Women breaking barriers

Exceptional women—especially those who break barriers in politics—fascinate Naleli Morojele ’09.

Her newly published 161-page book, Women Political Leaders in Rwanda and South Africa: Narratives of Triumph and Loss (Barbara Budrich Publishers, 2016), offers an up-close view of the professional challenges women leaders face in post-conflict environments.

A native and current resident of Bloemfontein, South Africa, Morojele based her book on her master’s degree research on women’s political leadership in Rwanda and South Africa—countries that have some of the highest representation levels of women in legislatures in the world. The Wheaton alumna currently is studying political science at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

In South Africa, Morojele grew up seeing women as political leaders on TV and in the newspaper, she said. “It was only as an adult that I realized that that is not something that many other young girls get to experience in their countries,” she said.

In Rwanda, the parliament has more women than men representatives, and it has the highest representation of women in the whole world. “I was confounded by this, because often the picture we have in our minds is that poor, developing countries are not progressive. And here is a country that is more progressive on this issue than any other in the world,” she said.

For her book, Morojele interviewed 11 women—including parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, a speaker of parliament, an executive in a parastatal (an organization having some political authority and serving the state indirectly), and the head of an electoral commission.

“Through my interviews with these women, my perspective changed drastically,” she said. “I started my research with this major question of ‘What are these women leaders doing to uplift and empower ordinary women?’ I do try to answer this question in the book. But I also learned that even women leaders have their own battles.”

For example, the women interviewed described challenges balancing home life and work, and navigating a political system that still remains, fundamentally, patriarchal, she said.

“These women not only have to prove themselves as being capable as women and do the work they have been elected or appointed to do—but also represent women’s interests, which aren’t always on the political agenda. In essence, they have a three-headed snake that they are battling, and they actually need the support of ordinary women as much as ordinary women need them,” she said.

Morojele’s interest in extraordinary women goes back to her time at Wheaton, where she majored in women’s studies and economics. Her final research paper for her Senior Seminar in women’s studies explored the lives of women guerrilla fighters in Mexico and South Africa.

As a student intern at the Marshall Center for Intercultural Learning, she interviewed women leaders on campus. “I remember interviewing women such as Dean Sue Alexander. I had no idea at the time that I’d be doing the same thing again several years later,” she said.

Also, at the Marshall Center, she received the Weiss Women’s Leadership Award, a recognition for first-year women who have demonstrated outstanding qualities that would make them great leaders.

Morojele is enjoying seeing her efforts come to fruition. “I am thrilled to have my first book published; it seems a bit surreal at the moment. I never once imagined I’d be a published author one day,” she said.

Looking forward, she hopes post-Ph.D. to work in academic, research and international organizations to promote a heightened role of women in problem solving, especially as the world copes with conflict, climate change and economic struggle.

“The world can’t progress if half of its population is left behind. I hope to be able to contribute to that however I can,” she said.