International Women’s Day: Celebrating Achievements, Challenging Institutionalised Inequalities
International Women’s Day (IWD) an event borne from the suffrage women’s movement since 1909, is a day that globally celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Each annual celebration calls for action to accelerate gender equality which often is linked to other institutionalised and social driven inequalities. This year’s theme to embrace equity is yet another call for action. Embracing equity (the quality of being fair and impartial) applies to all sectors including politics.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
This call goes beyond equality especially in politics as equal opportunities are just not enough when women’s political participation is concerned. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap report of 2022 states that the political empowerment gender gap sub-index is at 22 per cent. While this sub-index has the widest range of dispersion amongst countries, it is amongst the worst performing and manifests the largest remaining gender gap.
In 2022, only 34 gender-related legal economic reforms were recorded across 18 countries, the lowest number since 2001. Gender related legal reforms for politics have been far less. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report highlights that its Political Empowerment subindex registered significant advance towards parity between 2006 and 2016, fluctuating until 2021, after which it stalled below its 2019 peak. At this rate, it will take 155 years to close the Political Empowerment gap. This implies that Africa and the world at large is far from reaching the 2030 Sustainable Goal number five target of women’s equal and effective political participation.
A look into the informal and formal barriers affecting women’s political participation points towards the need to promote political will to ensure an increase and effectiveness of women’s political participation. Democracy means a government of the people, by the people and not just for one gender. This therefore implies that women cannot be left behind in political participation and representation. It will take radical political will and societal attitudes to move beyond equal to equity for women’s political participation.
Despite Africa’s progress in promoting women’s political participation, change in electoral systems and practices is required to achieve equal and equitable women’s political participation. While each country has unique gaps in women’s political participation, the common thread is the need for political will across the political divide for inclusivity in politics. The 2021 Africa Women in Political Participation Barometer highlights electoral systems including temporary special measures for women’s political participation, finances and resources, political party practise, electoral laws and management and media including social media as formal factors that hinder equal participation of women in politics. These can be turned around through political will. The Barometer further highlights those informal factors such as customs, culture, tradition, socialisation, attitudes, hostile political environment that take longer to change as they depend on individual citizen’s behaviour.
The road to achieving equity in political participation includes access to participation, the politics of presence and participation all enhanced through transformative gender responsive laws and systems. While Africa has some best performers on women’s political participation (including Rwanda, South Africa and Mozambique), the continent has some worst performers that include Sierra Leonne, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. There could be unexpected positive changes in the upcoming elections for the next two years, yet there are only a few positive outliers that could change the status quo on women’s political participation in the continent.
Equal opportunities for women to participate in politics are not enough, in some cases they can be exclusionary—hence the need to promote equity in politics. The quest for inclusive democracy must go beyond numbers of women in the political seat to how and when policies are formulated, with what resources. The expected results of these must be gender responsive. Clearly voting women into political decision-making positions should mirror the societal benefits of such and will only be possible if equity is exercised.
Meeting the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) five’s target on women’s equal and effective participation in politics demands moving beyond numbers. There is need to re-look how women’s presence in politics contributes to a country or sub-region’s socio-economic and political stability. Women have historically been relegated to the traditional feminine roles of politics—yet they normally form the majority of the electorate. Worldwide, the five most commonly held portfolios by women ministers are: Family/children/youth/elderly/disabled; followed by Social Affairs; Environment/natural resources/energy; Employment/labour/vocational training, and Women affairs/gender equality. Support, monitoring and evaluation systems must accompany any special measures for women’s political participation. This points out to the fact that while governments maybe be focussing on SDG5, work needs to be done to achieve SDG16 on peace, justice and strong institutions.
As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, thought processes of generational sustainability of the policies and systems for inclusive politics that are currently in place should be initiated. Capacity strengthening of women in politics remains a key area to achieve SDG5. The contribution by a vibrant civil society, gender-responsive media, as well as male-gender champions in promoting women’s political participation, is important. Innovative intergenerational dialogues that will encourage young women to effectively participate in elections are necessary. The lessons that these young women draw from more seasoned female politicians should reflect transformative female leadership.
Women cannot afford to wait any longer to reach gender equality, more so to realise equity in politics. Neither can democracy in Africa and the rest of the world. Embracing equity in politics is non-negotiable.
 World Bank Gender Pay Gap Report 2023
 International IDEA, 2021, Women in Political Participation Africa Barometer
 Taylor and Francis Journal, Nomkhitha Gysman, 2018, Beyond the numbers: Does a high number of women in political corridors translate into delivery of Sustainable Development Goals 5 on gender equality and 16 on peace and security in the SADC region?
 UN Women, 2022, Facts and figures: Women’s leadership and political participation Facts and figures: Women’s leadership and political participation | What we do | UN Women – Headquarters