Women and Politics in Africa Today

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Aili Marie TrippIn this post, Aili Mari Tripp looks at the presence of women in African politics. She asks how we can explain recent shifts across the continent, and what a focus on Africa adds to our broader understanding of women in politics. Aili Mari Tripp is the Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


One of the most fascinating developments in African politics has been the increase in women’s political participation since the mid 1990s. Women are becoming more engaged in a variety of institutions from local government, to legislatures, and even the executive. Today, Africa is a leader in women’s parliamentary representation globally. African countries have some of the world’s highest rates of representation:  Rwanda claimed the world’s highest ratio of women in parliament in 2003 and today Rwandan women hold 64% of the country’s legislative seats. In Senegal, Seychelles and South Africa, more than 40% of parliamentary seats are held by women, while in Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda over 35% of seats are occupied by women. By contrast, women in the US women hold 18% of the seats in the House and 20% in the Senate.

The parliamentary patterns are evident in other areas as well. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first elected woman president in Africa in 2005, and more recently Joyce Banda took over as president in Malawi. There have been nine female prime ministers in Africa since 1993, including Luisa Diongo in Mozambique, who served for six years. Since 1975 there have been 12 female vice presidents like Wandira Speciosa Kazibwe in Uganda. Presently there are female vice presidents in Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Gambia and Djibouti and there have been others in South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Burundi. There are female speakers of the house in one fifth of African parliaments, which is higher than the world average of 14%. Women are taking over key ministerial positions in defense, finance and foreign affairs, which is a break from the past when women primarily held ministerial positions in the so-called ‘softer’ ministries of education, community development, sports and youth.  Today, South Africa has a female defense minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, while Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala serves as Nigeria’s finance minister.

Women are similarly visible in regional bodies, holding 50% of the African Union parliamentary seats. Gertrude Mongella served as the first president of the Pan African Parliament and in July 2012, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma took over the leadership of the African Union Commission. Even at the local level, women make up almost 60 percent of local government positions in Lesotho and Seychelles, 43 percent of the members of local councils or municipal assemblies in Namibia, and over one-third of local government seats in Mauritania, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. More women than men vote in countries like Botswana, Cape Verde, Lesotho, South Africa and Senegal, although overall rates for men seem to be about 5% more in countries surveyed by Afrobarometer.

These patterns are evident in the judiciary as well with the advancement of women judges at all levels.  African women judges are even making it into the international arena with Fatou Bensouda from Gambia holding the post of chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Court. Curiously, all but one of the current five African judges on the ICC are women.[1]

These changes in the African political terrain can be explained by three interrelated factors: 1) the decline of conflict in Africa; 2) the expansion of civil liberties, particularly in the context of shifts from authoritarian to slightly more liberalized hybrid regimes, along with the emergence of autonomous women’s movements that accompanied this opening; 3) pressures from international actors like UN agencies, regional organizations, donors and other external actors that influenced the state.

Challenges to Conventional Scholarship

The literature exploring these developments has challenged conventional explanations of women’s political empowerment that has, until very recently, mostly drawn on women’s experiences in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.  The factors that had, for example, traditionally been used to explain rates of female legislative representation included the type of electoral system, with proportional representation being more favorable to women. It also included party and district magnitude, levels of socioeconomic development, women’s education and workforce participation, party ideology, religion and culture. These factors do not explain the main dynamics we are witnessing in Africa or much of the rest of the world today.

1) Fast Track

The gradual increase of female representation in Scandinavia used to be the model that everyone looked to in the past, when the Nordic countries were alone in enjoying the highest rates of female representation. This Nordic model has now been replaced by what Danish political scientist Drude Dahlerup has called the ‘fast track’ model, which is evident in African countries that have experienced dramatic jumps in female parliamentary representation primarily through the adoption of electoral quotas. Since the mid 1990s, the focus on electoral systems like proportional representation systems as a key explanatory factor in explaining female legislative representation now needs to be accompanied by other institutional factors such as the introduction of electoral quotas because of the developments we have seen in Africa, and elsewhere.

In the decades leading up to 1995, only six countries in sub-Saharan Africa had adopted quotas, while today more than half (25 out of 48) of all sub-Saharan African countries have adopted gender quotas which are measures that increase the chances of women being elected to office. The 1995 UN Conference on Women held in Beijing helped spur these trends by adopting a Platform of Action that encouraged countries to advance women’s political leadership.

There have been basically three types of quotas introduced to influence legislative representation of women, the first two of which are most commonly employed in Africa: 1) Reserved seats, mandated by constitutions or legislation or both, set aside seats for which only women can compete, guaranteeing from the outset that a predetermined percentage of seats would be held by women. 2) Voluntary quotas adopted by parties, regardless of whether there is a legal mandate. 3) Compulsory quotas, which legally require all parties to include a certain percentage of women on their candidate lists. They generally do not mandate where they should be placed on the list, which is crucial to the success of such a provision.  Few such arrangements are found in Africa.  These tend to be less successful mechanisms because they are imposed on parties.

Thus, the adoption of quotas, particularly in Africa, has forced new understandings of what accounts for female political representation globally.

2) Religiosity

The African experiences are also challenging conventional understandings of the impact of religion on women’s rights. Religiosity and, in particular Islam, has been seen by comparative scholars like Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart as constraints on women’s political representation.

However, many of the countries that have adopted quotas in Africa have significant Muslim populations, including Tanzania, Mauritania, Senegal, Eritrea, Sudan, Niger, and most recently Somalia. This trend has now continued in all the countries in the Maghreb, including Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Morocco. Muslim-majority countries have been motivated to adopt quotas for a variety of reasons: as a result of pressures from women’s movements and from female elites; in an effort to comply with changing international norms and donor pressures; and in an attempt to win women’s votes.

A global crossnational study done by Alice Kang and myself shows that these patterns in Africa are replicated globally and one can no longer say that Muslim countries in general have proportionately lower rates of female representation, especially when region and quotas are factored into one’s model.  Even the Middle East, which has been particuarly slow in advancing women’s rights and political leadership, is beginning to increase women’s political presence. This is not to say that there aren’t serious constraints on women in predominantly Muslim countries, but it is important to note that when it comes to one of the key indicators of gender equality — that of womens’ legislative representation — the patterns are rapidly changing.

3) Democratization

The literature on the most recent third wave of democratization has shown that its impacts on gender equality were initially rather disappointing in Latin America and East Europe. In some of these countries, women’s movements declined and women’s organizations and their leaders were coopted by political parties and governments as political processes became institutionalized. In contrast, in Africa (and East Asia), democratization was accompanied by an expansion of women’s rights, however limited, as political transitions opened up political space that gave women new possibilities for mobilizing to demand political rights. Nevertheless, we may now be seeing the limits of this change in opportunity structures for women in countries like South Africa.

Democratic and non-democratic countries have similar levels of women’s political representation in Africa, in part, because of the adoption of quotas by non-democratic countries like Rwanda and Uganda. However, new empirical studies now show that the expansion of civil liberties, in particular, fuel the growth of women’s legislative representation further down the road, suggesting that increased political space allows for women’s mobilization for representation. Thus, it is democratization, rather than levels of democracy, that may be more important in explaining the relationship between democracy and women’s political representation.  This is particularly important on a continent like Africa, where the big shift in the 1990s was not towards democracies, but rather from authoritarian regimes to hybrid regimes that are neither fully democratic nor authoritarian and where we have seen reversals in countries like Mali.

4) Post-Conflict Impacts

The changes in women’s political advancement have been most noticeable in post-conflict countries, especially after 2000. This is also something that was not evident when studies of women and politics focused only on the global North. Post-conflict countries in Africa have twice as many women in legislatures as non-post conflict countries in the continent. Having experienced more conflicts than any other part of the world, these trends have been more pronounced in Africa but they are also evident in other parts of the world for many of the same reasons in the post 2000 period, for example, Nepal, East Timor, Nicaragua, Serbia, Algeria.

Post conflict countries in Africa have also passed twice as much woman-friendly legislation when compared with non post-conflict countries, and they have made the most constitutional reforms in women’s rights. In particular, they have pushed for legislative quotas for women far more than other countries; they are challenging customary law; working to ensure land rights, and passing laws around violence against women often at double the rates we see in non-post-conflict countries. While these trends are most pronounced in countries that have experienced long and deadly wars, they are also evident in countries that have experienced violent political upheaval (such as South Africa and, more recently, Kenya).

I am currently writing a book about these developments. I explain these changes by a convergence of three developments that are global, but have a particular African dimension to them, making the trends most visible in Africa. Firstly, these trends became evident after a precipitous decline in conflict, especially after 2000. The end of the Cold War influenced some of these changes. There was also the increased importance of international and regional peacekeeping efforts, greater efforts regarding diplomacy and peace negotiations to end conflict, and the increase in influence of peace movements. The effect on societies and gender relations was much more profound in these post-conflict countries. These patterns are primarily evident after in civil conflicts, which unlike interstate wars required a renegotiation of the polity.

The decline of conflict often created opportunity structures like peace negotiations and constitution-making exercises that allowed women activists to press for a women’s right’s agenda and increased representation. The absence of such opportunity structures denied women and other civil society actors the ability to assert their interests and the lack of national reconciliation made it even harder to articulate a crosscutting set of interests among women.  Thus, where conflicts ended with the decimation of the rival force, there was no impetus for peace talks, hence less opportunities for women to assert their interests. This was the case in Angola, when in 2002, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed and the government threatened to decimate the rebel movement, but did not do so as a result of pressure from the peace movement. Although one saw the adoption of quotas in Angola, there was much less mobilization around other women’s rights demands in ways that were evident in other post-conflict countries.

Secondly, there was a change in international norms regarding women’s political representation and women’s rights more generally. This influenced not only domestic women’s movements through the increase in donor funding of women NGOs, but it also influenced the activities of multilateral agencies, e.g., the United Nations and the World Bank, and of donors more generally.  Post conflict countries were particularly susceptible, in part, because they were more donor dependent. Those countries that have been most inclined to comply with international treaties regarding women’s rights have also been the most donor dependent.

Thirdly, the end of conflict also disrupted gender roles and relations and created incentives for women to demand greater rights and representation. This was especially evident in countries that had undergone major conflict, where conflicts were long in duration and/or had large numbers of casualties. The presence of women combatants in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone challenged existing gender norms as did women’s roles in peace movements. The gender disruptions were evident both in countries where women were active in battle and in peace movements or both, but these changes were not as evident where women played neither role in the conflict (e.g., Chad).

The decline of conflict also created a political opening, although often not a very large one. But the opening was sufficient to allow for the emergence of new autonomous women’s movements of the kind that had sprung up throughout Africa, especially after the 1990s. In some countries, these movements had their origins in peace movements during the war (e.g., Sierra Leone and Liberia). In other countries they emerged after the conflict was over (e.g., Uganda). During war, women’s organizations attempted to influence formal peace talks, and after the conflict they sought to influence women’s political leadership, constitution-making and legislative reforms. But they also engaged in extensive informal mobilization. In a country like Liberia, they organized rallies and boycotts, promoted small arms confiscation and reconciliation ceremonies, and negotiated with small groups of rebels to disarm. Other strategies during war included media work through the radio, and organizing workshops to promote peace with warlords and rebel leaders.  In northern Uganda, women’s organizations negotiated for the release of captured child soldiers.

I spoke with the leader of a Bomi women’s organization in Liberia last summer who explained what these gender disruptions meant at the local level: ‘During the war we got to know our value because we were forced to find food for the children; men could not go out. When Ellen [Johnson-Sirleaf] took over things changed for women. We praise God for the leaders God gave us. Women can speak anywhere [in public] now. In the past, women were in the back and were silent. If we did speak, nothing would happen. Women did not read and write. Woman stayed at the back too long, and now we have decided to speak for ourselves. There are now more girls going to school in Bomi. We have had ‘climate change.’ Now more women carry money, more women are in business. Women are now trading and doing business as far as Nigeria and Guinea. In the past they only did business in Liberia.’ I heard many similar comments after the conflict in Uganda when I first started working there in the early 1990s.  Today in Uganda women are running businesses, universities and parliaments (the speaker of the house is a woman). They are taking positions that were unimaginable prior to 1986: Women are carpenters, novelists, mechanics and race car drivers. The change is very palpable for anyone who lived through the years of conflict.

Finally, women are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as outsiders to politics and therefore untainted by corruption and clientelism. They are seen as not having fomented conflict. This gave them greater credibility in the newly reconstituted political order. These perceptions may not have always been accurate, but they are there and have given women added credibility in seeking office.

5) African Influences on Women’s Rights Globally

In addition to these post-conflict dynamics, there are yet other areas where the scholarship in Africa is shaping and challenging broader understandings of gender and politics. One of these has to do with African influences on global women’s rights discourse.

There has long been a tendency in Western scholarship to see international influences in women’s rights as external to Africa. Africa not only has absorbed international women’s rights norms and practices, but it has contributed to them as well. Ideas and practices have emerged from Africa and spread elsewhere and for this reason it is important to acknowledge the ways in which African women’s movements have, and are, influencing these global trends.

The marginalized position of Africa in the global context has often blurred the contribution of African women to many discourses of the global women’s movement. Also the international media has had little interest in African women, except to portray them as hopelessly mired in traditional practices such as genital mutilation or as helpless victims of war and famine.

The extensive documentation of the women’s movement in Europe and the United States has often overshadowed the contributions of the women’s movements outside these regions, creating the misinformed perception that women’s activism globally was a byproduct of Western feminist movements.  Women in Africa, especially after the mid 1970s, started protesting such characterizations and increased efforts to document their own movements. The Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD), for example, was formed in 1976 in response to experiences at the first UN conference on women held in Mexico in 1975. AAWORD sought to promote scholarship among African women scholars, in part, as a response to the domination of research on women in Africa by Western scholars and the lack of availability of scholarship on women in Africa.  African scholars were critical of the condescending and patronizing assumptions of Western scholars that did not regard African women as capable of looking after their own interests.

African women’s movements continue to actively define their own agendas. They have helped influence the combination of the rights-based and development-based approaches to women’s advancement. Global feminism is a more South-centered movement than ever before, and African women leaders have significantly contributed to bringing about this transformation.

African contributions to transnational women’s rights activism have been especially important in the areas of violence against women, women and conflict, the girl child, financing women’s entrepreneurship which was influenced by pioneers like Esther Ocloo in Ghana, opposing female genital cutting, analysing the role of government vs. NGOs in service provision, and, increasingly, encouraging discussions about women and political decision making and the adoption of quotas.

One area that has generated considerable momentum in Africa has been the adoption of ‘gender budget initiatives’, or attempts to make the gender implications of national spending priorities more explicit and ultimately fairer.  After the 1995 Beijing UN women’s conference, many countries in Africa adopted women’s budgets patterned along the lines of South Africa’s 1994 budget exercise.  Approximately 30 gender-sensitive budget initiatives were underway globally by 2006, the largest number of which were in Africa. Gender budgeting, which was initially primarily found in Africa, is an approach that has subsequently spread more widely in the West; the European Union has endorsed this as an approach as have the parliaments of some of its member states such as Germany.  African experiences with this form of mainstreaming thus became an important factor in increasing their popularity in other parts of the world.

African women’s contributions to policy were also to be seen in global fora. Coming from a continent that has experienced a great many of the world’s civil conflicts, African women were very proactive in promoting issues of peace and peacemaking in international fora and in confronting various heads of states. African women, in particular, made peace a central issue at the UN Beijing conference on women in 1995. Their efforts contributed greatly to the passing of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000 to include women in peace negotiations and give them roles in peace-keeping missions around the world.

These are just two areas where women in Africa have contributed to policy debates globally.


Research on women and politics in Africa has made important contributions to both scholarship on Africa, on African politics and the more general literature on gender and politics. This area of study is fast evolving and has made key advances in helping explain the increasing rates of female legislative representation; the role of women in conflict; state policies and processes regarding women’s rights; women and patronage politics; and the role of traditional authorities with respect to women’s leadership and rights.

Gender and politics in Africa is an emerging field of study which poses many new and exciting possibilities for new scholarly agendas. There is still a lot we don’t know, including the role of traditional authorities, women in local politics, women and decentralization, and the constraints and possibilities for women in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian/semi-democratic regimes. We need more historical work. But perhaps above all, we don’t have a good sense yet of what difference women in power make, particularly in authoritarian and hybrid regimes. We have seen increases in woman-friendly legislation in countries like Uganda being advanced by the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. At the same time, the disappointing persistence of nepotism and patronage politics and corruption in a female-headed country like Liberia shows just how intransigent old habits can be. The increase of women in politics signifies that norms have changed and are changing, and it represents a step toward greater equality.  If women are not represented politically, their voices will not be heard and their interests are less likely to be advanced.

Nevertheless, women enter institutions with long histories and established ways of doing things. Although some women will challenge the status quo and will see themselves as advocates for women’s rights, many become absorbed into these same institutions and behave much like the male legislators, ministers and presidents that came before them. It is these processes that we need to better understand.

The paper is an adaptation of a talk that was presented November 30, 2012, as Aili Tripp’s presidential address to the African Studies Association at its annual meeting held in Philadelphia, PA.

[1] Joyce Aluoch (Kenya) Fatoumata Dembélé Diarra (Mali), Akua Kuenyehia (Ghana), Sanji Mmasenono Monageng (Botwsana).

9 thoughts on “Women and Politics in Africa Today

  1. The amount of spelling and grammatical errors in this article make me question your qualifications as an academic

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