Mongella, Gertrude 1945—
Gertrude Mongella 1945—
Educator, politician, diplomat, activist
Having risen to international prominence in 1992, when she was appointed as the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Gertrude Mongella is one of the world’s most influential people. The annual conference is one of the most important forums for women from all parts of the globe. Participants include dignitaries, members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and anyone else interested in women’s rights.
Mongella is a staunch advocate of equal rights for women around the world, particularly those from lesser developed countries, which she clearly emphasizes in her speeches and for good reason. “While African women are better organized than ever before, they remain poorer and no better represented in government,” Colleen Lowe Morna relayed in Africa Report.In fact, results of a mid-1990s study conducted by the Economic Commission for Africa’s Center for Women determined that political representation of women by women in African governments and political organizations had only increased from 7.65 percent to 7.77 percent in ten years
Thus, the significance of Mongella’s stature-she’s a black African woman-can not be understated. Even in the 1990s, women experience discrimination that can limit the scope of their careers and lives; the barriers for black women are even greater than for nonblacks. Furthermore, other than heads of state, few African politicians are well-known outside of their homelands; however, a 1995 PARADE article regarding Mongella’s new international celebrity status announced that “her face is even featured on T-shirts.”
Certainly Mongella’s leadership extends beyond the boundaries of her ancestral home, but her efforts focus upon Africa. “The reality in most African countries,” Lowe Morna has explained, “is that modern constitutions exist side by side with customary and religious laws which condemn women to minority status all their lives…. Few countries have had the courage to outlaw traditional practices … such as bride price [dowry], female genital mutilation, and the denial of property rights.” Mongella responded in Africa Report to accusations that the UN has not more blatantly condemned
Born September 13, 1945, in Ukerewe, Tanzania; daughter of a carpenter; married; children: four. Education: Dar es Salaam University, 1970, education degree.
Educator, politician, diplomat, activist Changombe Teachers Col lege, Tanzania, teacher, 1970-75; Institute of Adult Education, Tanzania, curriculum developer, 1975-78; Champa Cha Mapinduzi (Tanzanian political party), legislative council member, 1975-82, central committee member, 1982-87; Eastern Zone school district, Tanzania, school inspector, 1981-82; Prime Minister’s office, Minister of State, 1982; Department of Social Welfare, department head, 1982-91 ; Minister of Lands, Natural Resources, Tourism, 1985-87; President’s office, Minister without Portfolio, 1987-91; appointed Tanzania’s High Commissioner to India, 1991--; appointed secretary-general, Fourth World Conference on Women, 1992.
Tanzanian representative at numerous international functions, including World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women, Nairobi, Kenya, 1985; Commission on the Status of Women; Global Assembly on Women and the Environment; World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet; Conference on the Supportive Environment for Health; Fifth Regional Conference on Women, Dakar, Senegal, 1994.
Member: United Nations international Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, board of trustees.
Addresses: Home-Tanzania. Office-Tanzanian Mission to the United Nations, 205 E. 42nd, St., Rm. 1300, New York, NY
some of these practices by explaining, “Condemnation and attack are not the right approach when dealing with culture and tradition. You have to approach the issue through discussion and persuasion. You can legislate against traditional practices, but unless the reasons are understood, these laws will be ignored.”
Mongella was born on September 13, 1945, coincidentally the same year the UN was founded. Along with two sisters and one brother, she grew up in her birthplace, a small Tanganyikan island called Ukerewe, in Lake Victoria. (Formerly a British colony, Tanganyika gained independence in 1961, and became known as the United Republic of Tanzania three years later). Her father, a carpenter, defied local customs by sending his children to school. In a society where leadership was, and still is, automatically accorded to males, Mongella and her sisters were encouraged early on to be the best they could. (One sister eventually became the attorney general of Lesotho, a small country in southern Africa.)
Like many other third world colonies at the time, Tanganyika had very few schools. Despite a population of approximately 7 million, not a single university and only a handful of secondary schools existed. Gaining entrance to these boarding schools was, and remains, very competitive. For young children, living far away from home could be very daunting, but at the age of 12, Mongella traveled hundreds of miles to Morogoro, where she had been accepted at Marianhill Secondary School, an institution run by the Maryknoll order of nuns. There she excelled in all subjects and particularly loved debating. Interviewed in PARADE nearly 50 years later, Mongella credited her colonial education for having “made her know everything.”
After successfully completing her secondary education, Mongella enrolled at the newly formed Dar es Salaam University, located near the Indian Ocean in the eastern seaport city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From 1967 to 1970 she worked towards and earned a degree in education. She began instructing others, first as a tutor and then as a curriculum developer. Meanwhile, her interest in politics was growing and shortly would divert her from teaching.
Mongella’s political involvement began early on as she became one of the few female members of the only existing Tanzanian political party, and consequently, the ruling party-Chama Cha Mapinduzi, or Revolutionary Party. She quickly became highly respected, which eventually pushed her career in a different direction. In 1975, Mongella was appointed to serve as a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, throwing her into public service and giving her a taste of the limelight. Once in that position, she quickly rose to the supreme organ of Chama Che Mapinduzi through election by a 20-member Center Committee. Subsequently, Mongella was appointed to several ministerial posts, including Minister of State, during which time she was responsible for women’s affairs, and then Minister of Lands, Natural Resources, and Tourism.
During the 1980s, Mongella represented Tanzania in various capacities at numerous global conferences and forums, particularly those emphasizing women’s issues. For example, in the midst of that hectic ten year-period, she served as a vice chairperson of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievement of the United Nations Decade for Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya. Pulling double duty, she also chaired the African delegation to that 1985 conference. Five years later she led a Tanzanian commission that presented a status report to the World Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
In 1991, Mongella was appointed Tanzania’s High Commissioner to India. Her diplomatic obligations in India did not prevent Mongella from keeping apace with her other interests. She served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the UN’s International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) during the early 1990s. She was also able to appear at several functions, including the Global Assembly on Women and the Environment and the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet.
With such extensive qualifications, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made an unsurprising decision in 1992, when he designated Mongella as the Secretariat of the Fourth World Conference on Women to be held in Beijing, China. For the next 38 months, Mongella worked feverishly to organize what was to become “the largest and most important conference ever held on [women’s] behalf in the history of the [UN],” according to the New Pittsburgh Courier.To carry off such an undertaking, Mongella met with NGOs; consulted senior government officials from all over the world, including heads of state; and attended several regional preparatory conferences around the world, including the Fifth Regional Conference on African Women.
The last in a series of conferences held before the Fourth World Conference, the Fifth Regional Conference on African Women “brought together a record 3,000 African women from around the continent,” according to Lowe Morna, a Zimbabwean journalist who claimed that “for sheer energy, creativity, color, style, and rhythm, few gatherings could have matched the November 16 to 23 Dakar [Senegal] conference.” Mongella was invigorated by the African caucus she met there. Through her own efforts and those of others similarly minded, Mongella felt that African women had made great strides in garnering higher status for themselves. Mongella enthused to Lowe Morna, “I have been overwhelmed by the energy of African women. These are not the same people who were being characterized as weak and vulnerable victims [of society] 10 years ago.”
The conference ended on a hopeful note, as aPlatform for Action was produced. Africa Report stated that the document “breaks new ground with a section … which emphasizes the importance of gender equity starting at an early age, with girls given an equal opportunity to go to school; their work loads reduced; traditional practices harmful to health eliminated; and sex education made available to avoid teenage pregnancies. “In an interview with Lowe Morna, Mongella emphasized the significance of reaching out to young people, reminding her that “they are the adults of tomorrow.”
Fortified by the signs of progress she saw in Senegal, Mongella went to Beijing “conscious of the huge responsibility she carrie[d] … and the great honor she … brought to African women,” Lowe Morna reported. 185 nations were represented at the September of 1995 function, whose agenda covered a wide range of topics such as the impact of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), violence and abuse, and poverty on women. Literacy and education also rated high amongst the concerns addressed during the 12-day conference.
The New Pittsburgh Courier quoted Mongella as saying that “a huge historical deficit remains among today’s adult women, especially rural women, which denies them full-partnership in society.” Confirmation came from a 1990 UN survey that had revealed 586.4 million of the world’s women were illiterate-more than nine times the number of illiterate men, cited to be 64.4 million. Gearing up for a new millennium, Mongella suggested, “If women are to contribute effectively to national development into the 21st century, the fundamental question is whether they will be sufficiently equipped to participate fully by receiving a quality education that will prepare them to enter any field; expose them to sciences, technology, and communications; and stimulate their creativity.”
Ironically, the need for actively seeking equality, development, and peace, was highlighted at the Fourth World Conference on Women by the very behavior of the host country. Food, rest rooms, and accommodations were poor; times and venues for workshops were frequently changed; Chinese security agents harassed participants and journalists; and as Time reporters Jaime A. FlorCruz and Mia Turner noted from Beijing, “even the heavens glowered, sending forth rain that churned up mud, mud everywhere.”
Time indicated that even before the first day of the conference, the Chinese government had denied “as many as 10,000 visas to prospective delegates.” Those who were allowed to enter the country, but who came representing NGOs were inconveniently placed in living quarters more than 30 miles from the conference site, making it difficult for them to attend many of the goingson. According to Time, “surly treatment of guests … so dominated foreign news dispatches that conference leaders despaired of communicating their serious business.”
Some issues, such as sex education/reproductive rights and gay rights remained unresolved at the end of the two weeks. Though conventions like bride burning, female infanticide, rape, and economic discrimination were condemned, the delegates were unable to come up with steps to eliminate the practices. Still, the conference was deemed by most to be a success. Attendees included Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; First Lady Hilary Clinton and National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Betty Friedan from the United States; and Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was able to appear via a smuggled videotape.
As Time related, “for most of the women who had come from far corners of the earth to express their solidarity … [the experience] proved exhilarating.” Newsweek also disclosed that “the secret of China’s controversyridden women’s conference was that nearly everyone had a terrific time anyway. China’s behavior was largely a temporary distraction from what the women had come to do.” More than 5,000 delegates, headed by Mongella, were able to draft an official Platform for Action.
Mongella, married and the mother of one daughter and three sons, has been described by Africa Report as “vivacious, motherly, [and] straight-talking,” but she’s also tough and determined. Her preoccupation with the treatment of women has been lifelong and continues to stoke her dreams. She shared one with PARADE: ”In Africa, 75 percent of the food is produced by these so-called ’weak women’ with simple tools. With science and technology, they would be great farmers.”
Another of Mongella’s major concerns is that political and economic gains for African women and children do not seem to be as high a priority in many nations as internal wars and military spending. The subject of high military expenditures leads Mongella to envisage something better: “Think what it would mean for rural women and children if some of the funds used could be reallocated to provide clean water, health care, schools, and housing. Think what it would mean to millions of refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, if they could return to their homes.”
Mongella returned home herself as 1995 came to a frenzied end. In January of 1996, she sojourned back to Tanzania for a well-deserved respite from the international scene and to await her next official assignment. Meanwhile she continued to believe that equality between the sexes is the key to a better life for everyone. As she told Maryknoll’s Janice McLaughlin, “Women will change the world when they lead it. “Mongella’s own role in global politics and the successes she’s had should be ample evidence that women can indeed make a difference in humanity’s state of affairs.
Rake, Alan, Who’s Who in Africa: Leaders for the 1990s, Scarecrow Press, 1992, p. 361
Africa Report, January-February 1995, pp. 55-60.
Maryknoll, July/August 1995, p. 34-37.
New Pittsburgh Courier, April 1, 1995, p. A2.
Newsweek, September 18, 1995, pp. 50-52.
The New York Beacon, May 17, 1995, p. 23.
PARADE, March 5, 1995.
Time, September 18, 1995, pp. 79-80.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a biographical note provided from Mongella’s United Nations office on January of 1996.
—Doris H. Mabunda
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