DAKAR— More than 200 West African elected officials and civil society leaders have converged on Dakar this week for a conference on female leadership. As parity laws bring more and more women into local and national governments, experts say it isn't translating into improved policies on so-called women's issues like health, women's rights and development.
Despite improvements in women’s participation in local and national governments in some countries, women remain largely excluded from democratic processes in most West African countries.
In Nigeria, for example, just 15 out of 745 local leadership positions are held by women. Elected female officials account for less than five percent of Nigeria’s Senate and National Assembly.
This is in stark comparison to Senegal, where 44 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women. Many experts attribute the high number of female Senegalese leaders to a May 2010 parity law, which requires the equal participation of men and women in government.
Henrietta Akaaka is the president of Africavance, a Nigeria-based pro-democracy group that works to promote women’s participation in government.
“Women’s full participation in public affairs and nation building is a fundamental condition for enduring democracies," she said. "It is therefore not in doubt that the access to leadership and decision making positions remain key to development. Parity of affirmative action; this is the only way we women can fully participate in the social and economic development of our various communities, regions and nations at large.”
Akaaka said that including more female leaders in politics could mean an improvement in social protection and development programs, for both women and children, such as education and health.
Unfortunately, women face many challenges when it comes to gaining access to and then exerting political power.
One of the biggest obstacles is overcoming traditional cultural and religious expectations. Many women in Africa are raised to be neither seen nor heard outside the home. Men often discourage or even outright forbid their wives to enter into careers, particularly those in politics, which are viewed as a “man’s work.”
Another barrier to more female leadership is the low rate of literacy among women, which is often a requirement for active participation in the government. According to UNESCO, an estimated two-thirds of women worldwide can’t read or write. The majority of these women live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Even when a woman can overcome the odds, the election of more female leaders doesn’t necessarily mean a change in policy on women’s issues.
“It’s true that women leaders have had an impact on decision making processes, but their impact can -- and needs to be -- much bigger," said Marieme Badiane, a minister of the state under Senegal’s President Macky Sall. "In order to affect policy in a significant way, women must take advantage of their political power. They must fight, they must lobby, they must debate to obtain change. That’s fundamental.”
Nigerien women’s rights activist and media consultant, Moji Makanjuola, said another reason female leaders haven’t made more of an impact is that they forget about what is important to women once in power.
“Women themselves are not helping women. Women do not identify with their constituency, particularly when they get elected into offices or get appointed," she said. "They become so far away from other women. They see themselves as new leaders. They do not see you as part of them. They are up and you are down.”
Women’s rights activists say they will continue to call for gender parity laws in all West African nations, as well as giving more voice to current women leaders.