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Maximizing Opportunities: Political Parties, Women’s Wings and the Gender Agenda in Africa’s Developing Democracies

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Political parties shape the nature of women's participation in politics. Internal party policies, rules and structures, both formal and informal, can constrain or facilitate women's participation in political processes. Being conscious of the fact that women constitute an important electoral constituency which cannot be ignored, many political parties around the globe have increasingly adopted measures intended to promote women's participation in both internal and external political processes as well as to address issues affecting women. Such measures have included adopting gender quotas, providing financial assistance such as waiving candidate nomination fees for women, and helping with training and skills-building for women, among others. Additionally, the creation of a women's section, branch or wing is one common mechanism that parties adopt to enhance the engagement of women, particularly within the party. Although the specific objectives for establishing a women's wing may slightly differ across political parties, women's wings generally perform certain core functions which include: promoting issues affecting women, deepening women's participation in internal party structures and processes, devising and advising on strategies and policies to support women, and mobilizing women for the party.

The establishment of women's wings by political parties is not a recent thing. Norway created the Social Democratic Workers Party establishing its women's branch in 1912, several decades before world governments committed political parties to consider devising initiatives that allow women to fully participate in their internal policy-making structures, among others. In Africa, women's wings are as much a feature of party politics as elsewhere. With the faces of political parties, especially party leadership still heavily dominated by males, women's wings are too often the only guaranteed place for women within party structures. They provide a hazy semblance of party commitment towards gender issues. Some women's wings are well established and autonomous while also well integrated into party structures, like the Women's League of South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) while others are less elaborate. Parties without institutionalized women's wings (as is the case in Nigeria) have national woman leaders who sit on party decision-making bodies and have the responsibility of mobilizing and organizing women for the party, among others duties.

Within the continent, the practice of having women's wings has been criticized as a way of relegating women's issues, as the wings are feminized and marginalized. But although the establishment of a women's wing may not be sufficient for addressing issues affecting women, they present an opportunity for women within political parties to work towards improving the situation of women both within and outside of their parties, and in particular pushing for better inclusion of women into decision-making structures. In this regard, the ability of women's wings to strive for the meaningful participation of women in politics is fundamental to their existence, otherwise it becomes paradoxical. Already, some women's wings within Africa and around the world have been able break barriers and make significant impact on women's issues. In South Africa, Cambodia, Croatia, and Serbia for instance, women's wings have worked to secure quotas for women into decision-making structures for parliamentary elections, provided training and support to campaign efforts of women candidates, developed plans and policy proposals addressing issues affecting women, and built strategic relationships with external stakeholders.

In spite of the opportunities that women's wings portend, many on the continent have yet to live up to serious expectations. The campaign and electioneering activities of their parties have yet to yield many results for the group they represent. Mobilizing party women and supporting electioneering activities is one of the major functions of a women's wing, as stated earlier. After all, electoral victory by their parties presents a much bigger opportunity to advance women's issues. The problem however is the inability of women's wings to equally use their platform to spearhead issues affecting women beginning from within their party. Within political parties, the wings provide an important mechanism for driving up the agenda on women's issues and thus their ability to shape and affect policy is critical. If women's wings on the continent are not able influence the agenda on women even at the party level, it will be more difficult for them to pick up bigger battles and win when their parties political power.

Whether formal or informal, women's wings need to establish themselves as forces to reckon with within their parties especially on issues affecting women. They need to wean themselves of the 'tea-making brigade' tag which is sometimes associated with them to capture the loss of meaningful engagement within the political party. In South Africa, the ANC's Women's League did not only work hard to justify its recognition and inclusion into the ANC but also worked hard to establish itself as a champion of women's issues despite being initially associated with catering and mobilization duties for the party. Political parties can affect the nature of engagement and activities of their women's wings but the latter can equally shape the attitude and policy direction of their political parties towards women and women's issues which is what the ANC's Women's League did. The extent to which a party is able to adopt measures to address women's issues can greatly be determined by the efforts of its women's wings. The ANC's inclusion of more women in government has largely been attributed to its vibrant Women's League which also campaigned for a gender quota and affirmative action.

Women's wings within Africa can serve as a useful internal mechanism for championing some of the many issues confronting women both within and outside the party system and from national to local levels of party structure. They can also work to promote and support more women to get into local government structures since they work or operate all the way to the local levels and across the political divide. Women's wings can amplify voices in championing common causes. This they can do by joining forces with their counterparts in other parties. Women's wings can also contribute significantly to broader efforts towards improving the circumstances of women. Since their ability to achieve some of these objectives will be determined to some extent by the level of resources they have, women's wings need to devise fundraising strategies that will enable them to carry out strategic activities with or without financial support from their parties. Close collaboration with civil society and other international organizations can support and strengthen efforts such as training and capacity-building for women aspirants, among others. However, support by the political parties themselves is most important.

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: Africa Renewal via Flickr

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