In the fight for gender equality, women around the world have advanced in small and large ways. Yet for women in Africa, progress is measured in micro steps, and the struggle has a long way to go.
The good news is that women’s representation in political decision making has been on the rise globally. The not-so-good news is that the increase has been stubbornly slow, barely 1% in 2018 compared with the previous year. In 2018 the number of women ministers worldwide reached an all-time high at 20.7% (812 out of 3922).
In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of women seated in parliament grew in 2018, with a regional average share at 23.7%, according to the just-released 2019 edition of the biennial Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Map of Women in Politics .
The IPU, made up of more than 170 national parliaments from around the world, tracks the number of women elected to parliaments globally every year and produces an analysis that helps to monitor progress, setbacks and trends.
Djibouti, which in the year 2000 had zero women in parliament, saw the most dramatic gains globally among lower and single chambers. The share of women in parliament rose in 2018 from 10.8% to 26.2% (a 15.4-point increase), a total of 15 women, states the report, which was launched during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN headquarters in New York in March 2019.
Ethiopia saw the largest increase in women’s political representation in the executive branch, from 10% women ministers in 2017 to 47.6% in 2019.
On ministerial positions, the report highlights another striking gain—more women in Africa are now in charge of portfolios traditionally held by men than in 2017. There are 30% more women ministers of defense (17 worldwide), 52.9% more women ministers of finance, and 13.6% more women ministers of foreign affairs (30).
The usual practice is to appoint women to “soft issue” portfolios, such as social affairs, children and family.
“We still have a steep road ahead, but the growing proportion of women ministers is encouraging, especially where we see a rise in the number of countries with gender-balanced ministerial cabinets,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director, at the launch of the report. She urged countries to make bold moves to dramatically increase women’s representation in decision making.
More women in politics leads to more inclusive decisions and can change people’s image of what a leader looks like, added Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, formerly a minister and Deputy President herself in South Africa.
Among the top African countries with a high percentage of women in ministerial positions are Rwanda (51.9%), South Africa (48.6%), Ethiopia (47.6%), Seychelles (45.5%), Uganda (36.7%) and Mali (34.4%).
The lowest percentage in Africa was in Morocco (5.6%), which has only one female minister in a cabinet of 18. Other countries with fewer than 10% women ministers include Nigeria (8%), Mauritius (8.7%) and Sudan (9.5%).
Notably, Rwanda, the world leader in the number of women in parliament, saw a slight reduction in their number, from 64% in 2017 to 61.3% in 2018. Other African countries with high percentages of women MPs include Namibia (46.2%), South Africa (42.7%) and Senegal (41.8%), according to the report.
Countries achieving the 30% benchmark appear to have adopted a form of affirmative action. For example, Rwanda has constitutional provisions reserving 30% of seats for women in its bicameral legislature while South Africa’s Municipal Structures Act of 1998 requires political parties to “ensure that 50% of the candidates on the party list are women” and that “women must be equitably represented in a ward committee.” Although there is no penalty for noncompliance in South Africa, the country’s ruling African National Congress voluntarily allocates 50% of parliamentary seats to women.
Two main obstacles prevent women from participating fully in political life, according to UN Women. These are structural barriers, whereby discriminatory laws and institutions still limit women’s ability to run for office, and capacity gaps, which occur when women are less likely than men to have the education, contacts and resources needed to become effective leaders.
As countries strive to implement Sustainable Development Goal 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” governments must also strive to embed gender parity in constitutions and legal frameworks. They must realize full compliance with the law, eliminate all forms of violence against women and ensure that girls receive a quality education.