Monday 24 June 2019

Women are 'just getting started' changing face of African politics

First in Africa: Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images
First in Africa: Former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

When Sahle-Work Zewde made history this week with her appointment as Ethiopia's first female president, she had a message for the parliamentarians listening to her acceptance speech.

It was an address studded with several references to equality and the empowerment of women. "If you thought I spoke a lot about women already," she told parliament, "know that I am just getting started."

The appointment of Sahle-Work, a veteran diplomat who has served in several UN posts, means she will be the only serving female head of state in Africa. Namibia's prime minister, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, is the only female head of government on the continent.

Africa has had four female presidents, beginning with former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who was the world's first elected black female president and Africa's first elected female head of state in 2005. Joyce Banda was sworn in as president of Malawi in 2012 after the incumbent died while in office.

Three years later, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim became president of Mauritius but was forced to stand down earlier this year over allegations of financial impropriety. In 2012, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then South Africa's home affairs minister, was elected the first female chair of the African Union.

Sahle-Work's appointment comes a week after Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed packed half of his new cabinet with women, including the country's first ever female defence minister. Never before have Ethiopian women held so many high-ranking government posts, in addition to almost 40pc of seats in parliament.

Though largely ceremonial, Sahle-Work's role as president carries a symbolic weight beyond Ethiopia's borders. "In a patriarchal society such as ours, the appointment of a female head of state not only sets the standard for the future but also normalises women as decision makers in public life," Fitsum Arega, the prime minister's chief of staff, wrote on Twitter.

But beyond the changes within the corridors of power in the capital Addis Ababa, gender disparities remain stark in Africa's second most populous country. Last year Ethiopia, which is a key programme country for Irish Aid, the Government's overseas development programme, ranked 121 out of 160 countries on a UN gender equality index based on social, health and political measures.

Child marriage is still common, with 58pc of women marrying before they turn 18. Female genital mutilation (FGM) remains widespread, with 74pc of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years being subjected to FGM, according to Unicef.

After taking her oath this week, Sahle-Work spoke of the role of women in tackling the country's challenges. "If the reforms we have started are led in equal measure by both men and women, the country will soon forget poverty and backwardness and move toward prosperity," she said, adding that Ethiopians need to "build a society that rejects the oppression of women".

Changes are also afoot in neighbouring Rwanda, where president Paul Kagame announced that women would comprise half of the country's new cabinet. Rwanda's new ministers of trade and economic planning are women. Kagame said that increasing the number of women ministers would improve the effectiveness of the cabinet. He also noted that "a higher number of women in decision-making roles have led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes".

Last month, Mali's president announced a new cabinet that is 30pc female, including in key posts like foreign minister. In Nigeria, one (male) presidential contender in the country's forthcoming election has vowed to give 40pc of cabinet posts to women and youth.

While the appointment of Sahle-Work and the growing number of women serving as government ministers across the continent is helping change the face of African politics, academics point out that there is still some way to go in terms of acceptance at the ballot box. Out of the nine female heads of state and government that Africa has had so far, only two had an electoral mandate to lead their countries. Malawi's Joyce Banda, for example, later failed to win presidential elections.

Gender quotas have been key to boosting female political representation in several countries across the continent. Rwanda has been a pioneer in this respect, with women making up 63pc of its parliament's lower house - the highest in the world. Gender quotas have also been introduced in Burundi, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Eritrea.

Irish Independent

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