Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gender and the Democratisation Process

Gender and the Democratisation Process

Daily Graphic, Thursday, February 14, 2008. Page 23 (Features)

Bernice Sam

Democracy and development are the two ideals being championed the world over by international organisations and civil society. Democracies in Europe, America and India have stood the test of time producing benefits that spill over as aid to many African countries.

Though some part of Africa are coup-proof, (Tanzania, Zimbabwe) others are coup-prone (Ghana until 1992, Sierra Leone and Liberia). Unfortunately, in Africa, many countries are still struggling to keep their democracies from tottering.

Stories of military take-overs of constitutionally elected governments, ethnic strifes that spill across borders, of an enhanced income through trade in small arms and mercenary activities, present a picture that makes Africa an interesting yet challenging continent to the Western world. Darfur the recent catastrophe, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire are all sad examples. For those countries that are experimenting with democracy, some sustaining democracy, the process presents challenges that thought not alien to our cultures, must nevertheless be tested periodically through elections, the electoral system with its intricate process has its biases towards particular groups of people.

This article looks particularly at the electoral from a gender perspective outlining the differing ways in which women though protected by sates constitutions are discriminated against in political life. Various steps in the process including the registration of voters, civic education campaign, voting and how political parties operate are analysed. It also looks at factors that militate against an equal participation by women and man in politics. The article ends with some recommendations for enhancing female participation in politics.

Traditional Undertones

‘Within man African societies, patriarchy, subordination of women and the deep rooted perception that the public domain is reserved for man and that the social contract is about the relationship between men and government and not between citizens and government, come together to exclude women-not withstanding the rights guaranteed in law and the political rhetoric of good governance and participatory democracy’ (Ginwala, 1998). The State has an androcentric character with state administrations headed by males.

In many leadership positions with state bureaucracies males are heads which reinforces the recognition of male as head of the household. At the informal level such as in families, chieftaincy, community leadership and churches, though there do not exist any written rules of how the game is played, societal norms and values equally exclude women. Thus there are very few women as heads of families, there are few paramount chiefs who are women; northern part of Ghana for example does not have female heads of clans; nor does the National House of Chiefs in Ghana admit queens.

Women are disadvantaged in household decision making. They have weaker voice where decision regarding fertility and production are concerned. Customarily, the social demarcation of household expenditure gives men the responsibility for visible, formal and predictable expenditure like school fees, utility bills, acquisition of land, etc., while women are confined to non-predictable and invisible responsibilities such as providing food and clothes. These gendered divisions of responsibilities disadvantage women in terms of ability to marshal resources and to negotiate matters of vital concern to their well being (Tsikata, 2001).

In this culturally male dominated environment, women find the political environment alien to their nature and their experiences. They there either reject politics or when they do participate, the numbers are small. Women find it exceptionally difficult to make inroads into various decision-making positions.

Gendered Democracy

In almost all African countries women make up more than half the population. Larger numbers of women are also illiterate compared to men. In Ghana 41.1 per cent of women have no formal education compared to 21.1 per cent of men (GLSS 2000). The private informal sector where women congregate has 45.1 per cent of females and 2.4 per cent men.

These factors have an impact on how many women, the calibre and status of those who enter political life. Constitutions are clear as far as the position of women’s participation in decision-making is concerned. There should be no discrimination on the basis of gender. Equal opportunities are offered as far as state constitutions are concerned for both men and women to participate in political life. This is only rhetorical since they are impressive on paper- but practicalisation is extremely difficult. Additionally, other countries have policies and mechanisms that mandate the incorporation of wome into politics and mainstream decision making roles.

‘Democracy without women in no democracy’ (Nelson and Chowdhury, 1994:18). The exclusion of women from the political arena deprives government of half of its citizens’ contributions. Gender balance in the political process legitimises the system and it processes and serves as a process of ensuring good governance (Ayee, 2001:126).

In Ghana, several efforts have been initiated in the last three elections by several non-governmental organisation including WiLDAF, FIDA, WOMEC, ABANTU for Development and the Gender Centre including capacity building for political aspirants and general education on voter rights.

A Women’s Manifesto for Ghana, an initiative of a coalition of civil society groups and spearheaded by ABANTU for Development was developed in 2004. The Women’s Manifesto is a tool for getting political parties not only to address women’s concerns in their manifestos but also for monitoring performance of government in the year ahead.

Seeing women as partners in the democratic process and thus development has implications for policy formulation, implementation and evaluation for all segments of the population (Ayee, 201: 132). The bottom line of democracy is where in free and fair elections all citizens (men and women 18 years old and above), have equal voting rights.

The political party level

Politics is ‘masculine.’ Political life is organised according to male norms and values. A women’s chances of winning elections depend on her party affiliation. Candidates from ruling parties are better placed and equipped to contest elections than those in opposition or independent candidates (Ayee, 201: 124). Women have a much lower possibility of being selected as party candidates when they contest against men. There are huge resource demands by political parties which discriminate against the poor, especially the poor women.

Within political parties, women’s wings are created to give legitimacy to the party’s existence; and to ensure that parties will have ‘mobilisers’ and will be able to capture women’s votes. Women play important roles in campaigning and mobilising support for parties but rarely occupy decision-making roles within the party structure. Less than 11 per cent of political party leaders are women in the world. Men dominate the political space, men formulate the rules of the game and define standards for evaluation.

Often having a women’s wing or league gives political parties the erroneous impression that it is enough to proclaim the gender sensitivity within gender paradigms. But the creation of such a unit within the party does not necessarily make the party gender-friendly.

Such units should not been seen as ‘token,’ thus isolated by pushing everything women and gender into its plate, but should be integrated into party structures though holding positions within the party leadership, taking part in all party activities and importantly providing opportunities to listen to concerns of women that need to be addressed by the party.

For the few that succeed to become political leaders, there must be a sense of having done so by their own choices and for causes in which they believe. In a study of South African countries, some of the women in political office felt that they were there to represent their party and not the women’s cause (Foster, Makenya, Mukutukwa, (undated)).

In Ghana, at the 2004 elections, only 25 women out of 100 women who had contested the parliamentary elections made it into Parliament.

In the 2000 elections, female parliamentary candidates fielded by some of the parties were are follows: There were 99 women and 9991 men who contested for elections. Out of that number NDC 22 (32:2); NPP 17 (17.9 per cent); NRP 20 (21 percent); CPP 16 (16.8 per cent). Source R &M Dept. Electoral Commission). What is crucial is how women of these women made it into Parliament. At the end of the day8 Parliament had 129 women out of a House of 200. Unfortunately, some men within politics are ‘politically correct’ by being theoretically and superficially gender-sensitive but practically gender blind.

Women need to be supported financially to compete fairly with their male counterparts. Sometimes party support to its female candidate comes not in financial support but by party paraphernalia. Women have to ensure that they know the rules of the game, which party to join and need to ensure they qualify at party level.

The electorate will not vote for a candidate simply because she is a woman. They look out for certain leadership qualities. Women who want to go into politics should be interested themselves first, not simply that others thing they are good. It takes a lot of wit, training and strength to appreciate parliamentary proceedings and to participate effectively in deliberation infusing gender dimensions to debates. Political parties should endeavour to enhance the status and role of women as a first step within their parties towards empowerment for the long term (Ayee, 2001; 139). Parties could also have quota systems.

The Registration Process

Several questions are raised regarding the registration process. Who registered and who did not register and why? Were times conducive to women? Were women visible in the registration teams? What kinds of messages were sent out, were they gender sensitive or neutral? What factors prevented women from registering?

In almost all West African countries that are grappling with poverty, high indebtedness, where transportation and communication infrastructure are not highly developed, it is not unreasonable to be pessimistic about the success of registration of voters.

In the past, the registration process in Ghana was fraught with problems where people were unable to take tie pictures; and some could not register because the time frame was limited. The kinds of material and the form of informing people need to emphasise women’s equal rights to registers. For the majority of women who are illiterate and live in rural areas, forms of messages inkling pictures of cartoons, posters that at a glance tell a story must be encouraged.

For instance in Mozambique in the 1994 elections to combat discrimination, a strip carton was distributed to people registering which showed a son explaining to his father that this ‘new thing’ of democracy which meant that everyone had the same right. The father questions whether this applies to women and the son responds that certainly it does, being ‘being different sex doesn’t mean being either superior or inferior.’ The mother them joins them and points out that she has already been going to meetings about elections and that ‘I’m always telling your father to go to these meetings but he says he never has time!’

Women are used to being told by their husbands or someone in authority to do things. Whether they registered with an understanding of the process and its essence, or there is an apparent apathy to the process because it is tedious, time consuming and takes them away from their economic activities; or of their own volition are considerations during the registration process. It will be interesting to have an analysis of the numbers of registered persons in typically patrilineal and matrilineal communities in any West African country. There has to be an established practice of compilation of gender-disaggregated figures of registration.

In rural communities within West Africa given that some parts of the population would not have access to information; there is likelihood that the first point of contact for many women with the entire registration process would be the registration teams, these teams would play an important symbolic and technical role, therefore it is important to ensure a gender balance. In 2004, a cursory glance at many of the registration centres in Accra, Ghana during the May registration exercise showed women were in the minority and many teams had no women at all. Logistics in the registration exercise is likely to exclude women, especially those with children and younger women even if they qualify to be registered agents, because of the perception that they would not be able to cope with tough travelling and accommodation conditions in some parts of the country.

The Civic Education Campaign

Though in many countries there are constitutionally mandated bodies, that is the Commission on Civic Education and Electoral Commission which have the responsibility to carry out civic education and particularly education on elections, women’s organisation are crucial for the success of the civic education process because they are able to provide information to their constituencies mainly in the rural areas most of whom may be non-literate.

In Ghana, many women’s right organisations are involved in the electoral process through collaborating with these constitutionally mandated agencies to educate women. These NGOs are however limited in available resources to target as many rural and illiterate women as possible.

A useful tool could be training manuals for literate women can touch on their human rights including heir civic rights. These manuals could be used by women’s rights groups in their training and education.

It is important to emphasise that casting one’s vote is a free choice; that women do not have to be influenced by other person to ‘buy’ their votes. Neither should women be influenced by their husbands to choose for particular candidates. It must be stressed that women need to be objective as they assess which of the candidates would present women’s concerns in Parliament. When this message become part of civic education, a nation stands a better chance of getting elected representatives that can be held accountable and would be accountable to women.

Media, election and women

Importance of media as a factor to women’s success or otherwise in politics cannot be overemphasised. It has been found in Sweden that the media carries less coverage of women than of male politician. In the media, stories that sell are those that ofte perpetuate gender stereotypes.

A study by the Media Institute of South Africa (MISA) and Gender Links in Southern Africa showed that while on the average women comprise 19.4 per cent of members of parliament in the region; only eight per cent of parliamentarians whose views are sought for comments were women. This could be true of many countries in West Africa. A similar study in South Africa of the 1999 elections, found the following;

While women comprise the majority of voters in South Africa and the largest number of people registered to vote, men are targeted in election news coverage. Of 6,440 election items, only 42 focused on gendered discrimination.

Political parties were seldom asked to account for their policies on gender. Women politicians were regularly demonised and infantilised by the media. They were branded as ‘unfeminine’ or ‘iron women.’ Women politicians were regularly identified by their marital and family statues whilst men were not.

During elections, it can be observed that many would have radios as the results are announced. Though inroads have been made in Ghana regarding the media’s role in democracy particularly at elections time, there nevertheless exist communities across some West African states like Liberia where access to information is limited. Often radio sets through which information is transmitted in very remote aeas would be in the hands of men.


Training women in leadership skills, public speaking, fund-raising skills, the electoral process and how to avoid, monitor to eliminate rigging in election process is highly recommended. It is important to de-politicise gender issues and women’s concerns, because doing so heightens the imbalances.

Women should be fielded in safe seats where victory is more likely. It is crucial to train the media before a country embarks on elections. In such training programmes, the media needs to be given a checklist of what to do to promote gender balance in their reportage during the entire elections process.

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