At the start of 2019, Bill and Melinda Gates released a list of facts that had surprised them the previous year. Number four on their list: “Data can be sexist.”
“There are huge gaps in the global data about women and girls,” they explained.
My interest was piqued – not only as a demographer, but as a woman and mother of girls.
I research women in global Christianity and am frequently asked what percentage of the religion is female. The short answer is 52%. But the long answer is more complicated – women make up a much more substantial part of Christianity than that number makes it seem.
The goal of my research is to put the spotlight on Christian women’s contributions to church and society and fill in gaps in our data. Headlines about religion may be focused on the words and actions of Western male leaders, but the reality of the worldwide church is quite different. More and more Christians live outside Europe and North America, especially in Africa – and women are central to that story.
What researchers don’t have is comprehensive data on women’s activities in churches, their influence, their leadership or their service. Nor are there comprehensive analyses of Christians’ attitudes around the world about women’s and men’s roles in churches.
“Women, according to an old saying in the Black church, are the backbone of the church,” notes religion and gender scholar Ann Braude. “The double meaning of this saying is that while the churches would collapse without women, their place is in the background,” behind male leaders.
But there’s not much actual data, and without good data, it’s harder to make good decisions.
Christianity continues its demographic shift to the global south. In 1900, 18% of the world’s Christians lived in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania, according to my research. Today that figure is 67%, and by 2050, it is projected to be 77%. Africa is home to 27% of the world’s Christians, the largest share in the world, and by 2050, that figure will likely be 39%. For comparison, the United States and Canada were home to just 11% of all Christians in the world in 2020 and will likely drop to 8% by 2050. Furthermore, the median age of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is just 19.
One of the most common refrains about the church in Africa is that it is majority female. “The church in Africa has a feminine face and owes much of its tremendous growth to the agency of women,” writes Kenyan theologian Philomena Mwaura.
Or as a Nigerian Anglican bishop recently told me, “If anyone tells you a church in Nigeria is majority male, he’s lying.”
It’s clear that women have been a crucial part of Christianity’s seismic shift south. For example, consider Catholic sisters, who outnumber priests and religious brothers in Africa – and on every continent, in fact. Mothers’ Union, an Anglican nonprofit that aims to support marriages and families, has 30 branches in Africa, including at least 60,000 members in Nigeria alone. In Congo, women have advocated for peacebuilding, including through groups like the National Federation of Protestant Women. Next door, in the Republic of the Congo, Catholic sisters were at the forefront of providing shelter, education and aid in postwar recovery efforts.
Yet here, too, more precise data about African women’s contributions and religious identities is lacking. And beyond quantitative data, African women’s narratives have often been ignored, to the detriment of public understanding. As African theologians Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Rachel Angogo Kanyoro have stated, “African women theologians have come to realize that as long as men and foreign researchers remain the authorities on culture, rituals, and religion, African women will continue to be spoken of as if they were dead.”
Far from dead, African women live at the center of the story – and will continue to do so as healers, evangelists, mothers and the heartbeat of their churches.
FILE – In this Monday, June 29, 2020 file photo, clockwise from top left, Simone Ngalula, Monique Bitu Bingi, Lea Tavares Mujinga, Noelle Verbeeken and Marie-Jose Loshi pose for a group photo during an interview with The Associated Press in Brussels. Five biracial women born in Congo when the country was under Belgian rule who were taken away from their Black mothers and separated from their African roots are suing the Belgian state for crimes against humanity. The case is being examined on hursday, Oct. 14, 2021 by a Brussels court. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)
‘BRUSSELS (AP) — A court in Brussels has started considering a crimes against humanity lawsuit brought by five biracial women who were born in Congo and taken away from their Black mothers when they were little and the country was under Belgian colonial rule.
Lea Tavares Mujinga, Monique Bintu Bingi, Noelle Verbeken, Simone Ngalula and Marie-Jose Loshi are suing the Belgian state in hopes it will recognize its responsibility for the suffering of thousands of mixed-race children. Known as “metis,” the children were snatched away from families and placed in religious institutions and homes by Belgian authorities that ruled Congo from 1908 to 1960.
“My clients were abducted, abused, ignored, expelled from the world,” lawyer Michele Hirsch said Thursday as a court in the Belgian capital examined the civil case. “They are living proof of an unconfessed state crime, and soon there will be no one left to testify.”
The five women have requested compensation of 50,000 euros ($55,000) each.. The court is expected to deliver a verdict within six weeks.
The five women, all born between 1945 and 1950, filed their lawsuit last year amid growing demands for Belgium to reassess its colonial past.
In the wake of protests against racial inequality in the United States, several statues of former King Leopold II, who is blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans during Belgium’s colonial rule, have been vandalized in Belgium, and some have been removed.
In 2019, the Belgian government apologized for the state’s role in taking thousands of babies from their African mothers. And for the first time in the country’s history, a reigning king expressed regret last year for the violence carried out by the former colonial power.
Hirsch said Belgium’s actions are inadequate to what her clients experienced.
“The Belgian state did not have the courage to go all the way, to name the crime, because its responsibility incurred damages,” the lawyer said.. “Apologies for history, yes, but reparations to the victims, no.”
Lawyers say the five plaintiffs were all between the ages of 2 and 4 when they were taken away at the request of the Belgian colonial administration, in cooperation with local Catholic Church authorities.
FILE – In this Monday, June 29, 2020 file photo, from left, Marie-Jose Loshi, Monique Bitu Bingi, Lea Tavares Mujinga, Simone Ngalula and Noelle Verbeeken speak with each other as they as they look over papers during an interview with The Associated Press in Brussels. Five biracial women born in Congo when the country was under Belgian rule who were taken away from their Black mothers and separated from their African roots are suing the Belgian state for crimes against humanity. The case is being examined on hursday, Oct. 14, 2021 by a Brussels court. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)
According to legal documents, in all five cases the fathers did not exercise parental authority, and the Belgian administration threatened the girls’ Congolese families with reprisals if they refused to let them go.
The children were placed at a religious mission in Katende, in the province of Kasai, with the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul. There, they lived with some 20 other mixed-race girls and Indigenous orphans in very hard conditions.
According to the lawyers, the Belgian state’s strategy was aimed at preventing interracial unions and isolating métis children, known as the “children of shame,” to make sure they would not claim a link with Belgium later in their lives.
Legal documents claim the children were abandoned by both the state and the church after Congo gained independence, and that some of them were sexually molested by militia fighters.
“If they are fighting for this crime to be recognized, it is for their children, their grandchildren. Because the trauma is transmitted from generation to generation,” Hirsch said Thursday. “We ask you to name the crime and to condemn the Belgian state.”
People attend a political rally for Aziz Akhannouch, Moroccan businessman and head of the RNI party, in Rabat, Morocco, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, days before the upcoming legislative and regional elections. Millions of Moroccans head to the polls on Sept. 8 to cast ballots in pivotal legislative and regional elections amid strict safety guidelines as the north African country is grappling with a new wave of COVID-19, driven mainly by the Delta variant. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy)
RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Moroccans voted Wednesday for a new parliament and local leaders in elections that have been reshaped by the pandemic, and whose outcome is hard to predict as opinion polls were not allowed.
Candidates promised to create jobs and boost Morocco’s economy, education and health care. The kingdom has been hit hard by the pandemic, but has Africa’s highest vaccination rate so far.
Despite a dip in popularity in recent years, the governing Islamist party is eyeing a third term at the helm of the government if it again wins the most parliament seats. But a recent election reform could limits its powers, and the role of lawmakers is limited by the powers of King Mohamed VI, who oversees strategic decision-making.
“I hope that the people we voted for do not disappoint us,” said voter Adel Khanoussi, casting his ballot in the capital Rabat. “There are so many projects that should be implemented. The people’s expectations are high.”
Turnout was 36% three hours before polls closed.
The outcome of Wednesday’s voting is difficult to predict since opinion polls on elections are banned. The race will likely be close and no matter which party comes first, it will likely need to cobble together a coalition with other parties to form the government.
At a school turned polling station in Temara, near the capital, dozens of people stopped in to vote before going to work. Two security officers were stationed outside, and a poll worker took voters’ temperatures before letting them in.
Once inside, voters are asked to provide their identity cards and hand over their phones before entering the booth. They’re required to use hand sanitizer, wear a mask and keep 1-meter (3-foot) distances.
A 36-year-old woman who only gave her name as Fatima said she hopes the parliament can bring a “new Morocco” seen as an advanced world country.
While Morocco has one of the region’s strongest economies and a thriving business district in Casablanca, poverty and unemployment are also widespread, especially in rural regions. Morocco has seen thousands of despairing youth make risky, often deadly, trips in small boats to Spain’s Canary Islands or to the Spanish mainland via the Strait of Gibraltar.
Strict pandemic guidelines restricted candidates’ ability to reach the 18 million eligible voters. Candidates weren’t allowed to distribute leaflets and had to limit campaign gatherings to a maximum of 25 people. As a result, many stepped up efforts on social media instead.
Morocco has registered more than 13,000 COVID-19-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to figures from the Moroccan Health Ministry.
There were 31 parties and coalitions competing for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament. Voters will also be selecting representatives for 678 seats in regional councils.
The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), at the helm of the government since 2011, is seeking a third term. With Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani, the party has campaigned on raising the competitiveness of Morocco’s economy.
El Othmani acknowledged that turnout is a “challenge” in a country where many are disillusioned with politics, but said he was encouraged at his voting station to see “good participation of voters of both sexes.”
Other major contenders are the center-left Party of Authenticity and Modernity, or PAM, the Istiqlal party and the liberal National Rally of Independents.
Istiqlal general secretary Nizar Baraka said the new parliament should “work for the people to get them out of poverty and stop the deterioration of the middle class.”
The elections were monitored by 4,600 local observers and 100 more from abroad.
FILE – In this April 13, 2021, file photo, Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover smiles during a press conference in Nashville. Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday, MAY 26, 2021, that it will begin offering an online app design and coding class in two African countries this fall. (George Walker/The Tennessean via AP, FILE)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday that it will begin offering an online app design and coding class in two African countries this fall.
Robbie Melton, who runs TSU’s coding program, said the idea is to get African students interested in STEM careers and increase the number of Black students entering those fields. App design and coding is an easy introduction.
The courses are offered through a partnership between the historically Black university and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which operates several schools in Africa. The participating schools are the African Methodist Episcopal University and its feeder high school, Monrovia College, both in Monrovia, Liberia, and Wilberforce Community College, which serves high school and college students in Evaton, a township in South Africa.
TSU already offers the app coding program to more than 30 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States, and more than 2,000 students have participated since it started in 2019, Melton said. Around 20% have gone on to pursue STEM degrees, she said.
In addition to teaching students, TSU faculty members train participating school faculty to be able to give the courses themselves. The same will be true for the African schools, which have signed up 500 students to take the course over the next three years. That includes both college students and high school students who will take advantage of dual-enrollment.
If some of the students decide to continue their studies with TSU, the school is now able to offer degrees remotely through virtual classes, TSU President Glenda Glover said.
“Our global mission is to empower underserved populations,” Glover said. “Access to education is challenging in parts of Africa. We’re meeting that challenge and breaking those barriers.”
We are at a unique moment in history. Two particular, ongoing events stand out. COVID-19 is one. The other is a long-overdue recognition of inequities among people in the US and worldwide, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement. These issues provide a useful, timely lens through which to consider the role and value of African research.
There are many levels on which the future of the world, not just Africa’s, rests on African research. First, Africa represents the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. This makes intellectual investment an imperative, to harness talent that is a significant and growing share of the global population.
Second, Africans represent the oldest and most diverse genome in the world. Human genetics research has the potential to reveal some of the small differences in our genes that are influential in determining what makes Africa more susceptible or resistant to certain diseases. The findings can influence disease outcomes and response to treatment.
Such studies are critical not just to improve the health of Africans themselves, but also to shed light on diseases that affect people of African origin who reside all over the world.
Third, Africa carries about 25% of the global disease burden. This is rapidly shifting from communicable to noncommunicable causes. Of course, it’s good news that part of this equation reflects a decline in death and illness from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases.
But it is also a sad story of the rapid increase in incidence in the noncommunicable diseases that have for a long time dominated in the global North. Heart and other vascular diseases, cancer and diabetes in African countries are often driven by the same excesses that exist in societies that have been prosperous for longer: obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise. By investing in African science to address African diseases, we invest in the parallel prevention and treatment of the same diseases everywhere in the world.
Fourth, scientific research is a vital driver of economies. Currently, the African continent’s scientific output represents less than 2.6% of the world’s share, according to UNESCO. Without major investments in scientific research, particularly the kind of basic research that is often not considered cost-effective for private enterprises, African economies will be at a perpetual economic disadvantage.
All of this raises the question: is there world-class research in Africa? Yes, there is. Thanks to major investment in science infrastructure, human resource training and education, the continent is well placed to lead from the front.
We and our colleagues at the African Academy of Sciences created the Alliance in 2015 through a partnership with the African Union Development Agency, founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. The Academy’s research and training programs operate under the Alliance. Its mission is to shift the centre of gravity for African science to Africa through setting agendas, mobilizing research and development funding, and managing science programs.
The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa has funded 186 grantees directly. Some of them in turn offer master’s, PhD and postdoctoral fellowships. This has led to a scientific community numbering over 2,000 scientists in about 40 countries.
All of this research can be applied in African countries and beyond. And more of it can be produced if the global scientific community, governments, funders and others come together to tackle the hurdles that African researchers still face.
These challenges include:
Inequities within and among populations and between genders. These result in much potential talent being lost to science in general.
Exploitation by commercial enterprises that regard the African continent as a source of large populations for clinical trials.
Funding. Until more African science is predominantly performed in Africa, by Africans, and for Africans, the full potential of this work will never be realized.
The nations of the African Union have all pledged to dedicate 1% of their respective GDPs to research and development but spend an average of 0.45%. These nations are grappling with many competing needs.
Basic research is almost never attractive to commercial funders, and African governments often do not have the resources to fill this void. Or they are not in office long enough.
Western funders tend to focus on health and medical research. This is worthy. But it leaves the physical, mathematical, and chemical sciences as underfunded orphans. Big innovations are built on the foundation of basic discovery. African scientists must enjoy the opportunity to contribute to that foundation alongside their peers in countries where public investment in basic science has been provided for decades.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in ACS Omega, available here.