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Women’s political leadership in Africa – time to look beyond numbers

18 March 2015

The Commonwealth Secretariat and African Union (AU) held a high-level dialogue in New York last week to address women’s political leadership in delivering democracy and development in Africa.

Over 100 participants attended the event, including speakers of parliament, members of parliament, ministers, senior representatives from election management bodies and civil society, to share common goals and strategies to improve the impact women make in political leadership. 

The meeting provided an opportunity for stakeholders to assess the progress towards achieving commitments set out in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and Agenda 2063 – the AU’s 50-year roadmap for advancing women’s rights. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and the AU’s dedicated year of women’s empowerment.

Participants debated mechanisms and strategies such as gender quotas, legislative changes and the role of political parties to advance women in politics.

In her address, Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Josephine Ojiambo noted that despite some progress, greater efforts are now required to meet internationally agreed targets to increase women’s political participation.

“Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration, women’s participation in leadership has only increased by 10%. When you look at the detail, for women across the governance spectrum, not just parliament, it seems like we still have far to go.”

The Chairperson of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Mr Ahmed Issack Hassan, emphasised the need for countries to review their electoral systems and legal frameworks, to give effect to the various African Union pronouncements that call for gender equality in democratic processes.

He said: “I do not think we should underestimate putting quotas in the constitution.”

Chairing the discussion, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, African Development Bank’s Special Envoy on Gender, stressed that “quotas matter” to increase the number of women in parliament and local government.

Empowering young women to take up political leadership roles was one of the key issues discussed. Ms Zainab Hawa Bangura, Under-Secretary- General and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, noted the importance of education in helping women make independent and quality decisions when in positions of power.

Ms Bangura stressed that lack of education hindered women’s ability to deliver in decision-making roles. She went on to say that this, in turn, entrenched negative stereotypes about women in leadership.

She stated: “When one woman fails, womanhood fails...the more educated a woman is, the more able she is to make independent political, social and economic decisions.”

Panellist, Dr Aisha Abdullahi, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, affirmed the AU’s commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment as key towards achieving the Union’s overall vision of a united, integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.

She said: “Women’s participation is not simply about a certain number of female representatives, but about the ability of this participation to affect meaningful policy change and improve the lives of all women and girls around the continent.”

The African Union has 54 member states, of which 18 are Commonwealth member countries.

The Commonwealth Secretariat and the African Union have agreed to work together to develop practical resources and tools to support women leaders across Africa in delivering their democracy and development mandates.

In March 2015, the Commonwealth Secretariat and African Union held discussions in Addis Ababa to strengthen collaboration in several areas, including trade advocacy, electoral support and women’s leadership.