Women in African politics need more than numerical strength

By Francis Onditi

The global average of women in national parliaments has nearly doubled, from 11.3 per cent in 1995 to 22.1 per cent in 2015.(1) Despite these gains, the effects of different forms of political regimes and their impacts on women’s participation in political leadership in sub-Saharan Africa is sharply contested. General wisdom contends that women as a political constituency are essential ingredients for democratic governance. Similarly, institutionalisation of democratic principles is viewed as a requisite for increased women’s participation in political life.(2) The dilemma, however, remains, as to whether governance and political structures are enablers or barriers to women’s representation in political leadership? In other words, do numbers matter?

I conceived this article while undertaking a training course on women’s political and economic leadership, at the Golda Meir Center, in Haifa, Israel. In what was designed as “experiential learning”, organisers took us to interact with the members of Knesset (parliament) and other leaders across sectors. In one of the lectures I learnt that women only occupied 27.5% seats out of 120 members of Knesset!(3) Compared to countries such as Rwanda (61.3%), Bolivia (53.1%), Cuba (48.9%) and Iceland (47.6%)(4), it is obvious that Israel lags behind on women’s numerical representation in the parliament. Yet, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2016 was 318.74 billion US dollars, representing 0.51% of the world economy. In 2016, Israel was ranked 49th out of 144 countries in the Gender Gap Index (GPI)(5).

I personally believe some countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are more robust than Israel when it comes to political systems and constitutionalism. By the way, did you know that Israel is among the four democratic countries in the world without a codified constitution? The other countries without documented constitution include the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. A country like Kenya enjoys the new constitution promulgated in 2010, with much of the powers devolved to the citizens. There exist well-structured legal and policy frameworks that guide public affairs, including appointments into public sector within Article 27:8 of the Constitution. In regard to women’s representation in parliament, Kenya (19.4%) is slightly below Israel (27.5%).(6) Moreover, in 2014, women in Kenya comprised 20% in top management of government parastatals, compare to Israel’s 0%.

In the same vein, empowerment of women to top leadership cannot merely be pursued in relation to their numerical strength. A lot more needs to be done in extricating African political systems from patronages and unethical economics. Before I make my contribution to this debate, I have identified critical issues that require urgent attention not only for African leaders, but also the role of civil society organisations, and other eminent political players, in order to address the question of social inequalities.

(subheading)Women and clandestine politics in Africa

Politics is inherently related to development. Inclusion or exclusion of women from political leadership varies from one society to another. However, the propensity that a woman will ascend to power or lose a political battle can be influenced by several structural inhibitions. Firstly, the domination of clientele and patronage politics remains a severe barrier to women’s empowerment. Thus, women aspiring for political leadership in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) suffer double tragedy – the ‘whip’ of cultural norms as well as social and political controls.(7) The ‘big man syndrome’ and ‘silent authoritarianism’, common in clientele politics, remain a major source of ‘servitude’ against dreams of many women to meaningful participation in political leadership. It is for this reason that analysts have warned that patronage politics is closely linked to development capitalism and authoritarianism.(8) In other words, political leaders who occupy positions of authority in the party or public service act as ‘gatekeepers’ by controlling access to resources and opportunities. This was crystal clear during the 2017 political stalemate in Kenya, where the Jubilee regime initiated debates and designed laws allowing civil servants to conduct political campaigns for the incumbent. This had wider ramifications; the divisive politics did not allow women, particularly those from areas considered opposition strongholds, to bid for leadership effectively.

Secondly, it is democratisation at a cross-road.(9) The gendered perspective of the political landscape in SSA is mixed. Since 2000, six women have served as heads of state or government in Africa (including four as acting heads).(10) Although democratic and non-democratic countries in Africa have similar numbers of women parliamentarians, respect for civil liberties can fuel the growth of women’s legislative representation further down the road. Elsewhere, I and my colleagues have argued that, ‘even in the era of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there seem to be no consensus as to whether ‘gender equality’ can be considered as a means for achieving sustainable development’.(11)

Third is the prevailing governance structure. Authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes limit virtually every dimension of political participation. Genuine civic participation and independent media are repressed, the private sector cooperates with the regime (through coercion or voluntarily), voting becomes a meaningless exercise and elected or appointed officials are expected to toe the ruling party’s line.(12) In situations where the autocratic regime hold is slightly weaker, civic and political actors may take advantage of cracks within the regime to engage at the community or local level or work with nascent opposition parties. In authoritarian countries, the space for independent activism by women’s groups is severely constrained. In some circumstances, where the incumbent perceives tough competition from the opposition and civil society groupings, gender equality can be seen by state authorities, and even within the broader society, as a threat to national security or culture.

Fifth is the absence of electoral integrity. In essence, this situation undermines the value of voting and conditions women’s participation in political parties and electoral campaigns.(13) In some cases, autocrats have imposed quotas within the party or parliament such that an apparent “commitment to gender equality” co-exists with a lack of genuine democratic participation. Top-level leadership of these countries is nearly always masculine such that the multiplication of women presidents in the world over the past ten years is almost entirely limited to the domain of democratic countries. In some semi-authoritarian and authoritarian contexts, there is greater space for participation at the subnational level, particularly around local governance and service delivery. The debate has been about the complications that political regimes add to the gender-based violence. However, some scholars argue that hyper-masculinity, often exercised by men in power, is a sign of deepened power relations.(14)

Sixth, in democratic transitions that are “flawed” or “stuck,” fundamental political rights are respected and elections are ‘somewhat’ free, fair and contested by multiple political parties. However, the path to democratic consolidation is stymied by at least one of the following three factors: a) a weak representation of citizens; b) as was the case in the Kenyan presidential election in 2017, an unproductive stalemate between political forces; and c) as is still the case in Burundi and South Sudan, power held by de facto institutions such as the military or powerful individuals, including political elites, business men, bureaucrats.

In consolidated democratic systems, government repression is not the problem. Journalists are able to investigate and report stories. Voters exercise their rights in a context of competitive and free and fair elections. Parliaments and the judiciary are independent and represent checks on executive power. All is not rosy however. Even full/consolidated democracies suffer from ills such as political and social inequality and citizen apathy and dissatisfaction with representative democracy.(15) In flawed democracies, parties are a common Achilles heel, tending to be leader-centric, poorly rooted, non-programmatic and weak on internal democracy.(16)

Some regimes combine democratic and authoritarian characteristics. Often in these contexts, formal democratic processes, particularly elections, are used as a means to obtain and maintain power. These regimes take measures to prolong and expand executive authority by abusing state resources, harassing the opposition, and violating the separation of powers. Assassination of political dissents and those perceived as obstacles to the oligarchy becomes a norm. Yet, absolute authoritarian governments take the abuses mentioned above a step further. Political and civil rights are extremely limited, if not non-existent. Independent media and civil society are severely restricted and activists operate at great risk. To the extent that opposition political parties exist, it is in name only. In Uganda, for instance, for several decades since President Yoweri Museni took power in 1986, the country’s legislature and judiciary operate at the bidding of the executive.

The final issue is ‘survival’ of women leadership quest in post-conflict societies, and in particular, in fragile states. The World Bank defines fragility as “periods when states or institutions lack the capacity, accountability, or legitimacy to mediate relations between citizen groups and between citizens and the state, making them vulnerable to violence”.(17)  The category is cross-cutting, found in “stuck” democracies as well as authoritarian contexts. Fragile and conflict states are at a higher risk of the corruption of political institutions and electoral manipulation. Depending on the degree of fragility, the context may be characterised by the absence of rule of law, basic government, opposition parties, and free and independent media.(18) Political parties may be associated with armed groups or militias or they may have been repressed during a previous period of authoritarian rule and are building from scratch.

The above discussed issues often degenerate into tensions which subvert women’s quest for attaining leadership equity in SSA. In the next section, I shall argue that the solution does not necessarily rely on the numerical strength of women in political leadership; instead salient policies and legislation are key in addressing the scarcity of thought leadership.

Seven ways of extricating women from the yoke of clandestine politics

Systems of government in SSA, like many other parts of the world, range from nominal multi-party democracies, single party and transitional governments, and centralised and decentralised governance systems. Persistent and recurrent conflict in South Sudan and Somalia, for example, has stunted potential advances in socio-economic progress, good governance and contributed to the chronically weak government structures which result in an extremely fragile central state.(19)

The Kenyan political stalemate of 2017’s presidential election continues to offer grounds for legal experimentation and constitutionalism. The South African unsuccessful impeachment ‘bouts’ against President Jacob Zuma, perhaps, presents, the most enthusiastic case of a model consolidated democracy. Against this back-drop of democratic and socio-cultural contexts, women’s “survival”, could count on a number of legislative and policy options: a) universal suffrage; b) political parties; c) parliaments; c) sub-national governments; d) the executive branch; e) the judiciary; f) constitution building; and g) civil society (including media, civic action and social movements).

Universal suffrage

Cross-country data on sex-disaggregated voter turnout is difficult to obtain as relatively few countries have separate polling stations for women and men.   For those countries where data does exist, voter turnout for women varies widely. Not surprisingly, in contexts where patriarchy is particularly engrained in the culture, women’s turnout lags far behind men.(20)  For instance, in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, women represented 10%,  38%(21) and 40% of the electorate, respectively.(22) In Ecuador, on the other hand, where gender parity is enshrined in the 2008 Constitution, women accounted for 51% of the electorate.(23) Even though there are contextual specificities between nations, the universality of elections as a tool for ensuring democratic governance leads me to believe that the trend is similar to some African states. Scholars have observed that in situations of clientele politics, where material favours are offered in return for political support women rarely survive.(24) Women experience several pre-election day hurdles, mobility or security challenges. Electoral management bodies (EMB’s) could play an important role in defining and implementing electoral administration policy.  In order to identify all of the constraints that women voters face, EMBs should carry out a “gender audit” of the full electoral cycle.

Political parties

Though there is no global data on women’s membership and leadership in political parties, those regions that do have statistics indicate deep inequalities. In Latin America for instance, women make up 40-53% of party membership. The figures are far lower in terms of leadership however, with women accounting for only 20.4% of executive committee members.(25) In the European Union (EU), women account for 13% of party leaders and 33% of deputy leaders. An analysis of 214 political parties in Africa found that not one had achieved equal representation in leadership committees between women and men.  South Africa’s current ruling party, the ANC, sets an example here, having gender parity in its National Executive committee. Some of the factors that have been identified as barriers to women’s leadership and participation in political parties include: Lack of gender commitment in party constitutions. For instance, one analysis of the foundational documents of 74 parties in Latin America found that less than half (44.9%) reference non-discrimination or gender equality.

Nevertheless, if party leadership has a genuine interest in supporting women’s leadership and participation, there are a number of enabling steps that can be taken: Women’s wings can be empowered through inclusion and decision making power in the National Executive Committee as well as resources and support for mobilising women members and influencing party policy positions; Proactive recruiting strategies can draw women into parties and political life.

Executive branch of government and parliament

Women heads of state continues to be rare. As of March 2015, the total number of countries with a female head of state or government was 19.(26) Within the Executive Branch, the national machinery (formal government structures mandated to promote gender equality) has a special role to play in promoting women’s political participation. The structure and powers of these bodies vary significantly across countries, including Women’s or Gender Ministries or committees. In many cases, the national machinery lacks the financial or human resources to fulfill its broad mandate. In other cases, gender equality serves as an orienting principle, but with no national plan or authority to ensure implementation.

Though women account for half of the global population, they only represent 22.7% of the world’s parliamentarians.(27) The 2015 IUP data indicate that the figures vary significantly by region, but no region has reached the level of 30%. In SSA, the country with highest percentage of women in its legislative body is Rwanda with 63.8% in the lower house and 38.5% in the upper house. In South Africa 41.8 % of members of the National Assembly are women. While noteworthy, these high achievers should not distract from the fact that in the vast majority of countries (150), women account for less than one-third parliamentarians. In 38 single or lower houses women make up less than 10% of the membership.

Gender quota system

Gender quotas or reserved seats facilitate women’s participation in political leadership. Of the ten countries with the highest levels of women’s parliamentary representation, seven have incorporated gender quotas or reserved seats within their electoral systems. Although 96 countries have adopted some form of legally required quotas, these mechanisms are hardly foolproof, with effectiveness affected by the broader electoral system design, the wording of provisions and the will to enforce. Efforts by United Nations agencies such as UN Women to unlock parliamentary spaces have yet to spread wide and deep in SSA.  It should be noted that while women face a steeper path to parliament, the challenges continue once in office. Although men and women legislators are expected to carry out the same functions, they tend to work under very different conditions.


Constitutions can have a profound impact on gender equality in all its dimensions, including the political, economic and social spheres. A country’s constitution captures a nation’s values, history, and culture and articulates a vision for the future. Historically, constitutions were written by small groups of elites with little or no input from women.

From a gender perspective, constitutional debates on the right to and exercise of citizenship may involve gendered differences on at least three critical dimensions: a) gender-neutral definitions of parentage; b) separating marriage from citizenship such that citizenship is not lost on marriage to a non-citizen or lost on annulment from a citizen; and c) in some cases, including a prohibition on discriminatory citizenship on grounds including sex. Constitutional provisions may also support women’s leadership and participation through regulations prohibiting non-discrimination in political parties and mandating women’s participation in leadership structures and electoral processes.

Civil society and advocacy

Women have a long history of civil society engagement.(28) Relative to the political sphere, there are less barriers to entry for women’s leadership and participation in civil society. Though global figures are not available, in a number of countries women outnumber men in the civil society sector. Civil society also matters for women because in many cases, it represents a potential pathway to political power as well as a source of political capital: “Women candidates are more likely than men to come from civil society and therefore to have stronger relationships with CSOs. Organisation around “practical needs,” such as food, health care and education, often stems directly from women’s roles as wives and mothers. Mobilisation around “strategic needs” aims to “ultimately erode gender inequalities, such as legal rights and access to voice and decision-making at all levels.”(29)

In many countries, relations between women politicians and civil society organisations are tense. However, when the relationship works, there are benefits for both sides. For instance, the Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) has been strategic in reaching out to national women’s organisations. Civil society activists benefit from access to information regarding the parliamentary agenda and actors, while UWOPA takes advantage of civil society technical assistance for drafting bills.(30) In Kenya CSOs and the UN Women Kenya Office have been instrumental in providing women contenders opportunities to network and leverage their internal and external capabilities, including exposing them to other political machineries within and outside the region. The Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA) is an umbrella organisation through which women’s political capacity building is coordinated.


This article has shown that, despite the structural and systemic challenges facing women in masculine political space, there exist opportunities for women’s participation. For example, the electoral management bodies play an important role in defining and implementing electoral administration policy. However, in order to identify all of the constraints that women voters face, EMBs in collaboration with other political players should carry out a “gender audit” of the full electoral cycle.  Based on the results of the audit, there are a number of measures that EMBs can take to facilitate voting by women, including: women only registration teams, mobile registration, ensuring the integrity of the secret ballot, providing accessible (or even mobile) polling locations, and guaranteeing security throughout the process. In my considered view, climbing the ladder to leadership is not merely a game of numbers, but carefully calibrated processes that will ensure everyone is afforded equal opportunity to contest and lead; as well as empowering legislation and quotas.

**Onditi is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Department, School of International Relations and Diplomacy, Riara University, Kenya. This article first appeared as part of Quarter 2 – 2018/Volume 76 of journal The Thinker.


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Also, see European Commission, 2015a. “Database on women and men in decision-making,” http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/gender-decision-making/database/index_en.htm

(26)UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, (2015). “The World’s Women 2015: Trends and Statistics”, p. 127

(27)Inter-parliamentary Union, (2017). Women in national parliaments; World and regional averages: http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm. Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU, (2015). Women in Parliament 2015: Year in Review” on case of Denmark’s first Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

(28)Lee-Koo K. (2017). Gender and peacebuilding. Australian Journal of Politics and History, 63,159-160.

(29)Domingo, P, et.al. (2015). Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision Making: Assessing the Evidence. Overseas Development Institute, April 2015, p. 39/40.

(30)Wang, V. (2013). Women Changing Policy Outcomes: Learning from Pro-Women Legislation in the Ugandan Parliament. Women’s Studies International Forum, 41.




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