Women Break into African Politics

By Gumisai Mutume
Published April 1st 2004 in Africa Recovery

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 people dead.

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 mechanics.

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 whole countries."

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.

Quota systems

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 politics.

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 (ANC).

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 men.

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 up."

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."