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African Women Pay Steep Price for Political Advancement

African women have made solid progress in becoming part of the continent's political landscape. But progress did not come without a struggle, and many women have paid a steep price to get in - and stay - in parliament.

In an interview last year, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who is Kenya's assistant environment minister, recalled the opposition she faced when running in elections in 1997 and 2003.

People told Ms. Maathai she couldn't win because, as a woman, she would have less campaign money than her male counterparts. She was dubbed with the ethnic slur "Kikuyu queen." During her activist work prior to going into politics, Ms. Maathai was beaten and jailed by Kenyan police.

When women do make it into parliament, they often face blatant or subtle discrimination, especially from male colleagues who still subscribe to long-held stereotypes of women.

Ghanaian Member of Parliament Hanna Tetteh-Kpodar describes her experience in Ghana's parliament, where women hold 19 out of 200 seats.

"Even though in Ghana we have a history of having strong women - we've had important queen mothers, we've had women participating in politics since our independence - there's still that feeling that, well, I mean, that really isn't your place," she said. "And those of you women who want to come along, you're a bit too aggressive. Well, all right, if you want to be there you can be, but we really don't think that that's your proper place."

Ms. Tetteh-Kpodar says the situation is slowly changing as more and more women are entering democratic structures at all levels.

Campaigns that sensitize society on the need for women in leadership positions, and programs that help women develop the skills they need to thrive in politics, can go far in increasing women's political participation.

A Ugandan non-government organization called Forum for Women in Democracy has a training program for women parliamentarians.

Executive director Patricia Munabi Babiiha describes two main challenges that women in Uganda's parliament face.

"First of all, one challenge is the balance between the private and the public," she said. "They're having to fulfill their domestic roles and at the same time fulfill their public roles effectively. The other challenge was, of course we had to keep building up their skills and knowledge."

The organization set up a research service that women members of parliament can use as they draft legislation and give presentations in the House of Representatives.

The group also taught women MPs how to read and interpret budgets, understand economic policies, negotiate positions, present effective and persuasive arguments and balance home and work life.

These are the same skills needed for activists and lobbyists to influence policymakers behind the scenes. And in this area, African women have also made great strides.

In Ghana, for instance, women's groups working with women members of parliament were able to successfully put together a domestic violence bill, which is currently before parliament.

Women's participation in parliament and other democratic structures is widely believed to bring a qualitative difference to democracy.

The secretary-general of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union, Anders Johnsson, says women have what he calls a "different social awareness," perhaps arising out of their traditional role as caregivers.

He says women are also less likely to use confrontational language in debates and discussions.

Ghanaian Member of Parliament Tetteh-Kpodar shares her experience of how women positively shape the nature of democracy.

"Women do less grandstanding - they're much more focussed on the issues and are ready to deal with the issues in a constructive manner," she said. "And so when you talk about, you know, I have this problem with the legislation you're putting before me, you see that a woman's likely response would be, OK, this is what I want to do about it, this is how I want to address your concerns. For women, the issue is it's an objective I want to achieve, as opposed to this is something that must have my name written all over it. It creates a situation where they are ready to make compromise if it will not take away from the substance of the bill but at the same time will allow a majority of people to be comfortable with it."

Ms. Tetteh-Kpodar urges governments to reform their constitutions, political parties, electoral procedures and other structures so that more women can participate in the democratic process.