Hands up for women?s political parties

Date: January 1, 1970
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Women’s political parties may be the answer to the slow pace of change in African male politics.

As Africa continues to grapple with its developmental and political challenges, the issue of women’s low participation in local and national politics remains central. The picture throughout the continent is by no means uniform.

According to the Inter Parliamentary Union, several African countries, such as Rwanda, South Africa and Namibia, Uganda and Eritrea, post comparatively high results, with at least more than 20% women’s participation in the national Parliament. As of March 31, 2004, Rwanda ranked as the world’s number one as far as women’s participation is concerned, with 48.8% participation in the lower house and 30 % participation in the upper house, closely followed by Sweden and Denmark with 45% and 38%, women in Parliament respectively.

For most African countries though, women’s participation is well below 20% in National Parliaments. For sub-Saharan Africa, the average for women’s participation stands at 14.1% as compared with Nordic countries at 39.7% at the highest end of the spectrum, and Arab States at 6.2% at the lowest end.

Particularly note worthy is that women’s increasing participation has so far been achieved through the strategy of affirmative action using special quotas in the electoral system. Underlying this approach is the politics of inclusion, central to which is the recognition that cultural and legal constraints often stand in the path of women’s equality.

Inclusion also recognises that women have the same abilities as men, hence the need to level the playing field through the introduction of accelerative measures targeted at women as a previously disadvantaged group.

The reality though is that while affirmative action is definitely desirable and has its visible merits in so far as increasing women’s participation, there should be no illusions about any radical changes that can be brought to the face of politics by relying only on a strategy of inclusion.

Even though Africa is experiencing a welcome shift in concepts of participation especially in countries with more recent constitutions, it would be unwise to underestimate the difficulties women encounter in entering a world that is so maladjusted as far as the conduct of politics goes. African women parliamentarians have had to deal with the rude awakenings of what it means to join a men’s only club.

These realities include constant power struggles, hackling, harassment, shameless mediocrity, misplaced priorities, and self-aggrandisement as some of the defining characteristics of the world of African male politics. Not much of the ethics of care that women may have gone into politics hoping to prioritise. In short, the realisation has been just how difficult it is to bring about real change while operating within a confined framework of what counts for politics.

Yet despite these realities inherent in a strategy of simple inclusion, there does not seem to be much meaningful debate among women’s groups or in the media in terms of exploring other conceptual frameworks and strategies that women could also harness in order to give real meaning to women ‘s participation in politics, and to the ideal of changing the core of politics in ways that give centre stage to concepts of social justice.

Since the issue is not just about changing the face of politics but its core, could the answer not lie in giving as much weight to the politics of difference as that given to the politics of inclusion?

I strongly believe that a crucial defining moment for Africa will be when we as African women, recognise that we have as much a right as men have had, to shape the world we live in through forming our own political parties where we can bravely and freely articulate our vision for the continent. We should not be afraid to articulate our different experiences of the world in ways that can be translated into political goals and strategies. Divisive Utopia some might say. But then anything is utopia unless you try it out.

Our marginal role in politics today is not because we are few in number. On the contrary, there are about as many women voters as there are male. Granted there are core social, economic and cultural factors that have contributed to our being at the margins, but a distinct challenge is to turn our numbers to our advantage.

If more and more women (and men if they wish) can come to identify with the political goals and ambitions as defined through women’s political parties, then I think we will truly be setting the necessary parameters for changing the core of politics in Africa.

Another factor we have to our advantage is that while we may not have the experience of public politics, we certainly have much more day to day administrative experience compared to that which most African male politicians have collectively brought to the table.

Based on experiences on the ground, there appears to be no rationale whatsoever, for arguing that our male counterparts are imbued with more knowledge than us when it comes to public matters. On the contrary, save for our fear and hesitancy in forming our own parties, I for one am often in awe at how African women are so much more alive to the need for imaginative and responsive leadership in this world of cut throat competition.

Dr. Amy S Tsanga is the deputy director of the Women’s Law Institute in Harare, Zimbabwe.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information. 

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