5 Ways to Enhance Women’s Political Leadership in Africa

   •    August 20, 2014

Since being elected president of Liberia in 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has led the reconciling and rebuilding of her war-torn country. International and national actors can do more to enable women like her to ascend to high political office throughout Africa.

At a recent Wilson Center event, Rhoda Osei-Afful of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development and Caroline Hubbard of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) discussed the pros and cons of gender quotas, focusing specifically on progress in Africa. The recommendations below draw from the overarching issues presented by the speakers, as well as best practices documented by Inclusive Security.

Although quotas can be a powerful tool for elevating more women to political office, they can also function as a glass ceiling, with representation typically not surpassing the number that is required by law. Quotas also don’t necessarily equal substantive and meaningful participation. So how do we move beyond mere numbers? Here are five key steps.

1. Support Women for Local Elections

Many career politicians gain their first experience in governance and campaigning by running for local office. However, the majority of gender quotas only apply to national-level government bodies, leaving many new female parliamentarians without an extensive record of government service or set of legislative skills. Implementing programs that give women the confidence and space to run for local office would increase the pool of experienced female candidates running for national seats (as part of a quota or not). For instance, before becoming President of the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza served as Mayor of Bangui. This position exposed her directly to the needs of her nation and allowed her to build a reputation as a moderate voice in a nation ravaged by sectarian violence.

Additionally, supporting women for local elections would reassure both potential female candidates and party leaders that women can win competitive elections. In turn, veteran legislators could vie with men for open seats, making room in reserved quota seats for younger women. This approach was highly successful in Rwanda, which now has the world’s highest proportion of female parliamentarians at 64%.

2. Diversify the Pool of Female Candidates

Women have a unique capacity to shed light on the often obscured needs of marginalized groups. In legislative discussions, as in peace negotiations, they raise issues and priorities related to society’s most vulnerable members, including children and ethnic and religious minorities. This is crucial not only for human rights, but for security: when marginalized groups are represented in government, societies are more stable and less likely to experience armed conflict.

This singular ability to bring forward diverse interests is not fully utilized, though, when women from varied ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds can’t take advantage of gender quotas that, in practice, favor elite, well-connected women. By urging both national governments and political parties to diversify the women chosen to run for and hold quota seats, international organizations can ensure that the benefits of women’s inclusion are fully felt.

3. Raise Societal Awareness of Women’s Leadership

When women do reach decision-making positions—especially when there’s not yet a critical mass of female representation—their ideas and contributions are often overlooked by male colleagues. Developing a curriculum for civic education that emphasizes women’s leadership and dispels cultural norms against it will ensure that future generations are more receptive to female political participation.

Additionally, more organizations should train female legislators in how to engage with the media (as organizations such as NDI, Women’s Democracy Network, and Inclusive Security already do). Media-savvy position holders are important emissaries of women’s leadership and can serve as role models for African girls and boys.

4. Create Cross-Party Women’s Caucuses

Women are often a legislature’s least senior members. This means that most women lack the accrued power and influence of their male colleagues who are part of the “old boys’ club.” By supporting and advising the creation of women’s caucuses, international organizations can amplify the voices and contributions of female legislators. Cross-party caucuses can also serve as important mediators of inter-party disputes, curbing disagreements before they interrupt the democratic process and civil society.

The Forum of Women Parliamentarians, for instance, was the first cross-party caucus in a dangerously split post-genocide Rwanda. Comprised of women from all ethnic groups, the Forum enabled legislators to find common ground on various issues and leverage their collective power to push through important legislation.

5. Build Capacity of Female Leaders

Many of the above recommendations present long-term strategies for increasing the efficacy of female lawmakers. However, concrete steps can be taken to immediately enhance women’s political leadership. Inclusive Security includes female parliamentarians in many of our trainings to build their capacity and knowledge around various issues and to connect them with civil society activists who can be key allies in creating beneficial new policies. NDI provides female parliamentarians with orientation sessions, which prepare them for what they will experience as a legislator. Via the cross-party caucuses mentioned above, these women can also “pay it forward” when it comes to cultivating leadership capacities among their female colleagues.

While African women have made great strides in recent decades, there is still work to be done to ensure that they have a primary role in their nation’s government and wider society. By advocating for the above five steps, international and regional organizations can provide valuable support to Africa’s amazing women leaders. These women can, in turn, model meaningful inclusion for governments around the world.

Vincent DeLaurentis, Jr. was a temporary Office and Executive Assistant at Inclusive Security during the summer of 2014. He’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in foreign service at Georgetown University.

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