Gender advocates, both at the national and international levels, had a lot to talk about when the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa Mary May, made history last week when she became the 76th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Mrs May is the second female Prime Minister, after Margaret Thatcher, and the first Home Secretary since James Callaghan to win the top job.
She succeeded Mr David Cameron who announced his intention to resign as prime minister on June 24, after finding himself on the losing side of the EU referendum, with the UK voting by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union.
There are many reasons why experts describe women’s participation in politics as the key to good governance. Experts say women are key to the new breed of politicians who offer Africa an opportunity for democracy.
Following the death of Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi became head of the Congress Party and thus Prime Minister of India. She was India’s first female head of government and was assassinated in 1984 by Sikh members among her bodyguard on the grounds of her home on October 31, 1984. She was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi.
Women’s political participation
“One of the most fascinating developments in African politics has been the increase in women’s political participation since the mid-1990s,” Aili Mari Tripp, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, is quoted as saying.
It is interesting that three female African leaders assumed office during crises or transitions. Mrs Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected as President of Liberia after a 13-year devastating civil war, was the first elected female Head of State in Africa in 2006. She won a second term in 2011.
Malawi also had President Joyce Banda as its first female president.
The new interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Catherine Samba-Panza, was president for only a year. She was sworn in in January 2014 as interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR) and struggled to end months of bloodshed while guiding the country to elections in January 2015.
As the first female leader of the CAR was being sworn in, gunshots rang out across the capital and violent exchanges continued in the suburbs.
From the period of Yaa Asantewa, the Ghanaian Queenmother of Ejisu in Ghana, who was able to inspire the Asante army to fight for the protection of their land and in effect make the Asante kingdom prevail, to political leaders such as former Senegalese Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye, women leaders in Africa have gone to great lengths to defend the rights of their people and to facilitate development.
Ghana made history, together with countries such as the United States of America (USA), Pakistan and Rwanda, with the appointment of the first female Speaker of Parliament, Mrs Justice Joyce Adeline Bamford-Addo, a retired Supreme Court judge, in 2009 to succeed Mr Ebenezer Begyina Sekyi Hughes as the fourth Speaker of the Fourth Republican Parliament, for the third highest position of the land.
Ghana, which has actively contributed to the Commission on the Status of Women and Beijing+15 processes, is also making efforts to increase the participation of women in decision-making.
Her Ladyship the Chief Justice, Mrs Georgina Theodora Wood of the Supreme Court of Ghana, made her mark in the Judicial Service of Ghana not just as the first woman to serve as the head of Ghana’s judiciary in 2007, but also as a judicial reformer focused on improving access to justice and enhancing the public’s trust in the court system.
Ghana also has the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Hannah Tetteh; Dr Philomena Nyarko, appointed as the Government Statistician in May 2013; the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Betty Mould-Iddrisu (2009-2011), and Madam Marietta Brew Appiah-Oppong, who was appointed by President John Dramani Mahama in 2013 as the chief legal advisor to the Government of Ghana and is also responsible for the Ministry of Justice.
The United Nations has identified six avenues by which female participation in politics and government may be strengthened. These are equalisation of educational opportunities; quotas for female participation in governing bodies; legislative reform to increase focus on issues concerning women and children; financing gender-responsive budgets to equally take into account the needs of men and women; increasing the presence of sex-disaggregated statistics in national research/data; and furthering the presence and urgency of grass-roots women's empowerment movements.
This advocacy has been seen in countries, from France, Sweden and the Netherlands, to South Africa, Rwanda, and Egypt. Furthermore, a number of studies from both industrialised and developed countries indicate that women in local government tend to advance social issues.
A number of countries are exploring measures that may increase women's participation in government at all levels, from the local to the national.
In Angola, Burundi, Mozambique and Uganda, women hold more than 30 per cent of elected positions, and Rwanda’s Parliament is the world’s first and only to boast a female majority.
Equalisation of educational opportunities for boys and girls may take the form of several initiatives such as the abolition of educational fees which would require parents to consider financial issues when deciding which of their children to educate. Poor children in rural areas are particularly affected by inequality resulting from educational fees.
The way forward
At a national forum on women, organised by the Gender and Human Rights Documentation Centre in partnership with Womankind Worldwide, UK, in November, 2013, Mrs Juliana Azumah-Mensah, a former Minister of Women and Children’s Affairs, is quoted as saying that it is difficult for female Members of Parliament to vigorously articulate issues of gender on the floor of Parliament due to their limited number.
She said 30 women out of 275 Members of Parliament were extremely insignificant to put up strong argument for issues of women on the floor of male-dominated parliament and get supported.
In order to encourage more women to participate in leadership and government, it is necessary that the community and the world give them the needed support.
Instead of downplaying the efforts of African women, people could encourage them either by listening to their views in an objective manner, participating in women-initiated activities or helping in eradicating the social stigma and discrimination against women in leadership and African women in general.