One of the key issues on which there has emerged a broad consensus in contemporary African politics is the need for the fuller participation of women in public affairs and their greater representation in public institutions.
Out of this consensus has flowed a series of initiatives that have translated, at the continental-level, into a 50-50 representation of women in the college of Commissioners of the African Union Commission, the creation of a specifically-mandated Gender Directorate within the Commission, the adoption of a plethora of gender-related themes in the annual programme of work of the union, and the designation of a special envoy with a mandate encompassing the advancement of the agenda of gender equity and women's citizenship rights.
The drive towards a more equitable representation of and participation by women in continental institutions and decision-making instances has percolated, in varying degrees, to the sub-regional level where the regional economic communities have followed the example of the African Union to bring more women into key leadership and managerial roles, adopt protocols aimed at promoting women's empowerment, and defining rules of engagement in situations of conflict regarding the treatment of women and children.
Change at the national level
Beyond the continental and the sub-regional, there has also been a tremendous investment at the national level in awareness-building and political engineering aimed at advancing gender equality and improving the representation and participation women in public life. Particularly favoured by most governments and other actors such as political parties has been the use of targeted quotas defining a minimum range that should be attained for the inclusion of women in elected bodies.
Similar quotas have been adopted, legally or informally, for the constitution of governmental cabinets. Although ambition has varied from country to country with regard to the speed, substance, and direction of commitment to women's participation in the public domain, the efforts that have been deployed over the last two decades have resulted in several African countries emerging among the best global performers in terms of women’s representation governments and parliaments. The example of Rwanda which is now ranked as a global leader is particularly salutary but countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania are also ranked among the best performers both continentally and on a global scale.
Rocky road ahead
Yet, even as there is good reason to celebrate the significant progress it is also clear that the road towards full gender equality remains long and continues to be strewn with potholes that are obstructive and carry a potential to trigger a derailment. The challenge to date to advance an agenda of women's political and associated empowerment can be summarized as follows: Despite the considerable motion which has been witnessed and progress registered, including the emergence of female heads of state and government in a number of African countries, why have politics and public administration remained such male-dominated domain? And why has politics continued to be conducted on the basis of business as usual, a site where plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?
The debates on how to better anchor and deepen women's empowerment in contemporary African governance have been rife and the perspectives developed have been varied. At one level, questions have been raised about the validity of the quota-driven model, with suggestions that it is an unhelpful form of tokenism that has the (unintended) consequence of undermining the interests of those who are intended to be its beneficiaries.
At another level, it has been argued that the structure of the political system remains such that women seem condemned to occupying marginal positions conceded to them by the men who dominate the political arena. From the thuggery and the violence that continue to be associated with politics, to the central role of money and corruption in the electoral system, the site is fundamentally unsuitable for participation by women because it is characterized by the patent lack of a civic culture and governed by the power of an assortment of ‘god fathers’.
Furthermore, there have been no incentives to political parties to prioritize women's concerns and representation in their programmes and strategies beyond opportunistic considerations to look good and gain electoral advantage. Additionally, the treatment of gender equality and women's empowerment as technical questions unwittingly depoliticizes them - and yet, without politics, the quest for women's empowerment and gender equality can only go so far.
Second generation of efforts
The various points of view that have been expressed have their place although there is room for both nuancing and better contextualizing them. Nevertheless, the criticisms of the experience to date are reflective of a thirst to add more substance to the motions that have been witnessed. To this end, and with a view to promoting a second generation of efforts at deepening women's empowerment across Africa, the time has come for new and more innovative approaches that would foster a system-wide political consensus to which parties can all agree. So that regardless of their fortunes in an electoral cycle, the role and place of women remains a constant that is embedded in the workings of the polity. Also, opportunities for creatively effecting deeper electoral reforms that deliver better representation for women, including younger women, in political institutions need to be explored.
Furthermore, in addition to sustained citizen campaigns and political advocacy encouraging governments to ratify and domesticate continental and sub-regional gender protocols, the point will also need to continually reiterated that those standards are only a minimum platform for action. All of the options for a new generation of initiatives would need to be underpinned by policy and political action to empower women as citizens who are enabled with appropriate incentives to go beyond the household into the public domain as and when they choose to exercise their agency.