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Election-Related Violence in Africa Hurts Women's Political Participation, Says UNDP Official

The director for gender issues at the United Nations Development Program says pre-and post-election violence in Africa is making it harder to increase women participation in politics. Uganda-born Winnie Byanyima told VOA there is a challenge in Africa to manage elections better and have smooth political transitions.

“For democracy to take root in Africa, we have to create and manage institutions in a transparent and democratic way. I don’t think there is going to be a chance for women’s role in politics to increase when elections degenerate into violence, when people become displaced and families have to run away from their homes. This cannot be an environment where we can increase the participation of women in politics. So there is a challenge on the continent to manage elections better and, in general, to have smooth a transition from group in power to another,” she said.

Byanyima said election-related violence in Africa is discouraging not only to women but also to men.

“If your intention is to serve a community and nothing beyond that, there is a strong disincentive to offer yourself to serve your community if the prize is to be assaulted by mobs of armed people, to have your home ransacked. The violence is a disincentive not just to women but also to men. But for women whom we are still at the stage of persuading to participate as candidates, at a stage where we are trying to remove other barriers in their way, this disincentive of violence becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Byanyima said.

The elections in Liberia in 2005 and in Sierra Leone in 2007 were both managed by women and both were held without major problems. Byanyima said elections in Africa need to be managed better.

“I wouldn’t say that women manage elections better, but I think using the best possible people to run these institutions is important, and sometimes the best people can be women, like the two cases you have cited, South Africa too, the election commission is managed by a woman and managed very competently. So definitely widening the role that women play in election beyond just being candidates is important,” she said.

Byanyima said women worldwide still see the election of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman to be elected president in Africa as their hope to raise women political participation.

“The success of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia is of strategic importance for women in Africa and for women globally. She is the first one; all the eyes are watching her. So African women everywhere are working hard to ensure that she succeeds. I was recently at an event, and we at UNDP supported that event, and it was an event of Liberian, African, and American women coming together to raise money to support market women of Liberia by building them better market. And these women are saying they are doing this in order to lend support to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to deliver to women’s constituency that has not seen benefit from the state for years and years,” she said.

African women play leading roles in the economies of their respective countries. Byanyima said while the current rising food and fuel prices are hurting women, it also presents an opportunity for commercial production of food in Africa.

But Byanyima said in order for that to happen, land ownership in Africa must be renegotiated to support women.

“In order to organize for commercial production of food, we need to sort out the issue of land ownership. The land tenure system in Africa doesn’t provide that framework for commercial exploitation of the land. And at the heart of that question is also women’s land rights because in some countries where land is owned by the people and not in the hands of the state the land is owned through ownership that does not give women ownership rights,” Byanyima said.

She said African women, who are main food producers, should make sure that they don’t come out of the current rising food prices as losers but as strengthened actors in the economy.