Why African democracies are failing women — and what we can do to fix it

Friday 8 March is International Women’s Day: the perfect time to start a debate about why so many democracies are failing on this issue. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Friday 8 March is International Women’s Day: the perfect time to start a debate about why so many democracies are failing on this issue. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

The fundamental equality of citizens in terms of their right to vote and participate in the political system is a cornerstone of democracy. So why do so many African democracies perform so poorly when it comes to women’s political representation? And why do so many of the measures that we use to rank democracies fail to reflect this?

Friday 8 March is International Women’s Day: the perfect time to start a debate about why so many democracies are failing on this issue, how we can better measure democracy to reflect the realities faced by both women and men, and how much we lose if we exclude women from the political system.

The state of play

The last twenty years have seen genuine progress in Africa when it comes to women’s parliamentary representation. In 1995 the average share of women in lower houses of Parliament was just 10%.
By January 2019 this had more than doubled to 24%. This is a significantly higher figure than Asia (20%) and the Middle East (18%), placing the continent only just below the world average.

Although this improvement is noteworthy, it masks a number of very different trajectories. While Rwanda leads the way in global female political representation, with women making up a majority in Parliament, many African countries continue to perform poorly. This group includes some countries where politics has often been characterized by conflict, such as Nigeria (where women make up just 5.6% of the Parliament) but also those that are known to be more peaceful and democratic, including Benin (7.2%) and Botswana (9.5%).

There are a number of reasons why these figures are so low. One is that many of Africa’s more democratic countries operate first-past-the-post electoral systems that make it difficult to introduce gender quotas. Another is that when political parties are more democratic local party branches get to select candidates, and they tend to prefer men. This is partly because they make the – often accurate – assumption that men are better placed to plug the constituency into networks of power and resources. It also reflects sexist attitudes that were imported during colonial rule and have been perpetuated by male self-interest ever since.

Women may also be reluctant to run for political office because they become targets for horrendous abuse, including allegations that they are prostitutes, suggestive questions about why they want to do a job that will involve them being out late at night, physical intimidation, and worse.

The deficiencies of democracy

The fact that so many of the continent’s best-rated democracies do so badly when it comes to gender equality suggests that there is something deeply flawed about the way we are evaluating democracy. It seems deeply problematic that a country can feature a political system that places tremendous barriers to the political participation and representation of half of the population and yet still be deemed a leading democratic light.

Take Ghana, which receives a perfect score from Freedom House for political rights, and the second-best possible score for civil liberties. The country is also ranked as a “flawed democracy” – the second highest category – by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. These positive ratings give the impression that all citizens are able to exercise their democratic rights. But this is only fully true for men. While there have been a number of prominent female leaders in Ghana who have earned great respect, many others have been prevented from holding office as a result of their gender.

A workshop on women’s political representation held earlier this year that was co-organized by the Institute for Global Innovation of the University of Birmingham, the Institute for Advanced Studies of the University of Ghana, and the women’s rights organization Abantu for Development, heard numerous stories of political discrimination against women. These ranged from an aspiring female candidate who was locked in her house by her husband to prevent her from submitting her nomination papers on time, to women who managed to put themselves forward for consideration only to lose party primaries after suffering misogynistic abuse and discrimination.

Despite the great democratic progress achieved by Ghana, which is one of the only countries in Africa to have enjoyed three peaceful transfers of power, the women who attended the workshop were adamant that little had changed when it came to the challenges that they face. The figures back up their story: the current Parliament of 275 members includes 36 women – just 13%.

The case of Ghana demonstrates a much wider point: it is high time that leading democracy measures placed greater weight on gender equality. Of course, there is nothing “African” about this story – it is true for the whole world. The proportion of women in the lower house of Parliament is only 13% in India, 24% in the United States, and 32% in the United Kingdom. There is a strong argument for downgrading the democracy scores of all of these countries – or, at the very least, producing two different scores: one that reflects the situation for men, and one that that does justice to reality faced by women.

Why we need women in Parliament

Asking why we need women in Parliament is somewhat problematic – after all, no one asks why we need men. Yet in a world where there are deeply entrenched barriers that prevent the entry of women into politics, it is important to talk about what is lost when women are left out of legislatures, and what can be gained by including them. 

They key point here is that we don’t just need to elect more women to Parliament because equality is a good thing in and of itself. Women’s political representation is also important because it makes for better policy. In the last few years, for example, researchers have shown a link between having more women in Parliament and improved health outcomes for women, including reductions in maternal mortality.

Bringing the good news

The good news is that we are starting to see efforts to measure gender equality in a more rigorous and comprehensive way. The Varieties of Democracy (V-DEM) Project has developed an index of women’s political empowerment that brings together measures of women’s civil liberties, their participation in civil society and their political participation. This new data is important because it doesn’t just look at what is written down in constitutions – it also asks what happens in reality.

The measures developed by V-DEM offer an important way forward – but to take advantage of this opportunity we must also spark a movement to recalculate our measures of democracy in a way that gives sufficient weight to gender equality. Only this will allow us to evaluate Africa’s political systems, as well as those of other regions, in a manner that does justice to the lived realities of both women and men.

Nic Cheeseman is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, and a fellow of the Institute for Global Innovation.

Susan Dodsworth is a research fellow at the University of Birmingham, where she is working on a collaborative project with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits, www.democracyinafrica.org.
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