Africa – political empowerment of women on the march

After centuries of colonialism and various bloody coups and wars that followed after, one of the most difficult challenges of many African countries today is to build stable political structures and to impose long-lasting peace within their territory’s boarders. This process seems to be a long way still to go, yet many African countries are significantly advancing in one particular aspect – in challenging the traditionally male-dominated model of politics by increasing women’s participation in politics.

The African Women’s Decade

Certainly, in terms of gender equality African countries do not run ahead of the North European countries, however since the mid 1990, they have made some outstanding advances in this field. In many African countries women successfully broke down the elitism of the political “boys’ club”.

In consequence, some of those States, classified as the poorest countries in the world, have reached a level of women’s political participation that exceeds that of many much wealthier countries in other parts of the world.

Among various reasons that have allowed this positive shift, four factors seem the most impacting:

1) Democratic changes – although those transformations can still be slow and fragile, the progress is being made. It has been often accompanied by a legalization of women’s inclusion into the political and economic spheres. In more than 30 sub-Saharan countries, gender quotas with the critical 30% of women were adopted. It already gave significant results as many African countries, and especially Rwanda, South Africa and Mozambique, are excelling today in the percentage of female deputies.

2) Creation of women empowerment’s movements – various NGOs that act across Africa have strongly advocated for women’s rights. It would seem that their activity have an impact on a bigger women’s participation in politics as they not only encouraged a bigger number of women to run in elections, but also motivate people to vote for women.

3) Pressure of international organisms such as UN – many international aids are conditioned by the implementation of gender equality norms. Moreover, one of the UN Millenium Goals, a series of international development goals adopted by all the UN member States, is the promotion of gender educational, economic and political equality. Thanks to efforts of various African countries in order to respect this commitment, in the whole continent women hold around 20% of seats in Parliaments, making of Africa the second continent with the highest percentage of female lawmakers (after Latin America).

4) Post-crisis involvement – since 2004 four African women were granted with Peace Nobel Prize putting into the limelight the political engagement of the African woman. In 2004 Wangari Maathai, an environmental and political activist, received the prize for “standing up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression—nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation” (the statement of the Norwegian Nobel Committee). Seven years later, in 2011, Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman were rewarded “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

By the same token, the very high percentage of women in the Parliament fo Rwanda is given as example of a recognition of women’s particular abilities in the peace-building and reconstruction process.

However there is also a sad truth that has to be said: it is common that women are given access to power when in a difficult situation men quit the board (many women became thus their parties’ political leaders). Executive Director for the NGO Women Africa Solidarity, Oley Dibba-Wadda commented this situation with those words: “There’s a joke I read the other day – when everything gets messed up, the women are asked to come in and clean up.”


Shades on the picture

Despite this generally positive tendency, several points delay the process:

1) Existence of the patriarchal culture – patriarchy, based on a strong society’s segregation in which women are assigned to the private sphere and men to the public one, is commonly present in the entire world. Also in Africa, sexist prejudices constraint women’s access to the political stage and limit their empowerment. Therefore, even if gender equality laws exist, they are often nullified by the common perception that politics is the men’s matter.

2) Small number of women on leading positions – Currently, only three women are heads of state and there is no female head of government in Africa.

3) A high female presence in parliaments does not necessarily means bigger women’s empowerment – As I explain in my previous post “Does a high percentage of women in the parliament mean a greater gender equality for a country? A quick look on numbers”:

Although as said before women’s presence in political institutions is crucial to changing the political agenda and giving attention to gender issues, not every female politician will defend or encourage gender equality. In other words, beside the critical mass, the quality of representation is also necessary to make a step forward.

4) Unequal women’s political participation among countries – the contrast is strong in Africa. For instance, while Rwanda leads in terms of the female political participation not only in the region, but also in the world, in Nigeria, the biggest country of the continent, women are almost absent on the public stage.

2014 Gender Gap Report – political participation

(Selection of African countries in the international ranking)

TOP 50 DOWN 50
Rwanda 6 Burkina Faso 92
South Africa 12 Ghana 97
Mozambique 19 Morocco 98
Tanzania 22 Swaziland 99
Senegal 24 Nigeria 102
Cape Verde 26 Chad 106
Uganda 29 Zambia 114
Burundi 30 Côte d’Ivoire 115
Angola 38 Mali 118
Malawi 41 Botsuana 124
Liberia 46 Egypt 134
Madagascar 47 Yemen 138
Kenya 48 Libya and Sudan not included in the rapport

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