History | The Pan-African Women’s Conference of 1962

Image of African female icons in 1962_the Pan-African Women Network

The Dar es Salaam Spark and the African Women Who Ignited a Continent

Lagos, NIGERIA – As the world celebrates Black Women’s History Month this April, a pivotal moment in African history deserves revisiting. Let’s go back in time to a gathering that took place in Tanzania in 1962 when women from across the newly independent nations of Africa converged in Dar es Salaam, united by a singular purpose: to create a more promising future for the continent. It wasn’t a social gathering, but a strategic assembly—the inaugural conference of the Pan-African Women’s Organization (PAWO).

Birthing a Dream: Unity Before Unity

The PAWO conference wasn’t just a milestone for African women; it was the beginning of something great for the continent. A year later, in 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union (AU), held its first summit in Addis Ababa. While the men deliberated on continental unity, PAWO had laid the groundwork. These women—courageous and determined—had set the stage for pan-Africanism, encouraging collaboration and a shared vision for a stronger Africa.

Pan-African Women

Pioneers with Purpose: Building from the Ground Up

The women of PAWO weren’t simply spectators of change; they were architects.  For a fact, I wonder why I had never heard of these women nor read about the PAWO conference in history books until Faith Adhiambo, the communications officer of the AU 2063 Agenda took us through the halls of the AU building, showing us images of this important meeting that has shaped the continent.

Growing up in Nigeria, we were introduced to everything the Organization of African Unity (OAU) represents. In fact, it was one of the most popular acronyms taught in elementary schools. It was nearly impossible to miss. But until I visited the African Union Headquarters, I never knew that women like Yeshi Tadesse of Ethiopie, Barkire of Niger, Lutaya Kanza of RDC, and Kamara Da Costa of Guinea Bissau, amongst others had united as founding mothers of the Pan African Women organization one year ahead of the OAU. These women understood that Africa’s true potential could only be realized by empowering all its citizens, especially women. Their focus wasn’t just on political independence, but on social and economic liberation too. 

Fourty-three years after the inaugural PAWO conference, their foresight came alive with the adoption of the groundbreaking Maputo Protocol by the AU in 2003. To help us understand the Maputo protocol, it is a Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. It advocates for women’s rights in conflict, peace, and development – a direct echo of the concerns raised at the PAWO conference.

From Dar es Salaam to the Halls of the AU: A Legacy of Empowerment

Today, the echoes of Dar es Salaam reverberate in the halls of the African Union. Women like Mrs Wynne Musabayana who heads communications of the African Union Commission. Leslie Richer, the AU’s Information and Communication Directorate, and Faith Adhiambo, the communications officer of Agenda 2063, are testaments to the success of PAWO’s vision. I have met women like H.E. Dr. Monique Nsanzabaganwa, Deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission. And women like H.E Amb Minata Samate Cessouma, Carine Maro, Oby Ezekwesili, Tuyeimo Haidula, Nobantu Modise, Leyla Benhmida, and countless others, who are steering the continent toward a future where gender equality isn’t just an aspiration, but a reality.

Women of the African Union and the African Union Media Fellowship
Women of the African Union

AU Media Fellowship – Retelling The African Narrative

The story of PAWO is an inspiration, not just for Africa, but for the entire world.  It shows us the power of collective action, of women taking their rightful place at the decision-making table, even in the face of historical disregard for their contributions. This critical role of women in the continent’s development is recognized in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and has birthed initiatives such as the AU Media Fellowship (AUMF) to ensure that Africa is at the forefront of defining and telling its own narrative through new and emerging technologies.

Fellowships such as the AUMF have seen collaborations with the European Union, which is a longstanding partner of the African Union. This increased collaboration between the two entities focuses on areas such as promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, etc, which echoes the very concerns that birthed PAWO in Dar es Salaam all those years ago.

A Legacy Yet Unwritten: The Future is Female

The Pan-African Women’s Organization may have been a spark, but the fire it ignited continues to burn brightly.  As Africa charts its course toward a future of prosperity and peace, it does so with the invaluable contributions of its women—those who came before us, and those who walk among us today.  Their legacy rings is a powerful reminder that a continent that empowers its women empowers itself.

Happy Black Women’s History Month!

Black History Month honours the achievements and contributions of women of Black heritage in Africa and the world.

Adesewa Olofinko is an African Union Media Fellow.