African women in parliament

Democracy is the ability of citizens to choose their representatives freely, and to participate in decision-making relating to public resources and to policies that impact on their lives. Women’s political participation in formal government is widely recognised as a pre-existing condition for the realisation of full democracy.  It is vital that women have access to positions of leadership and are part of the decision making process. Why is it important to have women in parliament in Africa?

Source: UN Stats
Women in parliament: proportion of seats held by women in single or lower houses of national parliament, 2016 (percentage)

Descriptive representation: numbers of women elected, has generally increased in Sub Saharan Africa. This was achieved by utilising different systems of quotas. First being a system of reserved seats established by national legislation. This is followed by countries like Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania. The second type is a system where quotas voluntarily established by political parties. This is used in Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa.

Numbers are not enough. There should be increased focus on women’s effectiveness in political positions and their impact.


Women in national parliaments

1 Rwanda 16.09.2013 61.3%
2 Cuba 11.03.2018 53.2%
3 Bolivia 12.10.2014 53.1%
4 Grenada 13.03.2018 46.7%
5 Namibia 29.11.2014 46.2%
6 Nicaragua 06.11.2016 45.7%
7 Costa Rica 04.02.2018 45.6%
8 Sweden 14.09.2014 43.6%
9 Mexico 07.06.2015 42.6%
10 South Africa 1 07.05.2014 42.4%

Women representing women?

Substantive representation refers to the form and content of policy making. More women in parliament = better life for female citizens? In the African context the answer to this question is varied. Scholars Bauer and Britton noted that Namibian women played a pivotal role in crafting and passing many new laws. In a contrary tale Mozambique and South Africa, despite high female representation, have not passed significant female-friendly policies or laws. Another example is found in Rwanda. Rwanda has the highest number of women in parliament globally (61.3%). On the other hand at least two in five women (41.2%) experienced physical violence by the age of 15, while more than one in five women (22%) have experienced sexual violence.

Women in Parliament: Sustainable Development Goal 5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

The symbolic representation refers to the public’s perception and attitude towards African women in politics and governance. African patriarchal culture is firmly entrenched in all aspects of society, including governmental bodies. Female representation in parliament is a tool to change the mind of the community by introducing new roles and identities for African women.


11 Finland 19.04.2015 42.0%
12 Senegal 30.07.2017 41.8%
13 Norway 11.09.2017 41.4%
14 Mozambique 15.10.2014 39.6%
15 Spain 26.06.2016 39.1%
16 France 11.06.2017 39.0%
17 Argentina 22.10.2017 38.9%
18 Ethiopia 24.05.2015 38.8%
19 New Zealand 23.09.2017 38.3%
20 Iceland 28.10.2017 38.1%

(Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union – )

What is holding us back?

There are social, economic, political and cultural factors that significantly influence female political representation.


Social: Women are hampered from political office or political engagement because of social issues such as poor childcare, low literacy levels, inadequate health care and poverty. However socioeconomic factors do not entirely explain setbacks from gender parity in parliament considering some ‘poor’ countries have more female representatives than ‘rich’ countries.


Access to education – education opens doors of opportunity to politics and increases political interest and engagement. According to UNESCO estimates, 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are out of school and 15 million girls of primary-school age—half of them in sub-Saharan Africa— will never enter a classroom.


Involvement in the labour market: people in the formal labour force are more likely to enjoy political representation. Women in Africa are largely relegated to the informal sector. According to ILO, in Africa 74% of women’s employment is informal.


Economic: the economic state of a nation negatively affects women’s ability to participate in political positions. Women in survival state are less likely to compete for political office.


Global patriarchal attitudes and African culture: patriarchal attitudes define women as weak citizens not fit for public office.

Sustainable Development Goal 16: women are instrumental to peace, stability, human rights & effective governance.

Gender parity in parliament is essential to democracy and the advancement of peace, security and human rights in Africa. We are moving in the right direction. Discourse on political engagement should be encouraged to uproot harmful attitudes. Economic, social, cultural and political obstacles to women in parliament should be tackled. Lastly enhanced coordination is imperative on a regional and continental level in strengthening electoral mechanisms to encourage gender equality in governance.


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