Women in African Politics
With the legacy of colonialism still clouding the current situations of most African countries and the tremendous economic challenges they face, it is not surprising that many of these countries have struggled over the past few decades to find political stability. While much research and literature has been dedicated to trying to provide solutions to ‘Africa’s democracy problem,’ one often heard argument is that if these countries were to include more women in politics, that democracy could become a reality. Harriet Harman, a prominent political representative in the United Kingdom, argues that, “They [women] are central to the new breed of politicians who offer Africa the opportunity for a deeply rooted, uncorrupt democracy.” She goes on to argue that because women are not traditionally seen as authoritative figures, they tend to go about politics in a “bottom-up” fashion by building their constituencies' confidence in them and not by relying on money to buy their support.
While there is certainly merit to this argument, the concept is not new. Worldwide efforts to promote women in decision-making roles gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and was further propelled after the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 (held in Beijing, China) where delegates called for an international effort for countries to have women represent 30% of their national governments. Since then, many countries have indeed increased the presence of women in their governments and surprising to some is that some of the largest increases have been seen in sub-Saharan African countries. As UNIFEM’s Progress of the World’s Women 2002 report shows, some sub-Saharan countries actually boast significantly higher levels of women’s representation in parliament and national assemblies than rich, ‘democratic’ countries. For example, the report shows that only around 10% of the national seats are held by women in countries such as the United States, France and Japan whereas in South Africa and Mozambique, women hold about 30% of the seats in parliament. Although some African countries have made great progress for women’s representation, others are still lagging far behind the world average. Furthermore, observers wonder why increased political representation for women in some African countries has not necessarily led to better democratic practices in their governments. While access to political positions may have improved, other barriers still exist for women in politics which may inhibit their ability to effect significant change.
The prevalence of traditional and cultural practices in most African countries has often been cited as a large barrier for women in politics. When running for political positions, many women face intimidation, harassment and sometimes violence. Many traditional notions do not consider politics to be ‘women’s work’ and elected women have been described as ‘wanton’ or their husbands as ‘emasculate’.
Unfortunately, this stems from the expectation that women will marry young, have a large family and take care of their children and husbands. For women that do enter into politics, they have to juggle fulfilling both their roles at home and at work. Additionally, many families also face the harsh reality of AIDS and the devastation it can bring. Harriet Harmon tells of a parliament member in Tanzania, Monica Mbega, who cares for 16 children. Three are her own and the other 13 were the children of her brother and her sister who passed away from the deadly infection. Such extra burdens make it difficult for women to enter a demanding position in politics and then to balance their family and work lives.
With the expectation to marry young also comes the additional barrier of lower education levels for women in Africa. Many girls stop going to school well before their male counterparts which later makes it difficult for them to compete against male candidates in elections. Without access to the same level of education, women will continue to have to fight even harder for the same opportunities.
While various countries have made symbolic efforts to encourage women to enter into politics, others have taken a more direct and regulated approach. Since the 1990s, countries across the world have started implementing quota systems to ensure the representation of women in politics. However, the United Nations 2004 article, “Women Break into African Politics,” notes that worldwide, only about 30 countries have enacted female quotas in politics. The article also outlines what they consider to be the three most prevalent quota systems used in Africa:
- "Constitutional quotas. Some countries, including Burkina Faso and Uganda, have constitutional provisions reserving seats in national parliament for women.
- Election law quotas. Provisions are written into national legislation, as in Sudan.
- Political party quotas. Parties adopt internal rules to include a certain percentage of women as candidates for office. This is the case with the governing parties in South Africa and Mozambique."
Efforts by international organizations and foreign countries such as British Council and USAID have also been helpful in putting pressure on African governments to take steps towards improving access for women to political participation. While this has been useful for getting government leaders to publicly pledge to try and promote women’s representation, without concrete steps to back up these statements, women are still left to fight on their own to be heard.
Following the genocide of 1994, Rwanda has since taken a lead in including women in the country’s political system. Women represent 49% of their national parliament compared to an average of 15.1% for the rest of the world. Under their new constitution, 24 out of the 80 seats are reserved for women in Rwanda’s lower house of parliament. In the first election following the genocide (September 2003), 15 additional women were elected to the lower house. The constitution also reserves 6 out of the 20 seats in the upper house for women. This huge achievement was due to the persistent lobbying of Rwandan women who helped draft the new constitution and also secured the creation of a ministry for women’s affairs. The constitutional quotas that were implemented after the genocide have secured this sub-Saharan African country as the world leader in women’s political representation.
Despite a tumultuous history of violence and racial tensions, South Africa has also made promising advancements in women’s political representation. Unlike Rwanda, South Africa does not have constitutional quotas for women’s representation in politics. Their 1996 constitution only stipulates that the Republic is founded on certain values, including non-sexism. Despite a lack of explicit national quotas, women’s representation in local government has been on the rise with a representation of 19% after the 1995 elections, 29.6% after the 2000 elections and an impressive 40% after the 2006 elections. This increase is typically attributed to efforts made by the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). Since 1994, the ANC has pledged a commitment to having women represent 30% of their elected officials at all levels. Before the 2006 election, they even said that they were committed to having equal representation at the local level. While they were unable to obtain an even 50/50 representation in all provinces, some provinces actually went above the 50% representation by women, while others fell a little short. Overall, the party was able to obtain an average women’s representation of 46.1%. And while this voluntary quota was initiated by the ANC, other political parties were pressured to follow their lead. This has led to a general increase in women’s representation at the national level as well. Women represented 27.75% of the National Assembly in 1994, 30% in 1999, 32.75% in 2004 and an astounding 43% in 2009. So while South Africa does not have constitutional quotas like Rwanda does, the influence of the voluntary quotas implemented by the ANC has helped push national politics towards close to equal representation.
Lagging CountriesWhile some African countries are leading the continent, and the world, in terms of women’s representation in politics, others are falling very far behind. Countries such as Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar had less than 10% of women’s representation in their lower houses of parliament or national assemblies following their last elections. Other countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe have women’s representation between 10 and 14%. Most countries still do notLiberia provides an interesting contrast because although they have a woman president, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women’s representation in the legislature remains very low (around 14%).  President Sirleaf has pushed to pass legislation to implement a national quota for women’s representation of 30% in the legislature, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Whether the argument that greater women’s political representation will bring more successful democracies is true or not, most would not disagree that it is important for women to be an integral part of the political system in any country. Unfortunately, many women in sub-Saharan Africa face daunting barriers for entering politics and for being successful once elected. In order to ensure increased representation of women in politics, it is still not clear what the ideal solution is. While constitutional quotas and voluntary party quotas have been successful in Rwanda and South Africa for getting women elected, a more fundamental shift might be necessary as well. As long as traditional notions that women must stick to 'women's work' and must be constantly present mothers and wives prevails, it will continue to be difficult for women to get elected and to be respected by other elected officials. Significant progress has already been made in many different African countries, but equality is still very far off.
- “Good Women in Africa,” by Harriet Harmon, 17 June 2005, in The Guardian
- “Women Break into Politics,” African Recovery by the United Nations, Vol.18 #1 (April 2004), page 4.
- “South Africa: Women's representation quotas,” by the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA), last updated April 2009
- “Gender issues: Women's representation in the Lower House of Parliament,” by the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA), last updated November 2010
- “Ellen Pursues 30% Woman Participation in Politics,” in the Daily Observer, 7 July 2010