Breaking Barriers: African Women in Politics and the Journey to Equality

Reading Time: 6 minutes
As African women continue to participate in politics, a positive trend is observed in the continent. (Image Credit: The United Nations)

In the heart of Africa, a powerful transformation is unfolding—one that transcends the boundaries of tradition and paves the way for equality. Imagine a continent where women, once confined by societal norms, are now emerging as formidable forces in politics. This is a captivating tale of African women breaking through gender roles and advocating for their rights.

In recent years, the rise of African women in politics has become a beacon of hope, challenging stereotypes and reshaping societal expectations. This monumental shift is not just a local affair; it’s a global movement that signifies progress in pursuing gender equality. As we delve into the evolving roles of African women in politics, we witness a remarkable journey towards a more inclusive and just society.

Picture the scene where women leaders from diverse backgrounds take center stage, steering their nations toward prosperity. The significance of this event is not just a matter of political representation but a testament to the resilience and determination of women in the face of historical gender disparities.

African women have long been marginalized, confined to traditional roles, and often excluded from decision-making processes. However, winds of change are blowing across the continent, as women continue to break through the glass ceiling. The increased participation of women in political arenas is fostering a new era where gender does not determine one’s ability to lead.

One cannot ignore the influence of trailblazing figures who have paved the way for this transformation. From grassroots activism to political offices, African women are making their mark. This not only challenges existing gender norms but also opens doors for future generations, creating a ripple effect that goes beyond borders.

The progress made in achieving gender equality in African politics is undeniably inspiring. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that the journey is far from over. There are still challenges to be faced and barriers to be dismantled. But the momentum is building, and the voices of African women are resonating louder than ever.

Status of women and politics in African

 The underrepresentation of women in African politics is a complex and deeply rooted issue that warrants a comprehensive examination. Formally enshrined in many African constitutions, the representation of women in politics often faces significant barriers, hindering their active participation in governance and decision-making processes across the continent. Understanding the multifaceted nature of this challenge is crucial to implementing effective strategies to address it.  From post-colonial eras to present-day governance, the involvement of women in politics has been encumbered by various factors such as cultural norms, patriarchal structures, and socio-economic disparities. This legacy has had a lasting impact on the opportunities available to women in political spheres across Africa.

Women have historically been disadvantaged in participating in politics. Africa and the rest of the world are far from achieving 50% women’s representation in politics – at all levels of governance. In 2021, Africa had 24 percent of women’s representation in parliament. Lack of political will, restrictive electoral frameworks, and deeply entrenched patriarchy are some of the root causes of these low figures. At the same time, there are many instruments, laws, and policies in Africa committing to equal and effective participation of women in politics. Two main obstacles prevent women from participating fully in political life, according to UN Women. These are structural barriers, whereby discriminatory laws and institutions still limit women’s ability to run for office, and capacity gaps, which occur when women are less likely than men to have the education, contacts, and resources needed to become effective leaders. 

Research consistently highlights the marginalization of women in African politics, with obstacles ranging from institutional biases within political parties to societal challenges such as inadequate childcare, limited access to healthcare, and economic constraints. Additionally, the patriarchal nature of political structures in many African countries often marginalizes women, reinforcing traditional gender roles and limiting their access to public spaces and decision-making platforms.

As countries strive to implement Sustainable Development Goal 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” governments must also embed gender parity in constitutions and legal frameworks. They must realize full compliance with the law, eliminate all forms of violence against women,, and ensure that girls receive a quality education. 

Recent Improvement 

In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of women seated in parliament grew in 2018, with a regional average shareofof 23.7%, according to the just-released 2019 edition of the biennial Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Map of Women in Politics.

The IP, made up of more than 170 national parliaments from around the world, tracks the number of women elected to parliaments globally every year and produces an analysis that helps to monitor progress, setbacks and trends.

Djibouti, which in the year 2000 had zero women in parliament, saw the most dramatic gains globally among lower and single chambers. The share of women in parliament rose in 2018 from 10.8% to 26.2% (a 15.4-point increase), a total of 15 women, states the report, which was launched during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN headquarters in New York in March 2019. 

Ethiopia saw the largest increase in women’s political representation in the executive branch, from 10% women ministers in 2017 to 47.6% in 2019.

On ministerial positions, the report highlights another striking gain—more women in Africa are now in charge of portfolios traditionally held by men than in 2017. There are 30% more women ministers of defense, 52.9% more women ministers of finance, and 13.6% more women ministers of foreign affairs.

The usual practice is to appoint women to “soft issue” portfolios, such as social affairs, children and family.

“We still have a steep road ahead, but the growing proportion of women ministers is encouraging, especially where we see a rise in the number of countries with gender-balanced ministerial cabinets,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, at the launch of the report. She urged countries to make bold moves to dramatically increase women’s representation in decision making.

More women in politics leads to more inclusive decisions and can change people’s image of what a leader looks like, added Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, formerly a minister and Deputy President in South Africa.

Among the top African countries with a high percentage of women in ministerial positions are Rwanda (51.9%), South Africa (48.6%), Ethiopia (47.6%), Seychelles (45.5%), Uganda (36.7%) and Mali (34.4%).

The lowest percentage in Africa was in Morocco (5.6%), which has only one female minister in a cabinet of 18. Other countries with fewer than 10% women ministers include Nigeria (8%), Mauritius (8.7%) and Sudan (9.5%).

Notably, Rwanda, the world leader in the number of women in parliament, saw a slight reduction in their number, from 64% in 2017 to 61.3% in 2018. Other African countries with high percentages of women MPs include Namibia (46.2%), South Africa (42.7%) and Senegal (41.8%), according to the report.

Countries achieving the 30% benchmark appear to have adopted a form of affirmative action. For example, Rwanda has constitutional provisions reserving 30% of seats for women in its bicameral legislature while South Africa’s Municipal Structures Act of 1998 requires political parties to “ensure that 50% of the candidates on the party list are women” and that “women must be equitably represented in a ward committee.” Although there is no penalty for noncompliance in South Africa, the country’s ruling African National Congress voluntarily allocates 50% of parliamentary seats to women

Strategies for Navigating Patriarchal Structures:

In response to these challenges, women in African politics have strategically navigated patriarchal structures by deploying various nuanced approaches to negotiate access and privilege within the political sphere. These strategies are often critical for their survival and success within a system that may be resistant to their participation.

Qualitative research involving interviews with female politicians and their male allies from diverse African countries can provide valuable insights into the lived experiences and challenges faced by women in politics. This localized approach allows for a nuanced understanding of the barriers and strategies employed, shedding light on the resilience and determination of African women in the political sphere.

Despite the absence of official quota policies in many African countries, initiatives have 

been launched to address the low level of women’s participation in politics. These initiatives are vital for creating pathways for women to engage in politics and for promoting gender equality in political representation.

It’s important to recognize that the underrepresentation of women in politics is not unique to Africa, as it is a global issue. However, several African countries have made significant progress in women’s political empowerment, as exemplified by the notable percentage of women in parliamentary and ministerial positions in some nations. Understanding these global trends can provide insights into potential solutions and best practices for addressing the underrepresentation of women in African politics.

Addressing the economic disparities faced by female politicians in comparison to their male counterparts is critical. Promoting equal access to economic resources can help level the playing field, fostering greater gender equality in the political landscapes of African nations.

In conclusion, the underrepresentation of women in African politics requires a holistic and intersectional approach, considering historical, cultural, socio-economic, and political factors. By understanding the lived experiences of women in politics and advocating for policy reforms and initiatives, African countries can work towards achieving greater gender equality and representation within their political landscapes. So let us celebrate the achievements and recognize the work that still lies ahead for a more inclusive and just future.

Written by Paula Onuoha

Share this:

You may also like...