By public September, 8 2022

A Dearth in Democracy: Gender and Politics in Africa

When the mysteries of the world are mentioned one thing is usually left out, patriarchy. In the ununiformed development of peoples across spaces and times, how women were relegated to being second to men and consigned to the private sphere uniformly remains inexplicable. It is worth mentioning that scholars, activists, and many others have tried to explain this, however, most explanations have their shortcomings. Explaining how we got here might not be as important as identifying deep-rooted structures that perpetuate this inequality and correcting them.

It is not surprising that democracy has usually been regarded as a viable mechanism to solving this problem. The promising pluralism democracy offers in terms of representation is what ultimately destined democracy for this task. Lovers and haters of democracy alike grapple with the meaning of democracy and one cannot perfunctorily dismiss this point. Nonetheless, in the words of Forster, ‘two cheers for democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism’. Any political system lacking in these two qualities (pluralism and freedom) cannot be regarded as democratic. Nevertheless, the question is has democracy been always historically inclusive and free [with more emphasis on inclusion]?

The exclusionary tendencies of democracy from ‘the cradle of democracy’ (the Greek city-state, Athens), where foreigners, slaves, and women were excluded from the political processes are not nuanced by any means. Scholars have equally pointed out the exclusionary flaw of the nineteenth-century liberal democracy that did not accidentally consign women to the private sphere (the family or household), which the government was not to interfere with, where (by norms) the men were the heads. In other words, the equality of individuals and the freedom of individuals in the public space (which involves participation in political processes) in the formation of the liberal democracy excluded women, who were consigned to the private sphere.

Away from the structural lens, the cardinal principle of liberal democracy is human rights; and it consequently created the first wave of women’s suffrage, the extension of political citizenship to women; which was predominantly expressed in women’s voting right, at least in the West. The three waves of women’s suffrage as thoroughly accounted for by Drude Dahlerup detailed how women got included in the political/decision-making processes of the state in the West and by extension, every state where democracy is practiced today. Obviously, by 1995, at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing), it became obvious that democracy on its own would not solve the problem of gender inequality in politics across spaces; an affirmative action was needed. Consequently, gender quotas (an affirmative action) became the most reasonable and enticing mechanism to succour democracy to achieving true inclusion or pluralism in terms of gender.  Ever since the Beijing Declaration of 1995, The UN Women estimated that as at 2021 the number of women in parliaments rose from 11% in 1995 to 25% . Twenty-six women were reported to be the heads of state and government in 2021, an arithmetic increase. Noteworthy is that two-third of the countries that contributed to the increase experienced in the number of women in parliaments have adopted one form or the other of gender quotas.

Africa does not only have the country with the highest number of female parliamentarians, over 60% in Rwanda, but also has 31 countries with one or the other forms of gender quotas (this might increase to 32 if Nigeria pass into law the bill that recently got passed in the House of Representatives). Only 20 of the countries, as at 2020, were reported to be democratic by the Economist Intelligence Unit in a comprehensive measure of democracy (ranging from representative to deliberative democratic indices). Considering the recent coup d’état in Mali and Burkina Faso, then the number dropped to 18 as at 2022. However, as at 2021, according to the AfroBarometer, considering voluntary party quotas Africa has witnessed 34% increase in number of women in parliaments and 26% when it is strictly restricted to constitutional or legislative gender quotas.

Source: adapted from Women’s Political Participation ~ Africa Barometer 2021

Despite the 10% difference between countries with gender quotas and the ones with none, scholars have noted that undemocratic or hybrid-democratic regimes seem to perform better with gender quotas in increasing the number of women in Africa, which begs the question of the effectiveness of gender quotas with democracy. Activists and/or feminists have equally argued against the descriptive without substantive representation of women engendered by gender quotas in Africa. Hence, it is not only that democracy alone has not been able to equitably include women in political leadership, but it also fails with gender quotas. In fact, UN Women projected that ‘gender parity in national legislative bodies will not be achieved before 2063’ at this pace both around the world and in Africa.

Then, it is crucial to ask, why gender equality in African polities and politics? First, from a descriptive lens, equal distribution of political power across demographics is unarguably the true definition of representative democracy and pluralism. It allows for every social group and gender to feel represented. Since gender is not a social group in itself but cuts across all social groups, then its pre-eminence in descriptive representation in politics is non-negotiable as the largest demographic constituent(s). Second, what sense does it make that men decide what affects women and girls exclusively? Lack of women or just ‘quotas women’ in political leadership would not help in breaking the bias against women. Relevant and actionable policies to attain gender equality and justice in all spheres begins with breaking the bias in political representation in Africa.

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