Beyond Gender Quotas in African Politics: How to Deliver on Women’s Issues in Africa
On Thursday, July 24, 2014, Wilson Center’s Africa Program co-sponsored a public event with the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative titled, “Beyond Gender Quotas in African Politics: How to Deliver on Women’s Issues in Africa.” Expert panelists, Ms. Rhoda Osei-Afful, a current Southern Voices Scholar with the Africa Program, and Ms. Caroline Hubbard, Program Manager of the Women’s Political Participation Program at the National Democratic Institute, examined issues affecting African women in the political arena, particularly in their efforts to advance women’s interests across the continent. The discussion was introduced by Ms. Alyson Lyons of the Africa Program and moderated by Deputy Director for the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative, Ms. Beth Cunningham.
The Impact of Women’s Political Participation
While great strides have been made in enhancing gender inclusiveness in most development processes, gender inequality remains a significant challenge in Africa, from education to political appointments. Women and girls continue to be disadvantaged in almost every sector. As Ms. Osei-Afful put it, “The fundamental issue still remains: the need for equal opportunities and equal rights.” She emphasized the need to look beyond the gender quota system and recognize the vital contributions of African female government representatives in their respective nations, as well as the continent at large.
According to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, women constituted about one-fifth of all sub-Saharan Members of Parliament at the end of 2012. At first glance, this figure may not seem impressive; however, it represents an increase in women’s participation in higher levels of decision-making over the past decade. The 2012 World Bank report revealed that when more women are elected into office, policy-making increasingly reflects the priorities of families and women. Ms. Osei-Afful relayed that some African countries have taken steps in the right direction by passing parity laws and setting gender quotas to create more room for female candidates. Countries like Senegal have set quotas for women on candidate lists. In Rwanda, an increase in the number of female lawmakers led to progressive legislation on land inheritance and reproductive rights. Additionally, the increased percentage of reserved parliamentary seats for women in Rwanda led to the championing of the gender-based violence law. Ms. Hubbard further reiterated the importance of quotas in ensuring a critical mass of women in influencing policy decisions. She stated, “Female legislators are more committed to peace, invest more time in community health and education, and are more likely to work cooperatively across party lines than their male counterparts.”
On the whole, it is without doubt that quotas hold tremendous benefits for women; yet, it is also imperative to take into account the possible limitations and challenges they may unintentionally promote. Ms. Osei-Afful noted that, in some instances, quotas have served as barriers rather than gateways, preventing women from competing with their male counterparts for higher positions. In other cases, the quota for female political representation is set at a low 30%, creating a glass ceiling and inhibiting the ability of women to have a stronger voice in decision-making processes.
As African women strive to break political glass ceilings, some are criticized for not delivering adequately to the needs of the women they represent. In the second half of presentations, Ms. Hubbard identified various barriers restricting women’s ability to fully carry out legislative and representative functions. She highlighted three significant areas for consideration:
- Women’s lack of individual confidence and capacity to participate as parliamentarians, as well as their connections to power networks and resources;
- Unconducive working environment, that is, the surrounding socio-cultural norms of the environment/space in which women operate (parliament, parties, society);
- Institutional barriers, including rules, policies and practices of the respective parliaments and political parties.
Summing up their presentations, panelists expounded some strategies, which when adopted could greatly improve meaningful governance across Africa. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Providing parliamentary orientations after elections, as well as conducting a needs assessment of both male and female parliamentarians during the design of a capacity building framework. Oftentimes women join the political pipeline via quota (some through their ties with existing members of parliament, either through family or friends), with potentially little or no prior knowledge of political processes. Whereas they may be able to have a voice, they do not necessarily have the educational capacity to do so, thereby identifying the need for effective capacity-building trainings (negotiation, lobbying, public speaking trainings);
- Including gender sensitization modules into the development agenda. Research has shown that when women are involved in decision-making, they tend to represent aspects of the population that perhaps male parliamentarians do not necessarily know how to represent, and will oftentimes deliver for better democracy;
- Organizing women to form informal caucuses to help leverage their voice and the ability to advocate on issues of concern. Moreover, since women come into office without necessarily having any connection to sources of power, this strategy serves as a way for them to create power networks and draw other civil society groups;
- Creating gender ministries to provide monitoring oversight of passed policies, or establishing women focal points on every parliamentary committee. This would go a long way to facilitate gender mainstreaming in all sectors of government, ultimately addressing issues faced by women;
- Carrying out a yearly index of performing and non-performing African countries. This annual assessment of governance would serve as a check for effective delivery and subsequently lead to the improvement of political, social and economic public goods and services that every state is required to provide its citizens.