WINDHOEK, Namibia -- "The clock is ticking in the area of gender mainstreaming," said the Honourable Nahas Angula, the Namibian Minister of Defence. "A people united for a common goal shall be victorious."
For the first time ever, seven African countries to include Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, Sierra Leon and Zambia, gathered on the continent to share ideas and best practices during the Regional Gender Mainstreaming Seminar.
U.S. Army Africa Deputy Commanding General Peter Corey said, "This seminar is directly related to global effort to educate, promote and support gender awareness." Speakers from the United Nations, African Union and academia from Woodrow Wilson Center Africa Program sparked insightful and thought-provoking discussion amidst all participants.
The Namibian Defence Force and USARAF, with financial support from U.S. Africa Command, planned this week-long event to address the gender streaming challenges and build upon previous integration efforts held previously in Botswana and Namibia. According to Sgt. Maj. Carolina Johnson, USARAF equal opportunity advisor, "many of the attendees are key leaders with decision-making authority."
One reoccurring theme throughout the week was that women should be involved in the gender mainstreaming decision-making processes. USARAF Personnel (G-1) Director Col. Sara V. Simmons said that while each country attending the seminar is different, they are common when dealing with gender issues.
"Senegal has used a multi-disciplinary approach or platform including males and females in the decision-making process," Simmons said. "Their holistic approach provides a comprehensive roadmap to achieve equality and equity and to remove discrimination."
While some countries have had a large percentages of women joining the defense sector in the last few decades, to include a 25 percent increase of defense jobs for females in Namibia, other countries are working to bridge the gap. Only one percent of the Botswana military forces are female, but they only began allowing women into their forces seven years ago.
"Our society is not ready for females in the military, but our applicants are," said Botswana Lt. Col. Jenasmiso Mountain. "We are very protective of our women and people do not want to send them to war." Currently all the women in the Botswana military have degrees and are able to fill any job that comes available.
When the Malawi military started to allow females in its ranks, 17-year-old Linda Chikondi snuck out of her family's home to join. Now 15 years later, Chikondi is a Warrant Officer 1, the highest ranking noncommissioned officer female in the Malawi military.
"In my country to get promoted is based on a test and you will often pass over people who are older than you, but they know that you deserve your rank and respect," Chikondi said.
Col. Linda Sheimo, U.S. Army Personnel (G1) Chief of Command Policy Division, gave a presentation that participants called "beautiful" and "inspiring." She highlighted the Soldier 2020 program that will open all military occupational specialties to females in the U.S. Army.
"I didn't have someone who looks like me to mentor me. They may have had a different skin color or a different gender, but I'm here because men believed I had the ability," Sheimo said.
Videos were shown by USARAF from previous Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention training. This opened a dialogue between participants on what steps their country's policies would dictate for them to do in response to reporting incidents. Additionally, information was given out by the Namibian legal assistance on domestic violence.
Maj. Kemou Sello, a member of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces, currently serving in Somalia, spoke on sexual exploitation and abuse.
"Our aim is to break the silence of SEA," Sellu said. The issue of gender equality is especially important to Sellu. "I have a vested interest in gender issues because I have four daughters."
Discussion was brought up that there was a need for gender mainstreaming education in primary schools. Director of the African Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center Dr. Monde Muyangwa said as a young girl in Zambia she dreamed of becoming a policeman, because she had only seen men in uniform.
"I also dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but that was before I found out we had no space program," Muyangwa said. "Everyone should work in an environment where you feel you can bring the best to the table." Muyangwa told the audience that African women have more power than they recognize and also mentioned that men play an important role as well.
Gender Expert from Namibia Michael Conteh noted that while men and women have different roles, they also have different needs. "Let's give life to policy commitments and end all the rhetoric and put action behind words."
Senegalese Deputy Chief of Staff Col. Birame Diop stressed to the audience that gender issue is not a woman or man issue, but a human issue. He credits partnering with AFRICOM and African Center for Strategic Studies for successes in his country.
"I have been working with the United States for more than 20 years and I have a strong belief that it is the partnership that has helped our military improve," Diop said. "I trust the U.S. because they are sincere in helping my country. We all have a lot to learn."
AFRICOM gender activities expert Heather Bush said for her, the African Union's partnership at the event is opening doors for the collaboration between the U.S. and Africa.
"I was impressed at the command presence and interest in this topic. Everyone is very serious about these real issues," said Bush.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by U.S. Army Africa Public Affairs on June 27.