Women in sub-Saharan Africa constitute 60 percent of persons living with HIV/Aids; make up the greater portion of vulnerable and unemployed workers; and are less likely than men to inherit, have access to capital, and own land. Women also head the majority of poor households. In South Africa, 45 percent of female-headed households are poor, while in Malawi there are three poor women for every poor man. Women on the African continent are also subject to pervasive gender-based violence, harmful cultural practices and early marriages.
Meanwhile, women provide approximately 70 percent of agricultural labour and carry the greater burden of care and housework, attesting to the pervasiveness, cross-cutting nature and widespread impact of power disparities between men and women on the continent.
These examples show that women’s lack of decision making power over their lives and bodies, across both public and private spheres, amounts to a violation of the principles on which the fight to end colonialism was premised. This powerlessness also raises questions about the validity of the continent’s democracies. Responsive and accountable forms of governance demand women’s participation and representation.
The centrality of gender equality to democracy and development agendas has been affirmed by a multitude of international instruments and trends over the last four decades. From the late 1970s, the creation of national gender machineries - commissions, policy units and ministries - have aimed to fast-track gender equity by ensuring the consideration of women’s needs in policy formulation and development interventions. After the 1990s, with the conclusion of many African conflicts, a renewed commitment to democracy introduced instruments to accelerate the entrance of women into formal political institutions, and hence their participation in political decision making. Diverse, vibrant and innovative women’s movements across the continent have been central to realising these changes.
By some accounts, results have been striking. Gender machineries and national gender policies and budgeting initiatives are regular features of Africa’s political institutional landscape. Barely two decades into democracy, both Rwanda and South Africa have surpassed developed countries in terms of equitable gender representation in political institutions. Both have attained “critical mass”: the magic threshold beyond which women’s presence in political institutions should translate into influence. However, these two countries make clear that the combined force of critical mass and gender machineries does not consistently translate into gender-responsive governance - governance that actively works to correct social, economic and cultural gender imbalances.
It is becoming clear that democracy and the advance of gender equality are intertwined, and that a more comprehensive approach is required to ensure political accountability and responsiveness to women. Women’s presence in political structures needs to be considered in relation to the power of citizens’ voice in general, and of women’s in particular; the influence of social and women’s movements and their relations with one another; the nature and culture of political parties; and the norms and capacity of state institutions.
The articles brought together in this edition of Perspectives address some of these considerations. They reflect on the strengths and shortcomings of strategies for fostering gender-responsive political governance. We hope that these lessons and reflections can help map a way forward by inspiring debate about the efficacy of these strategies.