& CORRESPONDENT -
Dr. Terza Lima-Neves, Ph. D., is a faculty
member of the department of political science at Sewanee: The
University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She is originally from
São Vicente, Cabo Verde. Dr. Lima-Neves received her undergraduate
degree from Providence College in Providence, RI. Her Masters and Ph.D. in
political science is from Clark Atlanta University. Her research interests
are Diaspora politics and development, and gender and development. Her
parents and younger sisters still live in Providence while she lives in
Tennessee with her husband Luis and son, Erivaldo.
Zezinha Chantre, Isaura Gomes, Paula Fortes, Titina Silá, Carmen Pereira. Many of us have never heard these names before. We often hear of the revolutionaries Amilcar Cabral, Aristides Pereira, and Pedro Pires. This is because when we discuss the movement for the independence of Cape Verde and Guiné-Bissau, we focus on the men, leaving out hundreds, if not thousands of women who were involved, one way or another, in the struggle for the independence of these nations. 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 nation, from armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism, to the inception of Cape Verde as a state and most currently, a nation on its way to development. Their contributions are often overlooked by scholars and the community.
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. This past November, 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 momentous achievement, Rwanda was widely known for the genocide that occurred more than a decade ago, violently claiming the lives of more than a 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 Cape Verde but also in South Africa, Uganda, Liberia, and Mozambique. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia is the continent’s first female president.
Like many other African nations, Cape Verde has a rich history filled with brave women who have served as role models to younger generations of women. From 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. Cape Verde, one of the smallest nations in the world, has one of the most progressive governments. 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 Gomes as the nation’s first female mayor. Commonly known as “Zau”, Gomes has also stated her intentions to run for the country’s highest office in 2011.
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. Cape 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 Cape Verde and sell in their boutiques or community market place. 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 programs, both men and women must work together to overcome these issues. Development cannot occur if both men and women are not empowered.
In the United States, many of the Cape 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 Cape Verde as the current ambassador to the United States. Prior to that, she was Cape Verde’s ambassador to the United Nations. An increased number of young women in the U.S. and in Cape Verde are completing four-year and advanced college degrees. 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 both in the U.S. and in Cape Verde.
What is wrong with Cape Verde? Plenty is wrong with Cape Verde. But today, I choose to focus on what is right. As the nation celebrates 34 years of independence, let us remember our female predecessors who dedicated their lives so that all Cape Verdean women could exist as free-thinking and independent citizens. Let us remember those who are still struggling so that all Cape Verdean women can flourish without discrimination. Let us reflect on Cape Verdean women who still live amidst poverty, fear and violence. Let us celebrate the Cape Verdean woman: mother, wife, teacher, nurse, doctor, politician, factory worker, police officer, business owner, student, and freedom fighter.