AD131: Weak support and limited participation hinder women’s political leadership in North Africa

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Graph: Should women have the same chance of being elected as men? | by region | 36 countries | 2014/2015
Pauline M. Wambua

Politics is still largely a male domain. Gains in women’s political leadership have been real but not rapid (Ndlovu & Mutale, 2013). Globally, the share of national parliamentary seats held by women has nearly doubled over the past two decades, reaching 23% in 2016, but that still means that more than three out of four parliamentarians are men (UN Women, 2016a; World Bank, 2016a).

African countries have been among the pacesetters in the push for greater political decision-making power for women, boosted by the widespread use of electoral gender quotas (Bauer, 2013). Of the world’s 20 countries with the greatest female representation in their parliaments, seven are in Africa, led by Rwanda (64%). In sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of female parliamentarians doubled between 2000 and 2016, from 12% to 24% – better than the United States (19%) and many European and Asian countries. Over the same period, the share of women holding seats in Parliament in the Arab World, which includes North African countries, has increased from 4% to 18% (World Bank, 2016a). Again outpacing the United States, seven African countries have had women in top executive positions (president, acting president, prime minister), most notably Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (since 2006).

Despite these achievements, women’s political representation in Africa continues to fall far short of the African Union (AU) call for 50% women at all levels of political decision-making positions by 2015 (Bosha, 2014). Although women constitute a majority of the population in most African countries, significant barriers still limit their political leadership. This paper uses Afrobarometer survey data to examine public attitudes and experiences related to women’s political participation in five North African countries. All five countries have quotas that have helped raise women’s representation in the national legislatures: Algeria (32% of parliamentary seats are held by women), Egypt (15%), Morocco (17%), Sudan (31%), and Tunisia (31%) (World Bank, 2016a; El Arabiya News, 2012; iKnowPolitics, 2014).

Yet if lasting change ultimately depends on citizens’ attitudes, the news is less encouraging: Among 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015, the North Africa region expresses the lowest level of support for women’s political leadership. Compared to North African men as well as to women in other regions, North African women are less likely to vote, to be involved in pre-election processes or political activism, and to contact leaders to express their views. And North Africans are less likely than citizens in other regions to rate their governments as effective advocates for women.