The young women study leadership values and skills, interact with leaders and develop and implement a community project in their home countries to prepare them for future leadership roles, Dake said.
The past decade has seen several African women fill key positions at international institutions, such as the World Bank, while a woman President was elected in Liberia in 2005. However, women’s rights activists say several governments and private organisations still claim that there aren’t enough women to occupy leadership roles.
Women also may face entrenched cultural stereotypes that undermine their ability to be leaders and when they rise to such positions they often encounter subtle discrimination at work, especially with regard to promotion.
“Some of them achieve a lot on their own merit but people are suspicious of them,” said Dake, a rights activist and consultant based in the U.S.
“For instance if a young man in an organisation gets a promotion it is perceived as normal, but as a young girl, in that same position and with the same talent, people would say you did this or that to get it and doubt how you achieved such progress,” she added.
A study on challenges faced by women leaders as school principals in rural areas in southern Africa found that the women were doubly disadvantaged in that they had to prove to their communities that they are capable of leading and also to work harder than their male colleagues. In most cases they worked in an environment that did not fully support them.
Experts have identified the absence of support networks and mentors as one of the reasons why talented and qualified African women fail to reach leadership positions in their countries and in the continent.
Organisers say the MILEAD programme offers the selected young women an opportunity to build a continent-wide network on which they can draw experience and support as they climb the leadership ladder.
“We hope that when they attain leadership positions these skills and solidarity that they learn from the programme will enable them be good women leaders,” Dake told TrustLaw during a phone interview from Accra.
The last cohort of fellows had an opportunity at the United Nations last March to participate in the 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, in a bid to build relations with other women’s rights organisations and extend their support networks.
“As young women, we have the role and ability to participate and make meaningful contributions to addressing our challenges and those of our communities and countries,” said Sarah Simba, a MILEAD Fellow from the Democratic Republic of Congo.