justice, Marisa Helena do Nascimento Morais; Minister of Economy, Growth and Competitiveness, Fatima Maria Carvalho Fialho; Minister of Labor, Professional Training, and Social Solidarity, Maria Madalena Brito Neves; Minister of Decentralization, Housing and Special Planning, Sara Maria Duarte Lopes; Minister of Education and Higher Education, Vera Valentina Lobo de Pina; and Minister of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and Parliamentary Affairs, Janira Isabel Hopffer Almada. At the local level, citizens of the island of São Vicente have twice elected Isaura “Zau” Gomes as the nation’s first female mayor.
In addition to political figures, there are women who work in business and non-profit sectors, supporting the nation’s development. Iolanda Semedo, for example, owns a full service salon in the capital city of Praia. Ms. Semedo offers professional training to many young women who would otherwise not find formal employment. This is her way of giving back to her community. Cabo Verdean women also support the country’s development through transnational activities, that is, across national borders. They travel abroad to buy goods to bring back to Cabo Verde and sell in their boutiques and community market places. Through their travels, they often form networks with immigrant women who help them sell cultural goods such as music CDs, foods and clothes, leading to the spread of Cape Verdean culture throughout the world. With all the positive examples, however, it would be wrong to ignore existing traditional norms that plague women’s lives such as domestic violence as well as sexual and emotional abuse. Through education and existing government policies, laws and local programs, both men and women must work together to overcome these challenges.
Women In The Diaspora
In the United States, many of the Cabo Verdean community organizations are led by women. Romana Ramos of the Cape Verdean American Community Development, CACD, has served as a role model in the community for over 2 decades. The younger generation of community leaders like Genie Lomba (CV UNITED) and Suely Neves (Cape Verdean Alumni Network) are a few of the many female leaders in our communities. Fatima Lima Veiga represents Cabo Verde as the current ambassador to the United States. Prior to that, she was Cabo Verde’s ambassador to the United Nations. An increased number of young women in the U.S. and in Cabo Verde are completing four-year and advanced college degrees as well as following their passion as entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, more young women need to follow this lead so that the cadre of educated and professional young women can continue to grow for the sake of developing our communities.
As the nation celebrates 34 years of independence, let us remember our female predecessors who dedicated their lives so that all Cabo Verdean women could exist as free-thinking and independent citizens. Let us remember those who are still struggling so that all Cabo Verdean women can flourish without discrimination based on the legacy of colonial era traditions, now permeated in the country’s current culture. Let us reflect on Cabo Verdean women who still live amidst poverty, fear and violence. Let us also celebrate the Cabo Verdean woman: community activist, mother, partner, teacher, nurse, doctor, politician, factory worker, police officer, business owner, student, freedom fighter, and most importantly human being.
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