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Women Make Strides in African Parliaments

In Africa, the increased participation of women in politics is helping legislatures look more like their own societies and less like exclusive men’s clubs. The conclusions were presented in a study by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. It’s participating in a series of discussions during the annual meeting of the 50th Session of the U-N Commission on the Status of Women, C-S-W, in New York City.

One topic of the meeting is the progress being made toward one of the main goals of 1995’s Beijing Conference on Women: bringing more women into national politics and decision-making.

The new report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union says in many African legislatures, women now make up to a third of the sitting members. What’s striking about the list is that much of the political change is coming from countries in transition from civil war to democracy.

Anders Johnsson is the Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the IPU: "In Africa, what we see ...are countries like Mozambique, South Africa, Burundi, and Rwanda…. that are in a transition period, that have paid a lot of attention to women’s issues…and have made provisions to make sure they have a fair chance to participate in political and public life."

The Rwandan parliament is 49 percent female – it leads not only Africa in terms of gender parity – but also the world. Second and third are Sweden, with nearly 45 percent – and Norway, with nearly 38 percent. Other African parliaments made up of at least 30 percent women are Mozambique (34 percent), South Africa (32.8 percent), Burundi (30.5 percent), Tanzania (30.4 percent) Namibia (26.9), Uganda (23.9 percent) and Eritrea (22 percent).

In many African democracies, there are quotas that parliaments and political parties must meet to encourage the selection of women. One regional body that encourages such measures is the Southern African Development Community. In fact, Anders Johnsson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, says about 20 percent of all southern Africa legislatures are made up of women—a figure surpassed only by Nordic countries.

Margaret Mensah-Williams is the vice chairperson, or deputy speaker, of the Namibian Senate. She’s one of about 29 women serving as presiding officers, or speakers, of parliaments worldwide. Others in Africa are Burundi, Lesotho, South Africa, Liberia and Zimbabwe.

Mensah-Williams met this week with more than a dozen other parliamentary speakers to discuss how women have changed the operations – and agendas – of the bodies in which they work. On the positive side, she said legislation – like bills governing education and inheritance – now take women’s concerns into consideration. On the other hand, women MPs still face what they see as bias.

"We saw a few women speakers who said there were votes of no confidence against them for the mere fact they were female. There was one speaker [of parliament] who said they tried it three times, and failed each time because there was no substantive evidence [for the complaints]. A speaker from Lesotho said female MPs now feel they can’t speak because men heckle…and use interjections like “Shut up, you are a woman,” “Keep quiet” -- things like that which intimidate some women [parliamentarians] -- and they keep quiet."

Mensah-Williams says the women speakers are considering taking their complaints to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Human Rights Committee for investigation. It could encourage parliaments to pass by-laws to restrict, for example, the type of language used during debate. She also encourages more mentoring of women and networking among colleagues to increase support for women.

Africa’s women legislators will be telling these and other stories during the next two weeks in New York in meetings before the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It will consider the various findings as it works to create policies for ending political discrimination against women and increasing their economic empowerment.