African Women Occupy the State House

The Fairer Leaders,” NYTimes, 10 July 2012

NAIROBI — The proportion of women heads of state worldwide is paltry:about 11 percent [pdf]. In North Africa, despite recent dramatic changes in regimes, the new boss looks much like the old; he is still male.

But south of the Sahara lies a more promising story.

The Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is in her second term as Liberia’s president. Malawi’s newest chief executive is Joyce Banda, a vice president who peacefully transitioned to power following the death of the longtime ruler Bingu wa Mutharika. And last week, Senegal held the first round of parliamentary elections in which half of all candidates must be women. The results are still out, but female representation should increase from the current 23 percent.

latitude-0710-rwanda-blog480-v3Similar quotas have been passed in 20 sub-Saharan nations, six of which top the world in female representation. Rwanda is number one, with 56 percent of seats in Parliament held by women. These figures put African countries well ahead of the United States, France and Japan, which are just at or fall below the 19 percent mark.

It’s a shift from traditionally patriarchal power structures, with a potentially large payoff. Aloysia Inyumba, Rwanda’s former minister for gender, told me at a conference for women’s history month in South Africa, “There’s a general understanding and appreciation that if things are going to be better in Africa, women are going to have a key role.”

The very presence of female politicians has been shown to diversify the policy agenda and promote equity and justice. Banda, for one, stood up to the African Union when it planned to host President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, at a summit meeting in Malawi’s capital. After Banda announced that she would allow Bashir to be extradited if he came, the male-dominated regional body moved the summit to Ethiopia.

Of course, obstacles to female participation in politics persist. Here in Kenya, a new Constitution mandates that one-third of seats in Parliament be held by women, but in a front-page roundup of candidates for next year’s presidential election, the biggest local daily failed to mention the former minister Martha Karua, who is running. And then there’s Kenya’s Elections Act, passed in 2011, which requires higher education for anyone seeking higher office.

In Kenya and elsewhere, career politicians with name recognition and money to burn win regional elections but then struggle to make decisions regarding national security, agricultural policy, fiscal issues and free speech. According to Mzalendo, a Kenyan watchdog group, just 37 percent of the members of Kenya’s current parliament have secondary degrees “from a university recognized in Kenya.”

Though basically well intentioned, the law risks stifling women’s participation. Before primary schooling in Africa became free, bias favoring male children left many girls out of the educational loop. While millions of the earlier generations did receive quality instruction, most females at the age of community leadership are far from Ph.Ds.

I’m all for informed policymaking, but the belief that fancy education means intelligent leadership has its flaws. Humility, business experience, social connections and emotional intelligence are at least as important as fluency in the academy.

To encourage worthy female candidates, the idea of what qualifies someone for higher office should be broadened, not limited. Beth Mugo, the Kenyan public health minister who enjoys one of the better track records for service delivery and responsiveness, earned her stripes running a television station and helping women borrow money so they could start businesses.

Banda herself was mocked — and by the outgoing first lady — for having once worked as a market vendor. She came up with an easy retort: “I’m proud of it because the majority of women in Malawi are like us.” They’re enterprising, creative, hard-working — fit for office.

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