In African nations, will growing female political muscle drive change?

When it comes to gender parity in legislatures, Africa as a region has more than doubled the percentage of women in the past 20 years, to about one quarter. 

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Students congregate between classes at the School of Business and Finance (SBF) in Kigali, Rwanda, March 19, 2009. The only business school in the country, SBF has an enrollment over 2,500 students who, upon graduation, are often absorbed into banking, government and other financial institutions.

If you could choose any country in the world to be born a girl in the year 2016, Mozambique might not top your list. Nearly one in every two girls in the southern African country is married before the age of 18 and more women die in childbirth there than in almost any other country in the world.

Neither would you likely choose Rwanda, where only 41 percent of girls will finish secondary school, or Uganda, which has nearly 40 times the rate of teenage pregnancy as Switzerland or The Netherlands.

But by at least one measure of gender equality, these are the world’s undisputed leaders. Each has a national legislature that is more than one-third female, outpacing the United States, Canada, most of Europe, and the vast majority of everyone else, too. Rwanda, indeed, has a greater percentage of women in its parliament – 64 – than any other country on earth, and globally, nine of the 25 countries with the most women in their parliaments are in sub-Saharan Africa.

“That’s important symbolically, but it’s also women politicians who put gender equality issues on the legislative agenda,” says Drude Dahlerup, a Danish-Swedish academic who founded The Quota Project, a database of parliamentary gender quotas around the world. “Over the past two decades, Africa has been a huge success story in this regard.”

But if growing gender parity in politics is helping African women put equality on the docket, it’s far from a social cure-all. In many countries, a yawning gap between women’s political representation and basic measures of their quality of life – how many girls finish school, how many mothers die in childbirth, the prevalence of child marriage –also raises important questions about the limits of female political muscle in transforming a society.

“The representation of women is one thing, having the policies to make change is another, and implementing those policies is something else still,” says Nahashon Aluoka, the east and southern Africa advocacy and campaigns director for the NGO Save The Children, which on Oct. 11 released its ranking of the world’s best – and worst – places in the world to be a girl.  

The list takes into account five factors – early pregnancy and child marriage rates, girls’ secondary school completion rates, maternal death ratios, and the representation of women in government. Like nearly every global quality of life ranking, the top of the class is blonde and blue-eyed, the same cluster of overachieving Scandinavian states that consistently outpace the rest of the world in health, education, gender equality, and nearly every other measure of good societal health. Sweden is No. 1, followed by Finland and Norway. On the other end, seemingly consigned by history and poverty to be the planet’s chronic underachievers, huddle an equally familiar group of African countries – Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Somalia.  

But as Ms. Dahlerup notes, when looking for global models of societies attempting to rapidly transform their gender status quo, many of the world’s worst performers on the Save the Children ranking become its leaders. In particular, post-conflict societies – of which Africa has an abundance – are often eager to rebuild their countries on equal footing, and pass aggressive policies designed to accelerate that task.

When it comes to gender parity in legislatures, for instance, Africa as a region has more than doubled the percentage of women in its parliaments in the past 20 years, from about 10 percent in January 1997 to 23 percent in August of this year, according to data from the Inter Parliamentary Union.  

“It took 100 years for Scandinavian countries” to get where they are now in terms of political representation of women, Dahlerup says. In many African countries, on the other hand, the change has happened in two decades or less. Sometimes all it took was a single election. Senegal, for instance, jumped from a parliament that was 22.7 percent women to one that was 42.7 percent women in 2012, and Namibia’s legislature went from 25.6 percent women before the 2015 election to 41.3 percent afterward. “Scandinavia is certainly not the world’s only model anymore,” she says.  

In Africa, as in much of the world, that progress has come on the back of an often-controversial strategy – quota systems, many of them implemented in the aftermath of wars or civil conflicts to fast-track gender equity. But even quotas come in a wide variety of forms, from designated seats for women –as Uganda and Tanzania have – to Namibia’s novel “zebra system,” in which the ruling party there alternates men and women on its party electoral lists and in the ruling of its ministries (meaning a female minister will always have a male deputy minister and vice versa). 

But one crucial unknown with the new wave of quota systems in Africa is how well it will work in the long term, both in terms of making legislatures more equitable and distributing gains to women in a society more widely.

For now, however, many believe the very presence of women at the top can shape the imagination of a country – and in particular of its girls.

“Patriarchal tendencies are still in existence,” says Jennifer Van Den Heever, a Namibian Member of Parliament and the first female chairwoman of the opposition DTA party. But the proliferation of women in high places – deputy prime minister, deputy speaker of parliament, committee leaders – is starting to change the shape of the institution. 

“It’s pulling the scales to balance,” she says.

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