By Ruth Owino
According to the 2011 data from the parliamentary union, women occupy 19.4% of parliamentary seats in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is slightly higher than the world average of 19.3%. Despite the progress, there are still not enough women occupying leadership positions. This progress has been uneven and slow and in some cases there have been significant setbacks. The sluggish progress has been blamed on cultural and institutional constraints that inform the world about key issues that affect women such as discrimination in the political arena, male-dominated political parties, restrictive social norms, lack of support networks and gender based violence.
The struggle for political space in Africa has seen a lot of women take up higher positions in government and political institutions. The increase in women political participation in the African continent in the past few years has been greater than ever experienced in the past. The challenges for young women aspiring for political office are even greater, for they have to confront a hostile environment where they have had to be looked upon as flower girls or play the role of Public Relations. Young women also lack mentorship, and role models to look up to. The high illiteracy level especially in the rural settings is another hurdle that makes it difficult for the young women to convince voters. Additionally, financial constraints for campaigns worsened by the high level of voter bribery and a culture of women’s political exclusion also contribute to making it difficult for young women to vie for office.
However, the urge for young women to participate in the African politics is quickly gaining momentum. In Kenya, the most notable “young women” in parliaments are Hon. Millie Odhiambo and Hon. Rachael Shebesh. While in the political scene outside parliament, young women like Winnie Mbaru (39), who are in the forefront fighting for women rights are still struggling for political space. Other notable candidates are Pollyne Owoko who is aspiring for the Makadara Member of Parliament and Lindy Wafula (34) who is also aspiring to represent Makadara constituency in 2012.
Ugandan young women have also come out to participate in the politics. A notable example is Hon.Monica Amoding, the national female youth member of parliament. Other young women politicians in Africa include Hon. Mbozi Tatila (28), of Zambia and Hon. Anastacia Ndhlovu (30) of Zimbabwe.
In the efforts of realizing African women’s participation and full representation, however, there is the fear of excluding a particular group of women – those between the ages of 18-30. There appears to be much more effort made in realizing the participation of older women, which often comes at the expense of the young women (18-30). This group is notably missing and their voices are seldom heard in African politics. The generational gap is increasingly growing, and not enough is being done to bridge it. Seeing as the youth will sustain the next generation, they ought to be encouraged and nurtured, rather than dismissed as irrelevant players.
Young women form a large percentage of the 60% of voters in Kenya, and therefore must be well represented in all institutions. They also need to be empowered so that they can improve their communities through political activism. Another essential aspect in building the capacity of young women is providing them with skills that enable them to realize their potential. At the same time, young women need to use their political, advocacy and leadership skills to increase the political participation of young women through mentorship and nurturing.
There are calls to strengthen women’s political participation, through strong and sustainable networks that will support women in politics and electoral law reforms. The following are further recommendations to be considered to increase the number of women and their participation in politics:
Develop incentives to attract women to politics, including; provide funding to run election campaigns, provide access to networks, training and skills development for female candidates to be able to contest in the elections.
Establish quota systems that ensure that a certain number of executive positions are held by women. The use of electoral quota would be the more effective system specifically in African countries where women have been marginalized. Electoral quota system is a mandatory percentage of women candidates for public elections.
The quota system seems to have worked well in Rwanda, where women hold 30 percent of seats in the Senate as mandated in the Rwandan constitution. Additionally, 24 deputies (30 percent) are elected by women from each province. The 24 seats reserved for women are contested in women-only elections, meaning only women can stand for election and only women can vote. Rwanda today has the highest number of women in parliament worldwide.
Despite the several challenges for women in politics, women are beginning to consolidate their gains. It remains to be seen what impact women will have, particularly on those issues that are not traditionally ‘women’s issues’. Advocating for women representation is important but that’s not enough, unless women representatives find ways to introduce a gender perspective into a new range of issues while remaining loyal to their constituency of women in their respective countries. They need to address the issues and challenges facing other women in Africa, whose circumstances are worse -their basic development needs are great in terms of rights, status, and access to resources and education as opposed to their male counter parts.