Leo is a Nigerian and writes from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes on philosophical, political and development issues and is an advocate for gender equality.

Selected articles by Leo

African women political participation and development: A justification

By Leo. Posted in Politics & Governing Society & Identity on 17 Dec 2012.

With the recent elections in Ghana and the party conference of Africa’s oldest political movement, South Africa’s ANC, the role and active participation of women in politics has once again resurfaced. Despite having women at the helm of two African states, Africa still suffers from a lack of representation of women in government and political spheres. When one considers the several documents on the importance of women in politics in Africa, and their observable non-implementation, one wonders whether much has changed from Aristotelian times where women were relegated to the domestic sphere without political rights. One question, thus, that confronts the African mind is whether there is a real political will to include women in politics? This discussion points out that it is as much a lack of political will on the part of African leaders as well as the observation that Africa is still stuck in the ancient idea of the dichotomy between the “public” and “private” sphere that has stalled this process of inclusion.

The Millennium Declaration has as a central theme a commitment to promote gender equality and empower women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease, and stimulate sustainable development globally (World Bank 2003). No where is this call more applicable than within the Sub-Saharan African milieu. Such a declaration is all the more important because it is only through the participation of women in the political sphere, and indeed their active involvement in policy formulation and decision-making, that they can contribute to combat these economic and social ‘evils’ that threaten their communities. If women’s perspectives in politics in Africa are wanting, development is sure to be stunted, unsustainable, and lacking of input by the ‘second sex’, to use a term by Simone de Beauvoir which implies that the other sex, ‘woman’ does exist ( in Nicolson 1997). But how do we justify this participation and inclusion of African women in politics?

The justification for women’s participation in the political sphere is arguably a question of rights. Although this is a highly debated area within academia, we cannot continue to subject women’s rights to be active participants in the society in which they live to this debate. In fact, one argues that it is a theme that is intrinsically tied to justice and their dignity as persons who are rational, and can be agents of change, development, and human flourishing as men are. Charles Taylor (1995), one of the greatest political writers of our time notes that, “With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities” (233-4). Rights are a natural quality of the human person by virtue of his or her being human. The question, therefore, is whether African governments will allow this participation by women.

As an observation, the Millennium Declaration is just one among several documents calling for the inclusion of women in the public sphere and in decision-making processes. One calls to mind two of such important documents including the all important Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (otherwise referred to as the Women’s Protocol), and the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA), which identified a 30 per cent benchmark for women participation in national parliaments. Many an African country is yet to achieve this goal. It is with this thinking that one argues that the private-public sphere dichotomy still thrives in Africa, and is a debilitating mechanism to the realisation of the goal of women participation in politics. It is not about how many documents are ratified every now and then at large international conferences; rather it is how committed African male politicians are to their implementation that matters. Without the right framework and political will, African governments will continue to ratify these documents, which will continue to lie dormant in government houses.

If women do not have the same rights and opportunities as men with regard to political involvement, then the idea of society would be a failed enterprise. It is disheartening to note that African women who get involved in the struggle against the male dominated “public sphere” have been tagged wayward, indecent, and unruly, among other such names. In Nigeria, for instance, one recalls situations where women, who have managed to penetrate the political sphere, are said to have used “bottom power” to evade obstacles to their political aspirations. Yet one asks: what is the link between “bottom power” and the African woman’s desire to progress within the political playing field? Christine Qunta (1987) notes that “Women are a vital link in our chain of national development, and if they remain behind and weak, our total effort to that extent will be slowed down” (131).

The struggle for women’s political participation in Africa is on the one hand a combat against sexist notions, and on the other hand a recognition of the responsibility and role of African women to contribute to  community, state, national, regional, and international development and stability. More importantly, the political rights of women must be advanced and grounded on the principles of right, dignity, equality, and justice. Today African women ought to be urged on as they attempt to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ of political participation.


De Beauvoir, S., 1997, ‘Introduction to The Second Sex’, in Nicholson, Linda (ed.), The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory,Routledge,New York and London.

Taylor, C., 1995, Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Qunta, C., 1987, Women in Southern Africa, Allison and Busby,London.

World Bank, 2003, Gender and Development Group: Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals, viewed 23 March 2012, from www.worldbank.org/gender.

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