Female Political Representation in East Africa: An overview

This article is written after reading a piece by Dr. Azaveli Lwaitama entitled: 'Women's Day and Africa's True Liberation' and published in The Citizen, a Tanzanian newsparer, for the International Women's Day.* 

by Hulda Ouma 

According to this article, it would seem that Tanzanians are grappling with the challenge of how to effectively increase female political representation in their Parliament. Within the East Africa Community, Uganda and Rwanda have taken the lead in this regard. According to the statistics available from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Rwanda is ranked first globally, with 56.3 percent of its parliament composed of women, while Uganda is ranked as twenty-first globally with female representation in the national parliament estimated at 31.5 percent. Burundi (22nd) and Tanzania (23rd) are in fact not far behind Uganda with 31.4 percent and 30.7 percent female representation in their national parliaments (respectively).

Kenya is however a whole different case. As of February 2010, female representation was estimated at 9.98 percent; globally Kenya was ranked as 102, a far cry from its East African neighbours. This is despite the considerable efforts of civil society organizations towards increasing female political representation. Some progress may however be seen, during and after Kenya's next general elections in 2012, due to one recent and one (likely) future change in the laws which have informed access to political decision-making opportunities. First there is the recent enactment of the Political Parties Act of 2007. This law was designed to, among others, promote the participation of women in the formation and management of political parties by requiring that parties ensure that 30 percent of all party positions and public appointments go to women. It is anticipated that this will lead to increased female representation in the political sphere; in parliament and in local government authorities.

Concerns still persist about such issues as the fact that the law does not stipulate guidelines for the conducting of party nominations, to ensure that women are not sidelined. The law also does not require that parties' structures and cultures be reviewed to ensure that they do not discriminate against one sex. Still, this law only came into effect in January 2009, so its potential impact has yet to be tested. This will only really become evident in the run up to the 2012 general elections. Another event that may likely translate into significant gains for women is the proposed Constitution of 2010 which is expected to be submitted to a national referendum in August 2010. This piece of proposed law contains certain key provisions i.e. Articles 97 and 98 of the proposed Constitution which relate to the composition of the current National Assembly and the proposed 'Senate'. For the former, the proposed Constitution (Article 97(b)) states that there will be special seats reserved for 47 women, each of which is to be elected by registered voters to represent each of the counties (representing single member constituencies). Their numbers will be in addition to those women who make it for non-reserved seats. With respect to the proposed Senate, in relation to Article 98(b) it has been proposed that 16 women be nominated to the Senate by their political parties (in proportion to parties' elected members to the Senate). Also, with respect to the proposed county assemblies, it has been stated (Article 197(1)) that 'not more than two-thirds of the members of any county assembly or county executive committee shall be of the same gender.' The passing of the Political parties Act (2007) and the provisions of the proposed Constitution, are a testament to the hard work that women's rights organizations and their partners, have put into advancing women's political representation within political institutions and processes.

How far these will go in advancing the numbers of women political leaders, remains to be seen. There will always be work that needs to be done with aspiring women politicians to ensure that they indeed benefit from this legislation. They need to understand the limitations of these laws in so far as their ability to participate equally with men is concerned. They and their supporters need to strategize about what can be done, to strengthen accountability within party structures, in the Senate and National Assembly (respectively), to the ideals of gender equity and equality; the accountability mechanisms appear weak.

Beyond these it is also important to work on promoting female representation in the leadership of the executive arm - i.e. within ministries, semi-autonomous government authorities (SAGAs) and autonomous government agencies. Parliament is just one (albeit important) area where women can express their leadership abilities. It is as important that in the day-to-day management of government resources, and in the delivery of services, women be enabled to assume leadership positions. This is one critical way of challenging the norm and possibly transforming our understanding of what leadership is, in the public and private sphere.

Hulda Ouma is based in Nairobi where she works as Programmes Coordinator at the SID Regional Office for Eastern Africa.

Photo: hdptcar/flickr