Does Decentralization Help Women Enter Politics?

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According to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development’s Policy Report on Gender and Development: 10 Years After Beijing, the transfer of government power, resources, and responsibilities to locally elected bodies opens new opportunities for women in politics. Decentralization brings government closer to women, lowers barriers to political entry, and thus, in theory, provides “a significant political apprenticeship arena for women.” My recent work with Amanda Clayton, Amanda Robinson, and Ragnhild Muriaas on women’s electoral success in local government elections in Benin and Malawi, part of the newly released book Women and Power in Africa: Aspiring, Campaigning, and Governing, challenges this claim.

We find that, as more power, resources, and responsibilities are transferred to locally elected bodies, competition for them increases and the same sorts of gendered dynamics that keep women from entering national politics emerge at the local level, undermining women’s electoral efforts. More decentralization may not, therefore, translate into greater representation for women.

To assess the impact of decentralization on women’s electoral prospects, we compared the experiences of women candidates in Malawi’s 2014 district council elections with those of women in Benin’s 2015 communal and municipal council elections. Neither Benin nor Malawi have quota systems for local government, and women are grossly underrepresented in local office. In Benin, women won only 4.5 percent of communal seats in 2015, and in Malawi, they won only 13.4 percent of district seats in 2014.

Although women fared poorly in both countries, women in Malawi won nearly three times as many seats as women in Benin. This difference is particularly interesting because Benin uses a multi-member district, proportional representation (MMD-PR) electoral system, which many scholars believe improves women’s electoral prospects, while Malawi uses a single-member district, majoritarian electoral system, which is thought to disadvantage women.

To explain why women fared worse in Benin’s elections than Malawi’s, our study focuses on differences in the degree to which political power and competition have been decentralized in the two countries. Using interviews, focus groups, and biographical profiles of women who ran for or were elected to local office across Benin and in Malawi’s Kasungu District, we examine why women ran for office, how they were selected as candidates, and how they fared while campaigning.

In Malawi, we further compare women candidates’ experiences with those of men. We uncover considerable differences in women’s electoral prospects in the two countries, suggesting decentralization does not necessarily reduce barriers to entry for political office.

Our most significant finding relates to women’s ability to secure their party’s nomination for local office. As noted above, existing studies suggest that the electoral system in Benin should favor women’s selection for party lists; however, we found that women in Malawi more easily secured party nominations than women in Benin. In part, they simply faced less competition—seven of the eleven women Malawian women candidates we studied ran unopposed in party primaries. In addition, Malawian women who had to compete in party primaries described transparent selection processes, free from irregularities.

In Benin, by contrast, most women candidates described an opaque, unpredictable, often frustrating candidate selection process. They spoke of party leaders who lost their applications, moved them down the party list at the last minute, or even replaced them after general election campaigning had already begun.  Not only was the process for candidate selection in Benin’s 2015 communal elections less transparent than in Malawi’s 2014 district elections, it appears to have been more competitive. Beninese women repeatedly argued that they had to fight for their position on the list. They reported conflict, resistance, and campaigns against them by competitors in their own party. Often, they noted being unable to compete with wealthier men and national politicians who returned home to run for local office.

To explain the relative ease with which Malawian women became candidates to local office compared to Beninese women, we focus on differences in the degree to which political power has been decentralized in the two countries. Although Benin and Malawi democratized and committed to decentralization around the same time in the early 1990s, decentralization has been more consistent and meaningful in Benin. The Beninese government has generally respected existing decentralization laws and held four consecutive rounds of elections (2002, 2008, 2015, and 2020), with many government powers progressively devolving to elected communal and municipal councils.

Municipal councils, in particular, collect considerable tax revenues and exert significant political influence. By contrast, Malawi’s decentralization was seriously derailed in 2005 when president Bingu wa Mutharika cancelled local elections and dissolved the elected local assemblies. The government created new, unelected structures for local decision-making, manning them with appointees and Members of Parliament (MPs). It was not until a local government reform in 2010 that elected councils were revived, but new rules limited the power of elected council members. Finally, after a series of delays, Malawi’s second local elections were held in 2014.

Overall, we argue that decentralization has created more powerful local councils in Benin, which has limited options for women by making local office more appealing to other politicians. More meaningful decentralization in Benin has drawn national politicians into local races at the expense of women candidates and has driven up the cost of running for local office in a context where women are less likely to have financial resources than men. By contrast, in Malawi, local office remains relatively unappealing, providing opportunities for women to secure party nominations with relatively little opposition. Our findings are similar to those of Hussaina J. Abdullah, who, writing on Sierra Leone, notes that women’s path to local office via party nomination closed after more substantial decentralization of government authority made local politics a “do-or-die affair.”

Our research suggests that advocates of women’s political empowerment should approach decentralization cautiously. Decentralization is theoretically good for political representation, but it can also reproduce existing inequalities if nominations become more competitive and access comes to depend on financial resources. It is worth asking, therefore, whether decentralization’s potential rewards for women may require measures aimed at securing gender balance, like legislated gender quotas.

Our findings appear in Women and Power in Africa: Aspiring, Campaigning, and Governing, the newest book in the Oxford Studies in African Politics and International Relations series published by Oxford University Press. In this collection, my co-editors, Leonardo Arriola and Melanie Phillips, and I bring together work from across sub-Saharan Africa to elucidate how women in African countries participate in party nominations, election campaigns, and governance.

Martha Johnson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Mills College in Oakland, CA. 

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