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Beyond the Numbers: Women's Inclusion in Political Processes in Africa

UN Women Executive Director speaks at MDG and Young Women in Africa Event at UNHQ

Next year, the world will be marking 20 years of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which is the global framework for advancing gender equality and addressing issues affecting women and girls. Coincidentally, 2015 will also be the target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have far-reaching impacts on the situation of the world's women and girls. And as the world reviews progress on the twelve critical areas of concern outlined in the Beijing Declaration, women's access to power and political participation will be an important issue for review. While there has been considerable progress in women's political inclusion globally, with the proportion of female legislators in national parliaments for instance doubling between the period 1997 and 2014, women's overall political participation is still at very low levels. The UN Women estimates that given the pace of progress witnessed over the last 15 years, it will take approximately 40 years more to attain gender parity in national parliaments.

While change often comes with long stretches of time, women's political participation is one goal that cannot be left to the ticking of the clock. The importance of women's necessary inclusion in decision-making structures cannot be over-emphasized. Women are development partners whose potential needs to be harnessed when tackling the numerous challenges facing the world. One means for doing so is by ensuring that they are part of decision-making processes, and Africa will not be left out of this process. The following paragraphs highlight Africa's strides towards women's political participation, as well as the challenges and potentials for speeding up progress.

Behind the Statistics 

The status of women's access to power and political inclusion in Africa generally mirrors the worldwide situation. The continent's average figure of 22.5% of female representation in national parliaments (both upper and lower/single house) is slightly ahead of the world average of 21.7%. Considerable improvements have taken place in the last two decades with women increasingly taking up key political positions such as presidents/prime ministers, vice-presidents, house speakers, chief justices, and cabinet ministers. Several women now head powerful ministerial portfolios like Finance in Nigeria and Defense in South Africa, among others. Today, several African countries are leading the way, as far as the proportion of female legislators are concerned, with four African countries (Rwanda, South Africa, Seychelles, and Senegal) being among the top ten countries in the world with impressive female representations in national parliaments. Each of these four countries has an inspiring female representation of more than 40% in lower or single house parliaments.

About 12 out of 50 African countries with data available as of February 2014 have at least 30% women representation in lower or single house parliaments, compared to the deplorable situation in January 1997 when only 13 out of 48 African countries had women's representation between 10-27%. At the time, only one African country (Seychelles) featured in the top ten countries with the highest representation of women in the world. In 1997, sub-Saharan Africa ranked behind Europe, the Americas and Asia in women's representation in parliament; but today, the region ranks ahead of Asia, Arab States and the Pacific. Gender quotas, increased global efforts at political equality and commitment of political leadership are some of the factors responsible for these gains.

But while these figures are appreciable, there is the tendency to overlook the persistent challenges facing the continent's women in playing meaningful roles in the political spheres of life. Women across the continent continue to face well-known, documented, age-old socio-cultural barriers, which deprive them of needed support to fully participate in political processes. Gender role stereotyping is still very much a reality and the idea of women's equality stands at risk of being a mere rhetoric if not a mockery, lacking serious commitment towards its realization. Women's participation in various decision-making structures, especially at local levels, is still very minimal and should not be shrouded by isolated cases of successes. Beyond women's representation in national parliaments, where nearly half of African countries still have less than 20%, the overall picture of women's political participation is worse, with only a few women holding positions in cabinet positions, political party leadership, and local government positions.

Equally important are the issues of how female political candidates on the continent are assessed by society, how female office holders are related to by their colleagues, and how the performance of female office holders are evaluated, which is often done from the simple lenses of gender. But perhaps most importantly is how women on the continent are accepting the challenge of getting on-board politically. There is no complete lack of competent and capable women who can take up various political positions. What is lacking is the will to accept the challenge, the courage and confidence to defy the odds and the support of family and society to accomplish a mission.

Intensifying Efforts at Women's Political Inclusion in Africa 

It is worrying that after several years of global campaigns at promoting women's equality issues, much of the fundamental challenges remain the same – socio-cultural practices and values. Fortunately these challenges are not insurmountable if dedicated efforts are put in place. Continuous efforts at sensitization, capacity-building and support for women are necessary.

Significantly, across the continent, women have become highly conscious of their right to gender equality, as well as their capability to be political leaders. According to the Afrobarometer, 72% of women across 34 African countries indicate they should have equal rights as men and another 68% believe women are just as capable as men to be political leaders. For whereas in most African countries the rights of all persons to participate in national life is enshrined, such factors make are real. As attention is increasingly being put on the quality, contribution and output of female office holders particularly in advancing the course of fellow women, it is important that efforts are also not diverted away from the real challenges confronting women's political participation. The modest strides that have already been made towards women's political inclusion need to multiply and support African countries in breaking down persistent barriers in order achieve a continent with equal opportunities for all.

And whereas collective efforts involving national governments, political parties, civil society and feminist movements, regional and global bodies are necessary and have contributed to witnessed improvements, political leadership will need to demonstrate even more serious commitments to improving women's access to power. The UN-intended national-level reviews on the Beijing Platform for Action should be seized as another opportunity to renew and deliver on women's political inclusion.

Rhoda Osei-Afful is a Southern Voices African Research Scholar with the Africa Program at The Wilson Center and also a Research Officer at the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana.

Photo Credit: UN Women via Flickr: "Our Challenges, Our Achievements, Our Future – The Millennium Development Goals and Young Women in Africa with ACORD" event, March 2014.

About the Author

Rhoda Osei-Afful

Former Southern Voices African Research Scholar;
Research Officer, Ghana Center for Democratic Development

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more