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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 141-155

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Women and Democracy

The New Political Activism in Africa

Aili Mari Tripp

Until the 1990s, it was unheard of for an African woman to run for the presidency of her country. To be sure, Africa had a few female rulers earlier in the twentieth century, but none had been elected. Empress Zauditu, for instance, ruled Ethiopia from 1917 to 1930; Queen-regents Dzeliwe Shongwe (1982-83) and Ntombi Thwala (1983-86) reigned over Swaziland; and Elizabeth Domitien of the Central African Republic was appointed as Africa's first female prime minister, serving in 1975-76. It was only in the 1990s, however, that significant numbers of African women began aspiring to positions of national leadership.

In the 1990s, women ran for president in Kenya and Liberia, while others sought party nominations for the presidency in Angola, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Tanzania. Although all were unsuccessful in their bids for power, these women set important precedents in their respective countries.

The first woman to become an African head of state in a nonmonarchical regime was Liberia's Ruth Perry, who chaired her country's six-member collective presidency, the Council of State, in the mid-1990s. In 1994, Uganda's Wandera Specioza Kazibwe became Africa's first female vice-president. Rwanda and Burundi elected female prime ministers in the mid-1990s, and Senegal chose a woman prime minister in 2001. By the end of the 1990s, legislative bodies in Ethiopia, Lesotho, and South Africa had all appointed female house speakers, while those in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa had female deputy speakers. [End Page 141]

The number of African women in parliament also increased markedly during the 1990s. Africa in 1960 had the lowest rate of female legislative participation in the world. Since then, however, African women have made striking gains. By 2001, women on average held 12 percent of parliamentary seats throughout Africa, compared with half this number a decade earlier. Female representation was as high as 31 percent in Mozambique (up from 16 percent in 1991); 30 percent in South Africa (up from 3 percent in 1991); and 25 percent in Namibia (up from 7 percent in 1994). Even these countries, however, did not come close to proportionately representing women, who make up over half the population in most countries. In April2001, African women lagged behind their counterparts in the Nordic countries, where female legislative representation was 39 percent; in the rest of Europe (excluding the Nordic countries), where women held 14 percent of legislative seats; and in Asia and in the Americas, where women held roughly 15 percent of legislative seats (see the Table on the facing page). Only the Arab world fared worse than Africa, with a 4 percent showing for women legislators. 1 Yet, while Africa trailed most other regions of the world in its share of women legislators in 2000, over the past four decades it has exhibited the world's fastest rate of growth in female representation.

What accounts for African women's increased visibility as independent political actors? No single factor explains these new trends; rather, one must consider a combination of factors. In general, the shift from one-party to multiparty politics, and in some cases from military to civilian rule, created favorable conditions for greater participation by sectors of society long marginalized under authoritarianism. In semiauthoritarian states as well, women began finding greater room to maneuver and were able to capitalize on an improved political climate, even though serious constraints remained and progress remained precarious.

Political Openings

Rarely mentioned in studies of democratization in Africa is the role played by women's groups in the political reform process of the 1990s. Like student organizations, labor unions, and human rights activists, women's organizations openly opposed corrupt and repressive regimes through public demonstrations and other militant actions. In Kenya, the early 1990s saw women at the forefront of often violent protests in support of imprisoned human rights activists. In Mali, thousands of demonstrating...


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