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The increased presence of Women in Sub-Saharan African parliaments: towards a shift in African policies?

By Lucie Gil, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.

At the fourth international conference on women, which was held in 1995 and ended with the release of the Beijing action plan and program for action, governments came together with the objective of reaching 30% of female representatives in their respective national parliaments. Since then, the number of women involved in African legislative bodies has been increasing significantly. According to the inter-parliamentary union (IPU) and on the basis of information provided by national parliaments, the average of seats occupied by women in the Sub-Saharan region is 20.8%, at the exact same level as the world average. Moreover, Rwanda occupied the first position on the 189 countries listed in the survey with 56.3% of women in its lower house and 38.5% in the upper one. The East African country is not the only one of the region to do rather well: Seychelles, Senegal and South Africa are in the top ten while Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola and Burundi all appear in the top thirty.

A number of countries have implemented quotas in order to improve female representation at the legislative level. These kinds of measures tend to be quite debated among feminists and gender studies academics, not only in Africa. An article published by the Chr. Michelsen Institute summarizes the debate in one question: beyond numbers, do quotas really empower women? Lena Krook from Rutgers University explains in the same article that “electoral gender quotas are a simple solution to a complex problem” (CMI, “Women’s representation in African parliaments”, 2012). Empirical findings tend to differ slightly and do not always lead to the same conclusion. Quotas definitely act in favor of women´s representation in institutions. However, that does not necessarily mean that their voice will be heard. In some countries, for instance, it appears that “the quota system is usually controlled by political parties, and this often means that women feel they must be loyal to the party line”. At the same time, it appears that “numbers do count in that they guarantee the continued presence and normalization of women’s issues on the agenda” (Claire Devlin and Robert Elgie, “The effect of increased women’s representation in parliament: the case of Rwanda”, in Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 61 No. 2, 2008).

In their case study about Rwanda, a fascinating example of  women empowerment not only in parliamentarian bodies but at all level of institutions and society, Claire Devlin and Robert Elgie distinguish three different areas that can be influenced by the increased presence of women in parliaments: the culture of parliament, the political agenda and the public policies. Important changes have been observed in the way of working of parliamentarians. Devlin and Elgie note that female representatives are no longer relegated to traditional “women’s areas” such as education, health care or social policies, which suggests an impact on the patriarchal way of thinking that still dominates number of political processes in the world. They also underline the importance of women solidarity inside the assembly as well as a tendency to work more closely to the grassroots level. Whether this is truly related to gender remains to be seen but similar findings have been made in other countries. The South African case is remarkable in that regard: as the influence of women increased in the legislative institutions, measures were adopted to adapt the parliamentarian schedule and calendar to school hours in order to enable women to keep taking care of their children. This kind of shift is extremely interesting in terms of gender role as it appears quite paradoxical. Indeed, this suggests that at the same time as women start taking over male dominated roles by entering political positions, they do not give up what can be considered as their most traditional and patriarchal role, the one of mother. Is this a sign of reluctance to move from the conservative way of thinking, or is it one of women’s empowerment, pointing out that women may eventually manage to “have it all”?  This opens a full range of opportunities for future studies.

Regarding the two other areas emphasized in Claire Devlin and Robert Elgie’s paper, Maria M. Nghidinwa and Gertrude Kitaburaza prove to be quite optimistic in the capacity of women to change African policy (Maria M. Nghidinwa et Gertrude Kitaburaza, “Les femmes parlementaires à l’origine de changements capitaux dans la politique africaine”, UNICEF, 2008). The fact is that decision and policy making in general have been subjected to gender bias, following male dominating interests as well as categories, such as the distinction between public and private. The presence of women in legislative bodies could then be a source of change in the issues enacted in parliaments, bringing to the table new concerns as well as mainstreaming gender, to use quite a trendy expression in the current international organization’s discourses. In Rwanda, gender issues and women’s rights have been afforded a high rank in the political agenda. Women’s economic advancement, the fight against rape and sexual violence as well as specific areas of concerns such as HIV/aids or property rights entered the political discussions as women’s representation improved in a number of Sub-Saharan African parliaments. As underlined by Devlin and Elgie, it does not always imply concrete measures and implementations. In that regard, the third area, public policies, tend to remain the “most resistant to gender effects”. However, significant laws have been voted in various cases. Among them we can mention the law on the prevention, protection and punishment of any gender-based violence in Rwanda in 2006 or laws on genital mutilation and domestic violence in Uganda between 2006 and 2011. Similar pieces of legislation have also been adopted in Namibia but their implementation appeared to be problematic, which tend to confirm the reluctance of the third area to women’s influence.

What needs mentioning is another debate that agitates the feminist and gender studies community and appears quite clearly in several interviews of Rwandan female representatives, conducted by Devlin and Elgie. Are women in parliament supposed to lobby for the advancement of women in society and for women’s rights in general? Once again, empirical findings point out that there might not be an automatic cause-and-effect relation between the presence of women in parliaments and the adoption of laws in favor of gender equality. On the contrary, some women appear to be quite attached to traditional familial and patriarchal values. As mentioned before, it might be linked to a tendency to stick to the conservative positions of their party, in order to preserve their position in the parliament and earn some legitimacy in the eyes of their male counterparts. On the other hand, one could also wonder if women parliamentarians have to be women before being parliamentarians.




Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication

Institute for Cultural Diplomacy




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