SUCCESSES AND SHORTCOMINGS OF GENDER REPRESENTATION POLICIES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA
AUTHOR: Eric Zhao
Eric Zhao is a first year student at the University of Toronto, intending to study economics and conflict studies. His other academic interests include history, international relations, and public policy.
The common Western conception of international women’s issues often invokes tendencies, in the juxtaposition of developed and developing nations, to assume that the former group of countries is far superior in advancing progressive ideals than their developing world counterparts. However, several African nations are challenging pervasive notions that disregard the accomplishments of non-Western states on social justice issues. Located in the junction of Central and East Africa, Rwanda has led the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s worldwide rankings in percentages of women elected to national legislatures for the past decade, with 61.3% of seats in the Rwandan Parliament belonging to female politicians (IPU, 2018). Rwanda is shortly followed by fellow African countries such as Namibia, South Africa, Senegal, Mozambique, and Ethiopia—all of which make appearances in the global top twenty of female parliamentary representation. In contrast, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States are much farther from reaching gender-balanced legislatures, each with fewer than a third of their elected members identifying as female and overall placing 39th, 60th, and 103rd in the world, respectively (IPU, 2018). Although the feat of numerous African nations in advancing female representation is frequently overlooked, investigating how their governments employed legislation and minimum representation policies to outpace affluent Western countries is crucial to understanding effective methods of reducing inequality. In essence, Western states can learn much from the staunch use of pro-representation policies to encourage gender equality in countries such as Rwanda and Senegal. Meanwhile, African nations that excel in equal representation occasionally falter in development on social issues and gender roles due to the vacuum of grassroots feminist movements left through the use of immediate legislative action that exists in place of the gradual change that often characterizes Western social justice. This article compares the results of both legislative and grassroots approaches to improving gender equality and highlights each of their merits. Generally, while numerous African countries have taken advantage of policies to create significantly better female representation than in the West—both politically and economically—they often experience dwindling progress on women's social issues when compared to the developed world.
In recent history, certain African nations have significantly increased the presence of female politicians elected to their national legislatures, primarily using minimum representation policies and other forms of legislation to surpass Western standards. As one of the few nations worldwide that experiences higher rates of participation from women than men in parliament, Rwanda provides an example of a gender-accessible political system rooted in the tangible and cultural changes ushered in by legislative action. Its distinguished history with gender representation is considered to have originated in 1994, when the devastating aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide left a surviving population comprised of roughly two-thirds women (Warner, 2016). This sudden demographic shift was likely a result of the disproportionate targeting of men during ethnically-charged massacres, due to their perception as more threatening given the substantially higher levels of education and wealth afforded to male Rwandans prior to 1994 (Abari, 2017). In response to the Rwandan Genocide, President Paul Kagame seized control of the recovering nation with a focus on quickly rebuilding its damaged social and political institutions. In recognition of the immense losses of male labourers, academics, and politicians, Kagame turned his focus to the surviving female population, encouraging women to occupy positions of power that were once exclusive to men. Under the premise that recovery would be unsustainable under patriarchal organizational structures and only the labour of the surviving male population, Kagame declared that “women have to be involved at all levels and in all activities meant for the development of our country” (Rosin, 2016). Throughout the subsequent decade, Kagame’s regime pledged financial support for female education programs and appointed women to positions as government ministers and police chiefs—ultimately culminating in Rwanda’s Constitution of 2003, which reserved 30% of all seats in parliament for women (Warner, 2016). The use of female parliamentary quotas brought sweeping pragmatic changes to Rwanda’s government, as well as cultural shifts towards accepting women as qualified political leaders. Currently, Rwanda’s parliament is 61.3% composed of female politicians, signifying that its electorate has voluntarily doubled the minimum requirement of 30% (IPU, 2018). The effects of minimum representation policies in reshaping unbalanced legislatures and encouraging the acceptance of female leaders can be further observed in other African nations as well. The governments of South Africa and Senegal, each consisting of over 40% female members, have similar historical records of employing quotas for politicians (IPU, 2018). In particular, South Africa introduced a series of measures to heavily combat discrimination following the collapse of the Apartheid regime in 1994, which institutionalized racial segregation against South Africans of colour for nearly half a century. Specifically, the new Constitution of 1996, the South African Women’s Charter, and the National Commission for Gender Equality all make reference to essential rights for women, including rights over decisions concerning reproduction and freedom from gender-based discrimination (Pitamber, 2016). Most notably, South Africa’s dominant political party, the African National Congress, implemented gender quotas when selecting candidates for parliamentary elections, beginning with a requirement of 30% female candidates but eventually raising the requirement to 50% in 2006 (Preece and Nielson, 2013). South Africa’s historical focus on pro-women legislation indisputably contributes to its current proportion of female members in parliament, which only totalled around 2.7% of the entire legislature prior to the 1990s (Pitamber, 2016). This legislative approach is mirrored in Senegal, which adopted laws ensuring gender balance in political parties in 2010 (Frantzman, 2016). After the introduction of female quotas, Senegal experienced a rise in state funding towards women’s education, helping to foster skills and qualifications for future political leaders (Salami, 2017). Overall, the use of quotas and policies favouring representation by African legislators has been pivotal in raising the presence of African women in high-ranking political offices, to levels well above those of their Western counterparts.
In contrast to proactive governments in Rwanda and Senegal, North American and British legislatures have frequently opted for passive approaches in the face of political inequality—to the overall detriment of their female politicians. Canada and the United States have both shown reluctance to adopt quota systems in politics throughout history, instead relying on unrestricted first-past-the-post elections in local ridings and districts. Similarly, the United Kingdom House of Commons rejected six different proposals to improve female representation in parliament in 2017, including a bill requiring parties to ensure that 45% of appointed candidates in general elections would be female (Elgot, 2017). The impetus of all three nations in their dismissal of minimum representation is likely rooted in structural factors; particularly that all three have existing male-dominated legislatures that continue to appoint male candidates and protect their own interests. Furthermore, Western political cultures often house deeply-entrenched aversions to interfering with the power of the electorate in any regard—a phenomenon seen in the recent British rejection of quotas, which were alleged to be hindrances to the “cherished concept of meritocracy” (Salami, 2017). Instead of using legislation to improve political representation, Western governments often contend that a democratic body naturally tends towards electing meritocratic candidates, and thus, women will eventually become elected if they are deserving of political office. However, this fails to account for shortcomings of first-past-the-post systems in electing qualified candidates, especially from historically-disadvantaged backgrounds. Notably, selection bias plays a large role in the ability for candidates to run as members of parliament, given that parties must first appoint politicians to run in local districts during general elections. Since first-past-the-post systems privilege candidates who best appeal to the lowest common denominator of voters, or the broadest majority of an electorate, parties often face pressures to appoint nominees who most easily identify with the average politically-active citizen or the members of current party selection committees. In either case, selection committees often gravitate towards male and Caucasian candidates over female candidates or candidates of colour, the latter of whom are frequently viewed as less certain to appeal to the broader public. Melanee Thomas of the University of Calgary investigates this trend in a 2013 study, finding “considerable evidence that party [nomination committees are] more likely to discriminate against women candidates” (Hantiuk, 2015). Specifically, women are more frequently appointed to run in ridings already considered “strongholds” for other political parties, whereas male nominees are typically assigned to ridings with higher chances of successfully becoming elected (Thomas and Bodet, 2013, p.163). Thomas further elaborates that “where women are involved in the party nomination process… more women are recruited to run for that nomination,” while male-dominated selection committees recruit fewer female candidates on average (Hantiuk, 2015). Due to the subjective influence of selection committees in determining candidates available for election, options of electing female members of parliament are often restricted in Western democracies, irrespective of merit. This effect is further compounded by the subjective decisions of Western voters who potentially hold their own biases regarding female politicians, especially given the dominance of male political leaders that pervades history and popular culture. Rather than rectifying gender imbalances in parliament, the passive approach of Canadian and American legislatures has only appeared to stagnate female representation. Current estimates suggest that if the U.S. Congress follows its current trends in congressional elections without quotas in place, it would take approximately 500 years to reach a 50% female gender balance (Thomson, 2017). However, a crucial observation can be made that not all Western nations experience the same dismal gender representation that plagues the 27% female Canadian Parliament or the 19.6% female U.S. Congress (IPU, 2018). By following similar quota policies as Rwanda and other aforementioned African nations, Iceland and Sweden have both reached the global top twenty countries in female representation (Salami, 2017). Not only does this demonstrate the merit of the legislative approach taken by several African governments, but it also signifies that the success of minimum representation policies could potentially be replicated in developed nations around the world. However, the continued reluctance of large Western powers, such as Canada and the United States, in adopting regulations to improve gender parity in politics has caused them to lag well behind numerous countries in the developing world on this particular front.
Regarding economic liberation for women, certain African nations have again made significant advances that many Western states have yet to accomplish. In Rwanda, for instance, its developments for women in the political sphere has translated to greater participation by women in the economy as well. With 86% of working-age women finding employment in 2017, Rwanda currently exhibits the highest rate of female participation in the labour force of any country, followed closely by Madagascar and Mozambique (ILO, 2017). Relatively fairer wages accompany the strong presence of working women in the Rwandan economy. While American women on the aggregate earn an average annual income equal to 74% of earnings by men, the median salary for Rwandan women is equivalent to 88% of that of their male counterparts (Haglage, 2015). In part, Rwanda’s engagement of women in the labour force can be attributed to necessity and its unique history as a nation, given the deficiency of male workers in the 1990s. However, as noted by Stéphanie Thomson of the World Economic Forum, a similar effect occurred in the United States during World War II as well, whereby “men went off to war, demand for female workers grew significantly, as did wages… but once the war was over, things quickly returned to [prior]” (Thomson, 2017). The crucial difference between Rwanda and the United States, when each encountered a rapid and unanticipated increase in female employment, is that the former accordingly introduced policies to encourage present and future generations of women to continue participating in the labour force. For instance, Rwandan legislators introduced an extensive nationwide maternity leave program, offering three paid months off of work to make employment more accessible and desirable for prospective mothers (Theuri, 2016). In contrast, the United States remains as the sole developed nation worldwide without any government-mandated paid maternity leave program. Incidentally, only 56% of working-age women in the United States participate in its labour force, placing it at 75th in the world overall in terms of female economic engagement (ILO, 2017). Along with countries such as Senegal and South Africa, Rwanda also dedicated significant amounts of funding towards women’s education and job training programs during its transition from unbridled conflict to a female-led 21st century. Further attempts to incorporate Rwandan women into their economy include passing laws granting women equal rights to inherit property and wealth, thus encouraging a greater degree of financial independence (Salami, 2017). These legal and policy advancements helped ensure that the widespread introduction of women into the labour force would become a permanent feature of the Rwandan economy, rather than a short-lived responsibility born out of necessity.
Despite the accomplishments of African nations in incorporating women politically and economically through legislation, this progress can occasionally neglect development on women’s social issues that often receive a greater focus in the West. While it indisputably appears to be one of the world’s most pro-women countries in terms of female engagement with political and economic systems, Rwanda continues to experiences a tense social climate, described by Christopher Kayumba of the National University of Rwanda as one where “feminism” is viewed as a “dirty word” and domestic gender roles are uncompromising (Abari, 2017). In a 2014 study, Justine Uvuza of Newcastle University examines whether the increased political power of Rwandan women has translated effectively into social liberation by interviewing female members of parliament in Rwanda regarding their domestic lives. Overall, she reported that only four women claimed there had been any notable improvement in the balance of domestic roles in the past decade, while all other interviewed members of parliament felt that no significant changes had occurred to balance roles between themselves and their spouses, who still expected women to perform traditional housekeeping roles (Uvuza, 2014, p.199). In addition, multiple female politicians feared violence and other potential repercussions from their spouses if they failed to comply with their expected domestic tasks. Analyzing the effects of legislative action without grassroots change for women, Uvuza argues that the endurance of stagnant gender roles in Rwanda “reflects the contradictory nature of government-driven gender equality approaches if not accompanied by a strong women’s movement to challenge the status quo” (Uvuza, 2014, p.53). She further establishes that “a female politician could stand up in parliament, advocating for issues like stronger penalties for sexual violence… but find herself scared to speak out about the oppression in her own home” (Warner, 2016). A similar phenomenon can be observed in Senegal, where numerous advances have been accomplished to produce political equality, but rigid gender roles and widening rates of inequality between urban and rural women persist (Frantzman, 2016). This disparity between development on women’s political issues and women’s social issues in African nations is likely explained by several factors. Firstly, many of these countries adopted pro-women policies on the order of governors and legislators, without necessarily shifting the opinions of everyday individuals and families on the importance of providing opportunities to women. Furthermore, developments in both Rwanda and Senegal to improve representation are publicly justified under the guise of nationalism, rather than for the sake of upholding women’s rights themselves. More specifically, President Kagame’s regime in Rwanda adopted rhetoric during the period in which it implemented gender quotas maintaining that representation would be primarily “meant for the development of [the] country,” rather than as an intrinsic benefit for women (Rosin, 2016). In Senegal, former presidential candidate Amsatou Sow Sidibe discussed quotas by claiming, “For stability, we need women in politics in Africa… when there is no discrimination against women it is good for stability, and we have a big responsibility for peace in our countries” (Frantzman, 2016). In both cases, local politicians defended pro-women policies as mechanisms primarily intended to improve stability within their nation, rather than as a means to improve conditions for women. Uvuza elaborates that “for some of these women, the very real strides that they were making outside the home could feel less like liberation and more like a duty to be fulfilled” (Warner, 2016). Consequently, many local women in these states maintain that becoming politically active and adhering to traditional gender roles are equally valuable pursuits, as both can be regarded as “national responsibilities” despite their differing implications for women’s rights. In this regard, the legislative changes pursued by certain African countries may actually have played a role in strengthening traditional domestic roles rather than eliminating them, by implying that developments for women should be contingent on proving their benefit to the wider nation rather than for the sole purpose of improving women’s rights.
Compared to Western states, African nations employing female quotas also have a relative deficiency of robust domestic feminism movements to campaign on behalf of women’s social issues and reshape societal norms. Although Western nations continue to experience certain faults in terms of social development, many have historically developed their own activism movements involving local women, spurred by instances of state inaction in improving gender equality. The importance of grassroots feminist movements in furthering women’s social issues has been previously espoused by the Women’s Voice, Agency, and Participation Research Series commissioned by the World Bank. According to its 2013 study, “Autonomous movements articulate the social perspectives of marginalized groups, transform social practice, and change public opinion… these effects of autonomous organizing are more important [than] women’s descriptive representation inside the legislature or the impact of political parties” (Evans and Nambiar, 2013, p.19). In essence, the presence of local women’s movements tends to be a stronger indicator in reduced gender roles, violence against women, and other social inequalities when compared to other factors such as wealth per capita or proportion of female politicians in parliament (Evans and Nambiar, 2013). This ultimately suggests that the more passive approach taken by governments in Canada and the United States claims some advantages over immediate legislative change. On social issues, such as domestic roles and violence, these nations are often able to outpace states like Rwanda with fewer local women’s movements, where these inequalities exist to a greater extent. Concluding her study of female members of parliament in Rwanda, Uvuza asked each interview subject if they would support a women’s movement locally in Central Africa—to which nearly every participating woman declined. In response to the prospect of a “movement to change not just the public roles for women but to re-evaluate gender relations on all levels,” several women insinuated that the concept of feminism was “for Westerners,” or incompatible with the duties and goals upheld by their nation (Warner, 2016). Consequently, Western countries exhibiting a comparatively greater acceptance surrounding feminist movements are often better positioned to combat social injustices, compared to states that act on political or economic inequality but neglect to foster social change.
Ultimately, while a handful of Sub-Saharan African states have successfully advanced political and economic representation through progressive egalitarian legislation, a reluctance to mobilize local women’s movements often limits their ability to address social issues affecting everyday women. This trend can be observed by contrasting states such as South Africa, Rwanda, and Senegal with Canada and the United States, which face inequalities due to their resistance against minimum representation policies. As with all generalizations between binary classifications of countries, specific exceptions may exist. Certain Western Nordic countries such as Sweden and Iceland have already employed female quotas in their legislatures, whereas numerous African nations have yet to implement the policy reforms seen in the examined regions. However, this trend generally demonstrates that both legislative and grassroots approaches have merits and limitations when employed to address different areas of inequality, and a confluence of both approaches is necessary to develop a holistic remedy. This leads to several implications—namely that Western states can benefit women working in political or professional fields by abandoning their aversion to legislative change, as cases in Rwanda and Senegal demonstrate that representation quotas can coexist with a highly-qualified body of elected officials. Furthermore, developing nations that have already committed to gender equality on a political level should actively foster the growth of local activist groups that serve to address social inequalities. In essence, pursuing a compromise involving both legislative and grassroots change is ideal in addressing gender disparities holistically; by embracing policies and movements that support women rather than treating the two as mutually exclusive courses of action.
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