The Feminization of African Politics
BAMAKO/TORONTO – Last month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed a new cabinet; ten of the 20 positions went to women. One week later, the country’s parliament unanimously elected Sahle-Work Zewde to become Ethiopia’s first female president, and a week after that, lawmakers appointed Meaza Ashenafi to serve as the first female Supreme Court president.
The same week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame also installed a new gender-balanced cabinet . Rwanda already had the world’s highest percentage of women in a national parliament; now, the country will have even more female leaders.
While Ethiopia and Rwanda are at the forefront of Africa’s push for gender parity in politics, other African countries are not far behind. Six of the world’s 20 top countries in terms of the share of legislative seats held by women are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in two African countries toward the bottom of the global list – Nigeria and Mali – politicians are currently discussing ways to increase female representation.
This shift is as inspiring as it is historic. By appointing so many young, energetic female leaders – like Paula Ingabire, Rwanda’s minister of information and communications technology, Kamissa Camara, Mali’s foreign affairs minister, or Bogolo Kenewendo, Botswana’s trade minister – African countries are demonstrating that young women can aspire to, and achieve, impactful goals.
These changes are essential not only for the sake of fairness, but also for Africa’s long-term prosperity. On a continent where the average age of senior officials is 62, Africa needs more young women in power to reflect the talent and desires of its youthful population. To sustain Africa’s socioeconomic progress, young women must be in leadership positions.
Women experience the world differently than men. We grow up navigating cultural norms and expectations that, while certainly constraining, give us insights that are essential for inclusive policymaking. A growing body of evidence shows that women’s political leadership strengthens governance capacity, improves cooperation with allies and across parties, and advances issues like parental leave and childcare, access to pensions, and the elimination of gender-based violence
While it is unreasonable – and indeed undesirable – to expect that women will agree on all issues or be equally gender-sensitive in their politics, it is fair to assume that a female leader’s ideas will be informed by her unique experiences. As leaders everywhere strive to build more equitable societies, they must not underestimate the importance of giving political voice to gendered expertise.
In much of the world, and in many African countries, a woman’s place is widely believed to be in the home; public space is regarded as a male domain. When governments in Africa boldly and intentionally crowd women into decision-making bodies, and entrust them with power, they are directly challenging these outdated assumptions. With more female role models, young women and girls will be able to imagine new career possibilities; parents will chart new paths of success for their daughters; teachers will teach girls differently; and social and cultural barriers will fall.
Some critics argue that gender quotas in government are condescending and unnecessary. But in many parts of the world, they are essential. In some societies, for example, women cannot easily vote, meaning that even when female candidates are on the ballot, it can be difficult for them to garner electoral support.
Ethiopia and Rwanda have recognized this challenge and have moved to address it. Moreover, by appointing gender-balanced cabinets, leaders are intentionally addressing a common experience for women in politics: being vastly outnumbered by male counterparts. These two governments now have the opportunity to bring women’s perspective to bear on the challenges their countries face.
The creation of gender-equal cabinets reinforces the message that progress is about more than building individual capacity. Rather, it also requires transforming the structures and institutions that govern society. For young African women, the last few weeks of political change represents a milestone in the continuing push for gender equality, marking the beginning of a new era of progress for the continent.
Fatima Al Ansar is Head of Mission at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Mali, founder of Tilwalte Girls Peace Network, a 2017 Oxford Consortium on Human Rights Fellow, an alumna of African Leadership Academy, and a Mastercard Foundation Scholar. Shona Bezanson is Associate Director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program.
A version of this story was originally published in Project Syndicate.