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African Parliaments Opening Doors to Women


Sub-Saharan African countries have steadily increased the presence of women in their parliaments, overcoming cultural and religious barriers that had kept women largely out of government. Women still have to contend with many obstacles.

Which country in the world has the highest proportion of women members of parliament? Sweden? Denmark?

None of the above. To find the correct answer, one must go far south of Sweden, to the African continent.

In the tiny Central African nation of Rwanda, women make up almost 49 percent of the National Assembly, coming the closest of any country in the world to achieving gender parity in a national parliament.

Women used to comprise less than 26 percent of Rwanda's parliament. But the combination of the country's new constitution, which reserves 30 percent of seats in the Lower House and Senate for women, and a growing perception that women are peacebuilders has dramatically changed the face of the country's leadership.

Rwandan Member of Parliament Judith Kanakuze explains that, following the country's 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people were killed, women were left to pick up the pieces.

"It has been a very big women['s] movement to mobilize the women and to empower them, because women were committed to build peace," she said. "[For] building peace, we need a good governance. We have had a political will to involve the women in good governance."

The case of Rwanda reflects an overall trend in which sub-Saharan African parliaments have been steadily increasing the presence of women, overcoming cultural and religious barriers that had kept women largely in the home and discouraged them from challenging men or taking controversial stands.

The secretary-general of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johnsson, says sub-Saharan Africa is now virtually on par with the rest of the world in terms of women's representation in parliament.

"The representation of women in [sub-Saharan] African parliaments, it's 14.5 percent today. That is just below the world average, which is only a mere 15.5 percent," he said. "But if you compare it with the situation say 10 years ago, it is a significant increase. And that increase comes, I think, through an awareness of the need to promote that participation."

Mr. Johnsson says countries that have gone through conflict are generally more active in increasing the number of women in parliament and other democratic structures.

He says women were heavily involved in liberation struggles in countries such as South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique. He says this involvement, and the re-building of post-conflict societies virtually from scratch, has made both women and men realize the importance of involving women in all levels of governance.

South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique are among the top 20 countries in the world having the highest proportion of women members of parliament.

To ensure that women are represented adequately in sub-Saharan African parliaments, about 20 countries have instituted quotas, either at the constitutional level, as in the case of Rwanda, or at the party level.

For instance, Ethiopia's ruling party announced in October that 30 percent of its party seats would be allocated to women in next May's federal and regional elections. The country's parliament consists of more than 500 men and just 42 women, with only one female member in the 16 person cabinet.

Ethiopia is one example of an African country that is lagging behind in the representation of women in parliament. The country with the worst record is Niger, in which one of 83 seats is held by a woman. Other poor performers include Comoros, Mauritania, and Madagascar.

Sub-Saharan African countries have steadily increased the presence of women in their parliaments, overcoming cultural and religious barriers that had kept women largely out of government. Women still have to contend with many obstacles.

Which country in the world has the highest proportion of women members of parliament? Sweden? Denmark?

None of the above. To find the correct answer, one must go far south of Sweden, to the African continent.

In the tiny Central African nation of Rwanda, women make up almost 49 percent of the National Assembly, coming the closest of any country in the world to achieving gender parity in a national parliament.

Women used to comprise less than 26 percent of Rwanda's parliament. But the combination of the country's new constitution, which reserves 30 percent of seats in the Lower House and Senate for women, and a growing perception that women are peacebuilders has dramatically changed the face of the country's leadership.

Rwandan Member of Parliament Judith Kanakuze explains that, following the country's 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 people were killed, women were left to pick up the pieces.

"It has been a very big women['s] movement to mobilize the women and to empower them, because women were committed to build peace," she said. "[For] building peace, we need a good governance. We have had a political will to involve the women in good governance."

The case of Rwanda reflects an overall trend in which sub-Saharan African parliaments have been steadily increasing the presence of women, overcoming cultural and religious barriers that had kept women largely in the home and discouraged them from challenging men or taking controversial stands.

The secretary-general of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johnsson, says sub-Saharan Africa is now virtually on par with the rest of the world in terms of women's representation in parliament.

"The representation of women in [sub-Saharan] African parliaments, it's 14.5 percent today. That is just below the world average, which is only a mere 15.5 percent," he said. "But if you compare it with the situation say 10 years ago, it is a significant increase. And that increase comes, I think, through an awareness of the need to promote that participation."

Mr. Johnsson says countries that have gone through conflict are generally more active in increasing the number of women in parliament and other democratic structures.

He says women were heavily involved in liberation struggles in countries such as South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique. He says this involvement, and the re-building of post-conflict societies virtually from scratch, has made both women and men realize the importance of involving women in all levels of governance.

South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique are among the top 20 countries in the world having the highest proportion of women members of parliament.

To ensure that women are represented adequately in sub-Saharan African parliaments, about 20 countries have instituted quotas, either at the constitutional level, as in the case of Rwanda, or at the party level.

For instance, Ethiopia's ruling party announced in October that 30 percent of its party seats would be allocated to women in next May's federal and regional elections. The country's parliament consists of more than 500 men and just 42 women, with only one female member in the 16 person cabinet.

Ethiopia is one example of an African country that is lagging behind in the representation of women in parliament. The country with the worst record is Niger, in which one of 83 seats is held by a woman. Other poor performers include Comoros, Mauritania, and Madagascar.

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