How to get women’s voices heard in African politics



Across the world activists are working hard to get more women in politics. But getting women into politics is only half of the challenge. The second half is to make sure that women are not only seen, but also heard. This means being able to speak out about the issues that concern them, and being able to shape political decisions. Increasing the proportion of women in parliament helps, but it does not guarantee this outcome.

South Africa does pretty well when it comes to gender representation. The ANC’s 50/50 gender quota for its candidates list means that the country has one of the highest proportions of female legislators in the world, ranking 10th globally — ahead of the Germany, New Zealand, and United Kingdom.

Yet this apparent success hides a number of significant problems. The ANC is the only party that strictly enforces a gender quota. In 2019 the Democratic Alliance was forced to defend itself against after it presented a male dominated list of candidates. Research by the Daily Maverick also found that the strength of women’s representation declines the further up the political food chain one goes.

There is also a serious question about whether quotas actually empower women or serve as a means of political control. The answer to this question depends on exactly how a quota is designed and implemented. When it comes to the ANC in particular, gender experts such as Amanda Gouws have suggested that female leaders pull their punches because feel that they owe their positions to the quota, rather than to their own political support base.

This raises an important question for South Africa and the rest of the world. Once more women are in parliament, what needs to happen to empower them to play an equal role in government?

Breaking the glass ceiling

Over the last twenty years, an increasing number of countries have adopted gender quotas of one form or another. This includes almost all of Latin America, a considerable portion of Europe and a majority of African states.

The impact of this in countries such as Burundi and Rwanda is well known. In both cases the adoption of a gender quota has seen the proportion of women in the legislature increase dramatically — in Rwanda’s case, to the world leading figure of 61%. Elsewhere, however, the situation is less promising where quotas don’t exist or are not effectively implemented.

In Kenya, women now make up almost 22% of the National Assembly. This puts Kenya almost on par with the global average (24.3%). But it is well below the constitutional minimum, which states that no more of two-thirds of parliament can be of any one gender. The reason that this clause has not been implemented and enforced is a basic a lack of political will.

As a result of the difficulty of introducing and effectively implementing quotas, we have seen more campaigns designed to bolster the number of women in politics through other means. Instead of trying to reserve spaces for women in politics, these campaigns target the barriers they face. Sometimes this means investing the skills and capacity of potential candidates, boosting their confidence and ability. Other times it means reducing the financial burden of running for office.

In Malawi, for example, the 50:50 Campaign provided women candidates with financial assistance, mentoring and publicity during both the 2014 and 2019 elections. These campaigns take longer to work than quotas, but evidence suggests they can be effective. While many barriers to entry remain, the May elections saw women’s representation in the National Assembly increase from 16 to 23 percent. Shortly after, the Parliament elected its first ever female speaker, Catherine Gotani Hara.

As Ndondwa Msaka, the Campaign Connectivity Office for 50:50 has put it, “With deep-rooted patriarchy dictating perceptions towards women’s capacity to assume leadership positions … it is nothing short of inspiring to see more women in Malawi’s Parliament than ever before”. The progress supported by these campaigns has led helped to boost the overall proportion of women in African parliaments from just 10% in 1995 to 24% today. This is great news, and it has led to a growing focus on how women can use this opportunity to shape government policy.

Speaking truth to power

To support these efforts, we worked with the Institute for Global Innovation at the University of Birmingham and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to research how the voice of women can be amplified in parliament. Using a case study of Malawi, where women had a big influence on the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Management) Act in 2017, we show that parliamentary committees provide an important avenue through which women legislators can improve the law, while enabling women’s groups to access parliament, strengthening their voice.

In the case of the HIV and AIDS Act, women parliamentarians and activists managed to remove several problematic provisions. This included clauses that would have forced pregnant women to undergo compulsory testing, as well clauses criminalizing negligent of reckless behaviour leading to HIV transmission — this could have turned mothers who inadvertently transmitted HIV to their children (while pregnant or breast-feeding) into criminals.

Parliamentary committees played an important part in this success. Women politicians with expertise in the health sector were able to use committees to magnify their impact. Activists were able use the committees as a focal point for building broader support within parliament, ensuring that the necessary amendments were made.

Beyond Malawi, our studies reveal that parliamentary committees are particularly useful for amplifying women’s voices when it comes to the health sector. This is because the membership of parliamentary committees is gendered. In the 19 countries we looked at, women tend to be included at higher rates on ‘soft’ or less prestigious committees, such as those responsible for the health sector. By contrast, they are underrepresented on those that deal with ‘harder’, more prestigious issues like national defence.

This pattern is not entirely surprising and has been observed in other regions of the world. What is surprising is the extent of the discrepancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are included in Health Committees at almost double the rate at which they are included in legislatures. This is an interesting finding, and one that helps to account for recent studies that have shown that increases in the number of women in parliaments lead to increases in health spending and improved health outcomes in areas such as maternal mortality.

The glass is half full

Ultimately, our research suggests that investments in parliamentary committees — which are somewhat ‘unsexy’ and easy to overlook — can benefit gender equality. This is particularly true in the health sector. Perhaps most importantly, it is true even when women’s inclusion in legislatures remains a work-in-progress. The challenge for organizations working to break through the glass ceiling is to find ways of strengthening these committees without reinforcing the belief that women should stick to ‘their’ issues — like health — and stay out of other areas. It is critical that in fighting this battle, we do not make future ones harder to win.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham

Susan Dodsworth (@demopromproject) is a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham

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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,

Susan Dodsworth
Guest Author

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