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Africa’s women gaining power

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Mamphela Ramphele speaks during a press conference at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva back in June 2000.

MARTIAL TREZZINI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Mamphela Ramphele speaks during a press conference at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva back in June 2000.

Of the 36 lower houses of parliament worldwide that have reached the 30 per cent threshold considered necessary for women to have an impact on decision-making, 11 are African. At the end of 2012, one-fifth of sub-Saharan MPs on average were female, according to figures from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

That may not sound like too many, but it marks an increase of seven percentage points since 2002, and puts the continent on a par with the global mean. By comparison, female MPs make up 23 percent of Britain’s House of Commons and 18 per cent of America’s House of Representatives.

In many cases the gains are because of quota systems, which are increasingly popular. Last year Senegal’s parliament saw the fastest advance in female representation globally after it enforced a parity law. Women make up almost half of the parliament now, and in September Aminata Touré was appointed as Senegal’s prime minister.

South Africa is not far behind, ranking eighth in the world, with women taking 42 per cent of Parliament seats, almost double the rate in 1994 when the ruling African National Congress created a voluntary party quota, allocating 30 per cent of posts to women. They run some of the country’s grandest ministries, such as home, defense and foreign affairs. The central bank governor is a woman too.

Women also will vie for South Africa’s presidency in next year’s election. Most prominent is Helen Zille, head of the liberal Democratic Alliance, the main opposition.

Mamphela Ramphele, founder of a new party called Agang, also is set to run. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former wife of President Jacob Zuma, has been urged to bid for the A.N.C. leadership when he goes. She has been minister of foreign affairs and then home affairs, and now chairs the African Union’s executive commission. Liberia and Malawi have elected women to be their presidents.

Even in less-democratic countries, female representation is on the march. After the genocide in 1994, Rwanda’s authoritarian President Paul Kagame engineered the election of the world’s highest proportion of women in a legislature. When a new parliament assembled in October, women had a world-record 64 per cent of the seats.

The president jokes that "Women are almost taking over everything," and says that soon it will be the men who need help.

Botswana, by contrast, has dipped from 17 per cent in 2003, ranking it 54th in the world, to 8 per cent, which leaves it 125th. Nigeria has increased its proportion by a shade, from five per cent to a still-paltry seven per cent.

It takes time for female MPs to improve women’s lot. Despite law changes in South Africa, the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap report shows that women earn 35 per cent less than men doing the same jobs.

In Rwanda a higher proportion of girls than boys enroll in primary and secondary education, but they perform worse, and the balance reverses in college, when household duties call daughters and wives away from their studies.

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