Take a Seat: Women’s Political Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa

politics women equality representation
Wednesday, 21 July, 2010 - 09:45

Governments should work towards increasing the number of women in positions of influence at national level and within other state institutions. Increasing their number, especially in positions of influence, will give an opportunity for women to provide leadership and participate in decision-making processes. Countries in the sub-Saharan region should end oppressive cultural practices, illiteracy, domestic violence and other factors preventing an increase in female political representation

The endorsement of gender equality is at the top of many international institutions’ agendas following a decade of democratisation in Africa. The Beijing Platform for Action 1995, later revised at the 23rd Special Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly held in June 2000, encouraged governments to “set and encourage the use of explicit short and long-term time-bound targets or measurable goals, including where appropriate, quotas to promote progress towards gender balance, including women’s equal access to and full participation on the basis of equality with men in all areas and at all levels of public life, especially in decision-making positions, in political parties and political activities.”(2) International mandates calling for gender political parity include The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The Millennium Developmental Goals (MDG’s) and the UN Security Council Resolution 1324 of 2000.(3)

Formal gender equality, manifested as female political representation at national level and within governmental institutions is not yet a reality, however. Even when equality is reached in numbers, this will not automatically translate into better lives for women citizens. This brief argues that the emphasis on representational quantity ought to be shifted to the quality of women’s participation in Parliament. We need to focus not only on increasing the number of women in government, but also on women’s effectiveness in political positions and their impact on decision-making.(4) Simply having females in the appropriate positions does not mean that women citizens’ lives are going to improve. Women in politics need to negotiate a variety of possible obstacles that may hinder the promotion of women’s interests. Quantitatively equal political representation of the sexes may allude to a sense of formal equality, but women in sub-Saharan African still face many struggles on a daily basis because their needs are not adequately represented.

This brief explores the notion of women’s political representation in sub-Saharan Africa and considers the cases of South Africa and Uganda.

Women’s political representation

In 2001, nine out of 191 countries had a woman elected head of state or Government. Globally, only 39 states have ever elected a woman president or prime minister. The UN report titled 'The World’s Women 2000: Trends and Statistics' states that women comprise “…less than one-tenth of the world’s cabinet ministers and one-fifth of all sub-ministerial positions.”(5) In 2003, the proportion of women members of parliament was highest in the Nordic regions, where on average 39.7 percent of lower-house members were women. Scandinavia was followed by the Americas (18.4 percent), Asia (15.5 percent) and non-Nordic Europe (15.5 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (14.9 percent), the Pacific (12.1 percent) and lastly the Arab countries (six percent).(6) The percentage of women in Parliament in sub-Saharan Africa is just below the global average but increases every year. Regardless of impressive improvements in formal gender equality over the past two decades, African women are far from resting on their laurels. The status of women’s political representation in sub-Saharan Africa is a direct result of each country’s historical and political trajectory and should be contextualised as such.

The ‘dark continent’ has frequently found itself at the receiving end of global reproach vis-à-vis bad governance, ethnic strife, politics of the belly (7) and failure to address escalating destitution, to highlight a few issues. Sub-Saharan Africa has succeeded in covering the tail end of many indices and inventories due to historical trajectories characterised by mismanagement and exploitation. It is therefore quite unexpected to see an African country at the top of the global list of female political representation. Rwanda (followed by Sweden) has filled 48.8 percent of its Parliamentary seats with women.(8,9) Government institutions, regional and national civil society organisations clamoured for 50 percent representation of women at all levels of decision-making in the sub-continent by 2020 (10) during the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit held in August 2005. Sub-Saharan countries are therefore well aware of the need for women’s presentation and most are working hard to achieve this goal.

Tanzania was the first African country in 1998, followed by Burundi in 2005, to include 20 percent and 30 percent quota representations for women in their national constitutions respectively.(11) “As for gender quotas, some current ruling parties that mobilised women during the liberation struggle, such as the African National Congress (ANC), Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, and South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO), employ quotas for women because of women's active involvement in the struggle and their persistent demands for more equitable representation in postliberation politics.”(12) Namibian and Mozambican women occupy more than 20 percent of Parliamentary seats,(13) but South African women have achieved even more – 30 percent.

Key factors in women’s political participation

Theorists have pointed out social, economic, political and cultural factors that significantly influence female political representation. Yoon proposes four social, economic and cultural aspects that guide women’s access to the legislature. (14,15) The first is access to education. Education instils interest in political matters and educated women would be more adept to seek elective office. The United Nations Development Report of 2000 (16) reports sub-Saharan Africa’s female educational enrolment rates to be the lowest globally. Norris and Inglehart (17) reiterate the power of social structure: women find it challenging to enter elective offices because they also have to deal with issues like poor childcare, low literacy levels, inadequate health care and poverty.

The second factor that influences female political representation (18) is their (non-) participation in the labour force. Women who find themselves in the formal wage labour force are more likely to enjoy political representation. They have greater financial independence as well as higher levels of self-esteem.(19) Technical presentation and supervisory skills are skills that women in the formal economy bring to the political realm. “Jobs in such fields as law and journalism commonly provide the flexibility, financial resources, experience, and social networks that facilitate running for elected office.”(20) Women in sub-Saharan Africa are, however, frequently employed in the informal sector or involved in subsistence agricultural activities. Active women in the formal labour force are therefore in the minority. A focus on socio-economic development does not fully explain the obstacles to female political representation, as a comparison between countries such as Canada (where 20 percent of Parliamentarians are women), the United States (13 percent) and South Africa (30 percent) clearly illustrates.(21) In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world’s poorest regions, 13 out of 39 states’ Parliamentary seats are filled with at least 15 percent women.(22) In other words, some ‘poor’ countries currently have more women representatives in government that some ‘rich’ countries do.

The economic condition of a country is, however, an important factor in women’s access to the political sphere. Due to the fact that women are often solely responsible for the management of households, any adverse economic fluctuations impact them directly.(23) Preoccupation with fighting for survival negatively reduces women’s interest in competing for elective office.

A final, yet significant factor to consider when deliberating women’s access to political representation is culture. Patriarchal thought in particular limits opportunities for women, especially in the political sphere where patriarchy deems subordinate and unsuitable for positions of leadership.(24,25) “[An] egalitarian culture fosters women's involvement in electoral politics, but hierarchical culture impedes it. How favourably or unfavourably the society views women's involvement in politics depends on where its culture lies in the egalitarian-hierarchical cultural spectrum.”(26) Women experience greater obstacles toward political office in societies where traditional attitudes reign, but modernisation, value changes and the fading of cultural barriers, results in younger generations of women in post-industrial societies experiencing less resistance to entering political offices.

Political or institutional (27) variables are perhaps the most important to consider when exploring female political representation. Yoon argues for the importance of contemplating the role of party system fragmentation, electoral systems and gender quotas. Multi-member, proportional representation electoral systems have proven to be the most encouraging towards allowing women governmental positions.(28) This electoral system has proven to be the most successful in welcoming minority groups into Parliament. “The likelihood of women to be nominated is higher in a party system with a small number of large Parliamentary parties because large parties are likely to have safe seats in which they can place female candidates.”(29) African politics, however, are characterised by fragmented and ineffective opposition parties, which makes the likelihood of women begetting official seats even more unlikely. Norris and Inglehart add a country’s level of democratisation as one of the most important institutional factors to consider when explaining female, political representation: “In general, the transition and consolidation of democratic societies can be expected to promote widespread political and civil liberties, including the right of women to vote and to stand for elected office.”(30)

Finally, analysts view gender quotas as the most certain way to further female political representation.(31) Sub-Saharan Africa uses two different types of quotas: the system of reserved seats established by national legislation (as used in Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania) and quotas voluntarily established by political parties (as seen in Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa).(32) Some consider gender quotas as ‘discrimination and a violation of the principle of fairness’, but others view them as “compensation for structural barriers that prevent fair competition”. Despite the efficiency of gender quotas in ensuring political equality, quota systems are said to violate principles of fairness, competence and individualism.(33)

South African and Ugandan women in government

The appointment of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as Deputy President of South Africa in June 2005 signalled a great advancement in the political representation of women. Deputy President is the highest political position ever held by a female in the country.(34) South African women’s political accomplishments have been remarkable compared to their counterparts.(35) Their active participation as a united women’s movement in the liberation struggle against the Apartheid regime serve as the foundation for fighting for gender equality in the democratic Government. In 1990, the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) conceded that “…the emancipation of women is not a by-product of national liberation or socialism. It needs to be addressed in its own right within our organisation, the mass democratic movement and in society as a whole.”(36) This statement became part of a discourse on gender equality that entered the public sphere and Governmental dialogue soon after 1990. The first democratic election in 1994 saw 111 (27 percent) women voted into National Parliament. This made South Africa one of the top ten countries worldwide with regards to female political representation (37) and was the result of the ANC’s internal quota system. The efforts of South African women during the political liberation struggle bore fruit when in 1994, the newly drafted and adopted South African Constitution was hailed one of the most gender sensitive in the world.

The South African Constitution introduced Chapter 9 institutions which included the establishment of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) in 1997. The CGE is independent from, yet funded by, the Government. The South African Constitution and the high political representation of women in Parliament promulgate formal gender equality, but the majority of South African women’s lives are still shaped by gender inequality in terms of, amongst others, economic development and healthcare. The CGE, therefore, “[pledges] to address the concerns of the most disadvantaged women in a spirit of transparency, efficiency and accountability.”(38) Regardless of the high percentage female political representation in South Africa, the system poses a certain sense of ambivalence because it “…raise(s) awareness and produce rhetorical commitments to women’s rights but do(es) not bring substantive change.”(39)

Unlike previous regimes, Uganda’s Museveni government experienced immense pressure from women’s organisations to address women’s issues on a national level. “Uganda's system of reserved seats for women, established in 1986, [has been interpreted] as President Yoweri Museveni's acknowledgment of women's contributions to the victory of his National Resistance Movement in the Ugandan civil war. Women harboured and fed soldiers, hid weapons in their homes, and fought alongside the men against Milton Obote's forces.”(40) The Ugandan Ministry of Women in Development was established in 1988 to seek equal rights for women through institutional and legislative changes. Their attempts called for the integration of women’s concerns in the national and district development programmes. They also demanded full participation of women in decision-making in the political and developmental processes.(41)

Yoon argues sceptically that “…the system of reserved seats for women can be seen as a political calculation by the National Resistance Movement to win women's votes and to ensure the support of female legislators.”(42) Dan Ottemoeller reiterates this: “…women's influence on formal electoral politics in Uganda is expanding at least partly because gender has become a political tool for power-seeking politicians.”(43) As a consequence of the pressure asserted by women’s groups, Ugandan women’s political representation is on the increase. In 1980 there was only one woman in Parliament out of a total of 142 parliamentarians.(44) In 1992, there were four women cabinet ministers. By 1994, two of 21 representatives who served on Uganda’s constitutional commission were women. Women’s governmental representation has increased to nearly 25 percent after the June 2001 elections,(45) yet millions of Ugandan women still suffer from unemployment and little or no access to healthcare.

Strengthening women’s participation

The presence of a significant proportion of female members of Parliament perhaps diverts attention from the substantive inequality experienced by grassroots women. It is therefore critical that discourse on gender rights continue beyond the political sphere and into the household. Equal participation in politics is imperative to the advancement of peace, stability, gender equity, human rights, good governance and ultimately the consolidation of democracy. Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be moving in the right direction, but fruitful and efficacious female, political participation is limited to individual cases. Kemi Ogunsanya proposes tactics to further women’s political participation in Africa:

  • Collaboration between the African Union (AU) and regional structures should be fortified. This cooperation should aim to strengthen electoral processes in Africa, extend standards and monitory mechanisms to endorse gender equality in governance.
  • Member countries’ performance targets should regularly be audited and reviewed by regional and national organisations.
  • Worthwhile female participation would be enhanced by deliberate electoral reform and constitutional amendments as demonstrated by South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.
  • Civil society, women’s and lobby groups are fundamental in advocating gender parity and placing pressure on Governments.
  • The media plays a critical role in the positive portrayal of women’s political plight through their support of women’s election campaigns and challenging existing typecasts of women.
  • Deep-seated attitudes toward gender roles in public life should be altered through extensive educational and public-awareness campaigns if progress is to be made toward equal political representation in Africa.(46)
  • Oppressive cultural traditions, illiteracy, domestic violence and religious structures all combine to set hurdles to women’s advancement.(47) These factors are noteworthy influences when considering female political representation in sub-Saharan Africa. Notwithstanding the strategies for representational improvement noted above, it is imperative that structural and socio-economic matters are addressed at grassroots levels to ensure that gender parity is not only limited to political offices, but become deeply rooted and entrenched in African discourse and practice.

Notes:
(1) Milandré van Wyk is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit (gender.issues@consultancyafrica.com.
(2) Ogunsanya, K., 'Women and Elections in African Politics', in Conflict Trends, 2006, pp. 14-18.
(3) 'Beyond Numbers: Supporting Women’s Political Participation And Promoting Gender Equality In Post-Conflict Governance In Africa. A Review of The Role Of The United Nations Development Fund For Women', UNIFEM, 2006.
(4) Ogunsanya, K., 'Women and Elections in African Politics', in Conflict Trends, 2006, pp. 14-18.
(5) Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2001. “Women and Democracy: Cultural Obstacles to Equal Representation” in Journal of Democracy, 12(3).
(6) Dahlerup, D. 2003. Quotas are changing the History of Women. A paper presented at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)/Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA)/Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Conference themed The Implementation of Quotas: African Experiences. Pretoria, South Africa, 11–12 November 2003
(7) Bayart, J.F. 1993. The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly. London: Longman.
(8) Ogunsanya, K., 'Women and Elections in African Politics', in Conflict Trends, 2006, pp. 14-18.
(9) Connolly, E. 2005. “Women’s representation in national parliaments in Sub-Saharan Africa: An ideational framework for investigation.” Working Papers in International Studies Centre for International Studies Dublin City University. Working Paper 2 of 2005.
(10) Ogunsanya, K., 'Women and Elections in African Politics', in Conflict Trends, 2006, pp. 14-18.
(11) Ibid
(12) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(13) Geisler, G. 2000. “‘Parliament is another terrain of struggle’: women, men and politics in South Africa.” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, 38 (4):605-630.
(14) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(15) Kenworthy, L. & Malami, M. 1999. “Gender inequality in Political Representation: A World-wide Comparative Analysis.” in Social Forces, 78(1):235-268.
(16) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(17) Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2001. “Women and Democracy: Cultural Obstacles to Equal Representation” in Journal of Democracy, 12(3).
(18) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(19) Kenworthy, L. & Malami, M. 1999. “Gender inequality in Political Representation: A World-wide Comparative Analysis.” in Social Forces, 78(1):235-268.
(20) Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2001. “Women and Democracy: Cultural Obstacles to Equal Representation” in Journal of Democracy, 12(3).
(21) Ibid
(22) Connolly, E. 2005. “Women’s representation in national parliaments in Sub-Saharan Africa: An ideational framework for investigation.” Working Papers in International Studies Centre for International Studies Dublin City University. Working Paper 2 of 2005.
(23) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(24) Ibid
(25) Kenworthy, L. & Malami, M. 1999. “Gender inequality in Political Representation: A World-wide Comparative Analysis.” in Social Forces, 78(1):235-268.
(26) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(27) Ibid
(28) Ibid
(29) Ibid
(30) Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2001. “Women and Democracy: Cultural Obstacles to Equal Representation” in Journal of Democracy, 12(3).
(31) Ibid
(32) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(33) Dahlerup, D. 2003. Quotas are changing the History of Women. A paper presented at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)/Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA)/Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Conference themed The Implementation of Quotas: African Experiences. Pretoria, South Africa, 11–12 November 2003
(34) Ogunsanya, K., 'Women and Elections in African Politics', in Conflict Trends, 2006, pp. 14-18.
(35) Geisler, G. 2000. “‘Parliament is another terrain of struggle’: women, men and politics in South Africa.” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, 38 (4):605-630.
(36) Ibid
(37) Myakayaka-Manzini, M. 2003. “Political Party Quotas in South Africa.” A paper presented at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)/Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA)/Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum The Implementation of Quotas: African Experiences conference, Pretoria, South Africa, 11–12 November 2003.
(38) Geisler, G. 2000. “‘Parliament is another terrain of struggle’: women, men and politics in South Africa.” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, 38 (4):605-630.
(39) Ibid
(40) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(41) Tripp, A.M. 1994. “Gender, Political Participation and the Transformation of Associational Life in Uganda and Tanzania.” in African Studies Review, 37(1):107-131.
(42) Yoon, M.Y. 2004. “Explaining Women’s Legislative Representation in Sub-Saharan Africa.” in Legislative Studies Quarterly, 29 (3):447-468.
(43) Ottemoeller, D. 1999. “The Politics of Gender in Uganda: Symbolism in the service of Pragmatism.” in African Studies Review, 42(2): 87-104.
(44) Tripp, A.M. 1994. “Gender, Political Participation and the Transformation of Associational Life in Uganda and Tanzania.” in African Studies Review, 37(1):107-131.
(45) Goetz, A.M. 2002. “No shortcuts to power: constraints on women’s political effectiveness in Uganda.” in Journal of Modern African Studies, 40(4):549-575.
(46) Ogunsanya, K., 'Women and Elections in African Politics', in Conflict Trends, 2006, pp. 14-18.
(47) Ibid

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