Women politicians in Africa face huge odds but can make a real difference
Updated: Apr 24, 2019
Women are gaining ground in politics around the world. Last year, the so-called “pink wave” saw a record number of women elected to Congress in the US’s mid-term elections. There are signs of progress in Africa, too.
Last October, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was praised for his “transformative leadership” after appointing a new set of ministers – half of whom were women. Earlier in February, Egyptian lawmakers proposed amending the constitution to guarantee women 25% of the seats in the national parliament. If it’s approved, this change would significantly increase the political representation of Egyptian women. At present they make up just 15% of the legislature.
There’s a huge amount of variation in women’s political representation across Africa, a fact shown by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women’s map of Women in Politics. In some countries, including Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, they make up a substantial portion of the legislature. However, women remain poorly represented in many others.
Some question whether the increased political representation of women is necessarily a good thing, particularly in the context of Africa. They argue that it’s not entirely coincidental that many of the countries making the greatest progress in including women in politics are making far less progress in terms of democracy.
As others have argued, high profile efforts to promote women’s rights can help authoritarian leaders to present themselves as modernisers. This, they hope, will attract the interest of both investors and lenders.
Including more women in positions of power can also be useful domestically. It allows leaders with authoritarian leanings, or dubious democratic credentials, to expand their support base and bolster political stability. The recent reforms in both Ethiopia and Egypt could well be the product of such strategies, rather than a genuine commitment to promoting gender equality.
Does this mean that there’s nothing to be gained by including more women in politics? There may be no guarantee it promotes democracy. But there are reasons to believe it might pay off in terms of development.
Impact on development
It’s often said that opening up positions of political power to women will lead to development policies that are more effective and better implemented. Now, we’re starting to see evidence that this is in fact the case.
For example, several recent studies show that improving the representation of women in parliament has a positive impact on the health sector. Political scientists Amanda Clayton and Pär Zetterberg have shown that “quota shocks” – large increases in women’s parliamentary representation after the introduction of a gender quota – tend to be followed by rises in government spending on public health.
Other researchers have shown that increases in the number of women in parliament are associated with a variety of positive health outcomes. These include improvements in women’s life expectancy and reductions in both maternal and infant mortality.
These positive impacts are notable, and make sense. There’s plenty of debate about exactly what constitutes a “women’s issue”, but there’s good reason to put health in that category. Surveys from sub-Saharan Africa show that both women citizens, and women parliamentarians, are more likely to identify health as a priority issue than their male counterparts.
Moreover, this “gender gap” in priorities is greater between male and female legislators than between male and female citizens. In short, if expanding the political representation of women is to have an effect anywhere, it ought to be in the health sector (and, of course, in women’s rights).
There is, however, some bad news. It’s still not clear exactly how these positive impacts on development come about. In the case of research showing the link between “quota shocks” and health spending, for instance, there is a correlation – but claims about causal effects remain questionable.
New research is desperately needed that untangles exactly how women in politics make a difference. This is important to help justify the continuing campaign to increase women’s political representation around the world. It will also allow international donors to help women in politics make a positive difference. It’s hard to help someone achieve their goals if you don’t understand the tactics they have at their disposal.
With this in mind, an ongoing collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – supported by the Institute for Global Innovation – has started to ask some important questions about women in African parliaments. These include whether women in parliament have an impact even where they lack “critical mass” and, if so, what strategies and tactics they employ to overcome their lack of numbers.
Ongoing research suggests that parliamentary institutions – including parliamentary committees and women’s caucuses – play an important role in helping female politicians in Africa to shape development outcomes. At the moment, researchers are looking into how women in Malawi used these institutions to push for some important changes to the HIV and AIDS Act.
Generating the knowledge needed will require a lot more research, including research by experts within Africa. Some of this knowledge already exists within the region. Putting African experts at the forefront of new research will help the international community to develop programmes that go beyond “just adding women” to politics. It will also help female politicians in Africa to make a difference against the odds.