Summary: This article highlights the advances made by
women in African politics which has been attributed to the use
of full representation.
Women Break into African Politics
By Gumisai Mutume
Women in Rwanda now top the world rankings of women in
national parliaments, with 49 per cent of representation
compared to a world average of 15.1 per cent. This year
the country commemorates the genocide of 1994, when Rwandan
women suffered death, humiliation, persecution and sexual
abuse during a 100-day massacre that left more than 800,000
As the country undergoes a period of reconstruction, women
are taking an active role. They not only head about a third of
all households, but have also taken up many jobs that were
formerly the preserve of men, as in construction and
However, their most notable achievement has been in
politics. Thanks to a new constitution, 24 out of 80 seats in
the lower house of parliament are reserved for women. During
the country's September 2003 general election, the first after
the genocide, an additional 15 women were voted into
non-reserved seats, bringing 39 into the lower house. In the
upper house, 6 out of 20 seats are reserved for women. To
attain this, Rwandan women lobbied heavily, helped to draft
the new constitution and developed voting guidelines that
guaranteed seats for women candidates. They were also able to
push for the creation of a government ministry of women's
affairs to promote policies in favour of women's interests.
"Especially in post-conflict situations, where new
constitutions and legislative structures are being created, it
is critical that women are present at the peace table and in
post-war policy-making," says UN Development Fund for
Women (UNIFEM) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer. The agency
participated in post-genocide reconstruction in Rwanda,
helping women to prepare for political office.
"It will be interesting to see what the entry of so
many women in the national assembly will do for politics in
Rwanda," says the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a
Geneva-based organization representing 138 parliaments
worldwide. IPU President Anders Johnsson observes that the
European Nordic countries have an established history of
women's participation in decision-making, but that Rwanda now
overtakes the long-time leader, Sweden, where women constitute
45 per cent of parliamentarians.
Women in politics
The drive to promote women in decision-making positions
worldwide gained momentum during the 1980s and early 1990s
through a series of international conferences. Further impetus
came from the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in
Beijing, China, in 1995, which called for at least 30 per
cent representation by women in national governments. In
September 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit in New York, world
leaders pledged to "promote gender equality and the
empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty,
hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly
sustainable." At that meeting, world leaders adopted the
goal of gender equality and seven others, known collectively
as the Millennium Development Goals. Since then, the number of
women in leadership positions has been rising.
"Study after study has shown that there is no
effective development strategy in which women do not play a
central role," says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. When
women are fully involved, he notes, the benefits are immediate
- families are healthier and better fed and their income,
savings and investments go up. "And what is true of
families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of
Rwanda's success in bringing women to the political table
mirrors that of a small, but growing number of countries in
sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa and Mozambique, for
example, women hold 30 per cent of the seats in
parliament - matching the international target. Women's
representation in national parliaments across sub-Saharan
Africa equals the world average of about 15 per cent.
Despite being one of the poorest regions in the world, the
level of women's representation in parliament in sub-Saharan
Africa is higher than in many wealthier countries, observes
UNIFEM in its Progress of the World's Women 2002
report. In the US, France and Japan for instance, women hold
slightly more than 10 per cent of parliamentary seats.
Between 2000 and 2002, elections were held in 23 countries
in sub-Saharan Africa, with increases in women
parliamentarians in 14 of them. Most of the countries that
have achieved significant increases in women's participation
have done so through the use of quotas - a form of affirmative
action in favour of women. Worldwide, about 30 of the world's
more than 190 countries apply some form of female quotas in
In Uganda, says Ms. Beatrice Kiraso, who was elected to
parliament in 1996, quotas kick-started the process of
improving women's participation in national politics. A cycle
began in which "women gained confidence in women, opening
up even more avenues." Uganda's quota system evolved from
the current government's origins in a guerrilla war during the
1980s, when women fought alongside men in the National
Resistance Army (NRA).
In each of the zones the rebels won, local councils were
set up, with each including a secretary for women's affairs.
Eventually when the NRA came to power in 1986, it introduced
the system into national politics. By 1994, the government of
President Yoweri Museveni appointed Dr. Wandira Kazibwe as
vice president, making her one of the highest ranking women in
politics on the continent.
In South Africa too, women played a key role in the
national liberation struggle and today are benefiting from a
quota system adopted by the ruling African National Congress
In Africa, there are three main quota systems:
-- Constitutional quotas. Some countries,
including Burkina Faso and Uganda, have constitutional
provisions reserving seats in national parliament for women.
-- Election law quotas. Provisions are written
into national legislation, as in Sudan.
-- Political party quotas. Parties adopt internal
rules to include a certain percentage of women as candidates
for office. This is the case with the governing parties in
South Africa and Mozambique.
Lack of support
However, while introducing quotas provides a means of
addressing the gender imbalance in decision-making, the
practice often lacks support from important political actors
or meets opposition in societies that have strong patriarchal
traditions. Much like the debate around affirmative action,
those opposed to quota systems say they discriminate against
The Zambia National Women's Lobby Group accuses its
government of lacking political will. While the Zambian
government has ratified a number of international instruments
to promote women in politics, the group reports, none
"have been domesticated." Cultural and traditional
practices subjecting women to male dominance have also
hindered women's progress in achieving gender equality in
politics. Women face barriers such as "conflict,
intimidation, negative attitudes, stereotypes by society and
lack of support from the electorate," notes the group.
The Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral
Assistance (IDEA) reports that women politicians across the
globe confront a "masculine model" of politics. In
many cases they lack political party support and have no
access to quality education and training to enter politics.
"Political life is organized for male norms and values
and in many cases even for male life-styles," notes Ms.
Margaret Dongo, a Zimbabwean politician. "But this must
and will change." Zimbabwe is one of four countries in
sub-Saharan Africa where the proportion of female
parliamentarians declined during elections in 2000-02.
Legislated quotas are "hopelessly wrong," Chief
Whip Douglas Gibson of the opposition Democratic Alliance in
South Africa told the women's advocacy group Gender Links.
"Would you then say that 10 per cent of the cricket team
should be white and the rest black because that is the make up
of the nation? You would not, because not everyone wants to
play cricket." Unlike the ruling ANC, the Democratic
Alliance does not reserve seats for women.
More needs to be done
Simply increasing women's share of seats in parliament
alone is not a solution, notes the UNIFEM report. It does not
guarantee that they will make decisions that benefit the
majority of women. "It can only level the playing field
on which women battle for equality," reports the UN
agency. Many factors hinder elected women from promoting laws
that aid women. These may include limits on policy choices
parliamentarians can make due to the loan conditions set by
international financial institutions. They may also be
restrained by "national constitutions that hamper
parliamentary power in relation to the executive powers of
government and by political parties that exert strong
discipline over their members," notes UNIFEM.
Some gender activists also argue that quotas may constitute
a "glass ceiling" beyond which women cannot go
unless they engage in additional struggle. Others contend that
women who come into power under such a system may be
undervalued or viewed as not politically deserving. Quotas
"can only be a transitory solution not a cure for the
makings of a true democracy," says Mrs. Mata Sy Diallo,
former vice-president of the Senegalese National Assembly.
The IDEA institute in Stockholm argues women politicians
around the world are at a disadvantage in terms of financial
resources, since women are a majority of the world's poor and
in many patriarchal societies cannot own property and do not
have money of their own. Despite such hindrances, a recent
IDEA study recommends that women around the world learn the
rules of politics, create conditions that allow more women to
participate and then eventually change the rules to suit the
needs of the majority of women.
According to Ms. Birgitta Dahl, a Swedish parliamentarian,
"Political parties, the educational system,
non-governmental organizations, trade unions, churches - all
must take responsibility within their own organization to
systematically promote women's participation, from the bottom
South Africa's Speaker of Parliament Frene Ginwala insists
that the main responsibility falls on women themselves.
"In any society and situation it is those most affected
who must bring about change," she says. "Those who
are privileged benefit from a system that marginalizes others.
It is up to us, the women."