A cel­e­bra­tory rise in women’s po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion

Num­ber of women leg­is­la­tors inches up­ward in Africa

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Kings­ley Igho­bor

Afew weeks af­ter she was sworn in as Malawi’s first fe­male pres­i­dent, Joyce Banda trav­elled to Liberia in late April 2012 to meet Pres­i­dent Ellen John­son Sir­leaf, who has oc­cu­pied Liberia’s high­est of­fice since Jan­uary 2006. Glow­ing in African at­tire, both lead­ers ban­tered like sis­ters dur­ing a press con­fer­ence.

“This is our day, this is our year, this is our decade,” en­thused Ms. Banda. “The two of us have great strength,” added Ms. Sir­leaf. “To­gether, we can do more to em­power women and to en­sure that women’s role in so­ci­ety is en­hanced.”

Af­ter the me­dia event, Dun­can Cas­sell, Liberia’s gen­der min­is­ter, said, “Now we have Joyce [Banda]. Ms. Sir­leaf is not go­ing to be lonely among men any­more.”

To be sure, be­fore Ms. Banda be­came pres­i­dent, pho­tos of African lead­ers at African Union sum­mits, for ex­am­ple, de­picted a group of men sur­round­ing Ms. Sir­leaf, who had been the only fe­male pres­i­dent in Africa then.

Gen­der equal­ity ad­vo­cates had fur­ther rea­son to cel­e­brate when Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn in on 23 Jan­uary 2014 as in­terim pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral African Repub­lic (CAR), mak­ing her the fourth African fe­male head of state. The first was Ruth Perry, who headed the Liberian tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment for about a year from Septem­ber 1996. Re­gret­tably, Ms. Banda, the sec­ond woman to be seated as pres­i­dent, be­came the first to be un­seated when she lost the elec­tions, in what some say was a re­tak­ing of power by loy­al­ists of the late Pres­i­dent Bingu wa Mutharika.

Rwanda leads the world

“One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing de­vel­op­ments in African pol­i­tics has been the in­crease in women’s po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion since the mid-1990s,” writes Aili Mari Tripp, a pro­fes­sor of gen­der and women’s stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son in the US. Be­sides the four fe­male heads of state, Ms. Tripp bases her up­beat as­sess­ment on the in­creas­ing num­ber of women par­lia­men­tar­i­ans on the con­ti­nent.

In­deed, with 64% of seats held by women, Rwanda has the high­est num­ber of women par­lia­men­tar­i­ans in the world. Sene­gal, Sey­chelles and South Africa have more than 40% each, and Mozam­bique, An­gola, Tan­za­nia and Uganda are not far off, with women oc­cu­py­ing over 35% of all par­lia­men­tary seats. Con­sid­er­ing that women hold only 19% of the seats in the US congress and 20% in the se­nate, Ms. Tripp main­tains that Africa has ev­ery right to be proud. What she did not say is that Amer­i­can women hold top po­si­tions in min­istries, mil­i­tary and other top gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, which is not the case in most African coun­tries.

How­ever, a sur­vey on women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics in 34 African coun­tries by Afro­barom­e­ter, a re­search group that mea­sures public per­cep­tions of so­cioe­co­nomic and po­lit­i­cal is­sues in Africa, notes that while coun­tries such as Rwanda and South Africa may have nu­mer­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant women’s par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion, some of the world’s worst per­form­ers are also on the con­ti­nent. For ex­am­ple, women have only 6.2% rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Swazi­land, 6.7% in Nige­ria and 8.4% in Benin.

Most Africans de­mand equal­ity

Nev­er­the­less, the good news is that a vast ma­jor­ity of Africans (72%) agree that women should have the same chance of be­ing elected to po­lit­i­cal of­fice as men, the Afro­barom­e­ter study found. The prob­lem, again, is that this ma­jor­ity opin­ion on gen­der equal­ity does not ex­ist in some parts of the con­ti­nent. While 74% of re­spon­dents in East Africa be­lieve in women’s equal­ity and 73% in South­ern Africa, only 50% in North Africa agree that women should have the same rights as men. In fact, women’s lead­er­ship was re­jected by 53% of re­spon­dents in Su­dan and by 50% in Egypt.

There are many rea­sons why women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics is the key to good gov­er­nance. Ex­perts say women are key to

the new breed of politi­cians who of­fer Africa the op­por­tu­nity for democ­racy. It is in­ter­est­ing that the three fe­male African lead­ers as­sumed of­fice dur­ing crises or tran­si­tions. Ms. Sir­leaf was elected af­ter a 13-year dev­as­tat­ing civil war; Ms. Banda, who had been vice pres­i­dent, took over af­ter Pres­i­dent Bingu wa Mutharika died in of­fice; and Ms. Samba-Panza was sworn in amid re­bel­lion and sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in the CAR and Ms. Perry headed the in­terim gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing cease­fire ne­go­ti­a­tions that ended al­most two decades of war.

Not ev­ery­one be­lieves women lead­ers are re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent from their male coun­ter­parts. Coun­tries in Africa where women are lead­ers have not al­ways been bea­cons of good gov­er­nance, some ob­servers say. But the rea­sons for this are deep-rooted and be­yond the lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­i­ties of such fe­male lead­ers.

Ob­sta­cles to par­tic­i­pa­tion

Sa­tang Na­banech, a women’s rights ad­vo­cate and at­tor­ney from The Gam­bia, lists sev­eral so­cial, cul­tural and eco­nomic bar­ri­ers that in­hibit women’s abil­ity to make sig­nif­i­cant changes in pol­i­tics. Ms. Na­banech cites pa­tri­ar­chal pol­i­tics, or a be­lief that men must nat­u­rally make de­ci­sions and that the place for a woman is the home.

In ad­di­tion, women of­ten lack skills, ed­u­ca­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence to sur­vive in pol­i­tics, Ms. Na­banech says, stress­ing that pol­i­tics is ex­pen­sive and many women lack the fi­nan­cial as­sets to suc­ceed in it. “It is dif­fi­cult for women to par­tic­i­pate in po­lit­i­cal life when their ma­jor con­cern

is sur­vival and they have no choice but to spend much of their time try­ing to ful­fil the ba­sic needs of fam­i­lies.”

Vi­o­lence in African pol­i­tics may also dis­cour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion. Gen­er­ally, women feel “a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity to po­lit­i­cal in­tim­i­da­tion and vi­o­lence,” notes the Afro­barom­e­ter sur­vey. In Guinea, for in­stance, 64% of women say they are very con­cerned about po­lit­i­cal in­tim­i­da­tion.

World­wide, ef­forts to en­hance women’s po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion have shown progress in the past two decades. At the UN Bei­jing con­fer­ence on women in 1995, del­e­gates called on gov­ern­ments to have women rep­re­sent 30% of their gov­ern­ments.

To achieve the Bei­jing tar­get, some African gov­ern­ments have used dif­fer­ent types of quo­tas to in­crease women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in gov­ern­ment. For ex­am­ple, Burk­ina Faso and Uganda have con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions re­serv­ing a cer­tain num­ber of par­lia­men­tary seats for women, Kenya has spe­cial seats for women rep­re­sen­ta­tives in par­lia­ment, while po­lit­i­cal par­ties in South Africa and Mozam­bique have adopted in­ter­nal rules to en­sure a cer­tain per­cent­age of women can vie for of­fice.

Some, how­ever, attack quo­tas as in­ef­fec­tive. The pros and cons of quo­tas seem more like a de­bate over the means to an end. There is less of an ar­gu­ment over the de­sir­abil­ity of hav­ing more women in pol­i­tics.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chair­per­son of the African Union, says that although the gap be­tween men and women on po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion re­mains wide, “in 46 coun­tries across the world, women ac­count for more than a quar­ter of all mem­bers of par­lia­ment. I am also proud to say that 14 of th­ese coun­tries are in Africa”. When it comes to women’s po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, Africa could well be on the right track.

Paul Kagame

Swear­ing-in of Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in Kigali, Rwanda.

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