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Expert group meeting on Democratic Governance in Africa:
Strategies for greater participation of women

Shireen Hassim and Sheila Meintjes

Arusha (Tanzania), 6 – 8 December 2005

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  1. In the past two decades, feminist activists and scholars in both older democracies and postcolonial states have begun to pay much closer attention to the ways in which the formal institutions of liberal democracies have failed women. After a period of intense debate, alongside a cynical view of institutions such as national machineries in Africa, we have recently witnessed renewed engagement by women with political parties and the state. As Aili Mari Tripp argues, this stems in part from regional and global influences on women’s organising, which have foregrounded a rights-based approach to women’s mobilization. This has involved a “diffusion of norms to increase women’s political representation” (2005: 10).

  2. The importance of women’s representation and political participation has gained new currency around the world in the wake of global campaigns for electoral quotas. Various feminists argue that women’s exclusion (or at least marginalization) from the political arena cuts across historical and regional differences. They argue that regardless of race, class, ethnicity, etc, women are consistently defined as political outsiders or as secondclass citizens, whose entry into the public sphere is either anachronistic and short-term, or conditional upon their maternal social roles. Flowing from this perspective, there has been a strategic emphasis on challenging exclusion. The political projects that are associated with this approach are, for example, women’s enfranchisement, struggles around women’s representation in national parliaments and the emphasis on electoral systems, quotas and other mechanisms for breaking political-systemic blockages. This form of feminism is crucial in creating some of the necessary conditions for the removal of gender inequalities, although it has the danger of leaving the structural basis of inequalities intact. Thus, for example , the South African Women’s National Coalition, while recognizing that formal equality was a limited political goal, nevertheless maintained that inclusion into formal institutions was a common interest that would hold together a wide range of women’s organizations and that questions of policy content would be dealt with separately once women were in parliament.

  3. Increased representation in decision-making bodies – rather than the ghettoisation of gender politics within national machineries – has led to massive campaigns for electoral quotas. Women’s representation in African parliaments has increased sharply as a result of a deliberate strategy adopted by many women’s movements to support the use of quotas, as well as (in some cases) the extension of syste ms of political patronage to incorporate women. Women’s movements have joined the international campaign for increased, even equal, representation of women within legislative bodies, including the African Union, which has adopted a fifty per cent quota for women.

  4. These strategies are based on the view that if properly constituted, and the international ‘benchmark’ of 30 percent representation of women has been widely accepted as the ‘critical mass’ necessary for their presence to make a difference to policy, African democracies can overcome the historical legacies of women’s subordination and that new relationships can be built between state and civil society, based on democratic participation, the development of policies that are responsive to the needs of poor women and accountability of elected leaders to citizens. The demands to break down the barriers to equal political participation reflect an important tone in contemporary women’s movement politics in Africa, as women’s movements on the continent begin to take formal politics and political institutions seriously. They signal that there is room for women’s agency to shape politics, and that formal political rights are an important precondition for advancing equitable social policies. The quota campaigns and the emphasis on representation are undoubtedly part of an important renewal of feminist activism on the continent.

  5. This introduction paper sketches the kinds of strategies that have been advanced in a range of different African countries to increase women’s partic ipation in decision-making. In Part One, the paper lays out the key international and regional instruments that have been developed to push national governments into recognising women’s political rights. As we show, there is a high degree of synergy between the demands of women’s movements in the local and national contexts, and the demands of the global women’s movement. Combined pressure at both these levels have resulted in a fairly widespread formal consensus that women’s participation in decision-making matters for democratization, but there are ongoing challenges of domestication and implementation of international protocols.

  6. In Part Two, we address the challenges of including women in decision-making in post conflict situations. Women have been both victims and agents in violent conflicts. Although violent conflict has been enormously disrupting in Africa, it has also, paradoxically, opened new opportunities to change gender relations. We show the gendered nature of conflict itself, as well as the gendered nature of peace building and maintenance. This area is receiving increasing attention at the international level, as shown in UN Resolution 1325, and we address some of the challenges that face women in transforming and democratising their societies.

  7. In Part Three, we examine more closely the practical strategies that have been used by women’s movements in the context of transitions to democracy. We examine the role of electoral systems, arguments for and against the use of quotas, and the outcomes of different strategies on the numbers of women at both national and local level. We consider the experiences of different African countries in seeking to increase women’s representation.

  8. In Part Four , we address the role of international human rights agencies and the media in advancing the struggle for women’s political empowerment. We argue that international civil society is vital both for keeping the issue of gender equality at the forefront of human rights debate and decision-making as well as strengthening local efforts of women’s movements.

  9. Finally, in Part Five , we identify the key issues that confront gender activists and national governments as they seek to domesticate and implement the commitments to increasing women’s participation in decision-making.

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