LAGOS — A mere 17 women were appointed or elected to parliaments, ministerial or electoral offices in the West Africa/Sahel region out of 134 available positions from December 2021 to June 2022. While the paltry figures have long raised concerns among the region’s women’s-rights advocates, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also chimed in while reporting on the concerning security developments in the region to the Security Council recently.
“I note the continued underrepresentation of women in decision-making instances across the region,” Guterres said on July 7. “I reiterate the importance of promoting the full and meaningful participation and representation of women in all political processes, including in elections and transitions.” His remarks were based on a new report written by the UN’s Office for West Africa and the Sahel, or Unowas, for Guterres on the status of the region. The office covers West Africa, including parts of the Sahel within that geographical area (see the Unowas map below).
Despite West Africa being home to the continent’s first democratically elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, called the Iron Lady, who served two terms in Liberia after the civil war that ended in 2003, figures for women represented in politics throughout the region are staggeringly low. The 17 women appointed or elected in the last half year represent only 13 percent of entire appointments and elections globally, despite a 35 percent threshold set by the international community. Only the Americas are currently close to reaching that bar, at 34.4 percent. (In the United States House of Representatives, the percentage of women is currently 28.31 percent; in the Senate, 24 percent.)
The scant representation of women in the West Africa/Sahel region was underscored by the failure of bills promoting increased gender participation and women’s rights to be voted into law in the National Assemblies of Gambia and Nigeria, respectively.
Gender parity in Senegal inflates low regional figures
The percentage of women holding parliamentary positions in West Africa as of July this year is 17 percent, 9 percent less than the sub-Saharan region’s average of 26 percent, according to figures compiled by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The low figure is largely propped up by the 42.7 percent achieved in Senegal, located on the Atlantic west coast, with 64 women sitting in the 150-member lower house. In 2010, Senegal became the second nation in Africa, after Rwanda, to pass a gender parity bill requiring political parties to ensure that 50 percent of their candidates are women.
“Since Senegal involved women and ensured that the quota system worked, everything has looked up,” Biodun Olujimi, a woman senator in Nigeria, told PassBlue. “Senegal’s GDP has improved and the capacity of the elected women to bring on other women into smaller political jobs has increased.”
Olujimi has tried repeatedly to push a gender equality bill through Nigeria’s bicameral legislative house but has yet to succeed. She has faced pushback from the men-dominated chambers, some of whom openly say that women cannot be equal to men. She also reiterated that women are disproportionately affected by the insecurity in the Lake Chad basin — consisting of the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and parts of Nigeria — and Sahel regions in the continent.
Ignoring UN Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security
As conflict stoked by jihadists and armed militia groups is beginning to fan into countries like Benin and Togo in West Africa, until now an area spared of such violence, and touching the lives of women and children, advocates say that women must play a bigger role in politics if insecurity is to be addressed. The Unowas report, for example, said that 14 security personnel, 9 forest rangers and 5 soldiers were killed in a Benin national park earlier this year.
In the Kpendjal prefecture in Togo, near the border with Burkina Faso, 8 soldiers were killed and 13 others injured on May 11, when terrorists from Burkina attacked a military post. West Africa has also witnessed three coups — in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea — since August 2020. (Mali has undergone a total of two coups since August 2020.) Political stability in Guinea-Bissau also remains fragile.
The UN Security Council’s breakthrough adoption of Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security, in 2000, recognized the imperative of women’s equal role in political life and transitions to peace, yet the resolutions and the numerous others supporting it seem to be largely ignored in areas affected by conflict in West Africa.
“Look at the insurgency in Nigeria and the Sahel, if we have men leading and nothing is working, doesn’t it make common sense that we should say: ‘Let’s see what women can bring?'” Ibijoke Faborode, a gender advocate and the chief executive of ElectHer, a Nigerian organization focused on getting more women into elective positions, told PassBlue from Nigeria. “You can then conclude after different cycles that ‘we brought in women and nothing has changed.’ But if we don’t try, how would we know?”
In June 2022, residents of Ekiti state in southwest Nigeria elected a new governor. Biodun Olujimi contested and lost the primaries in the opposition People’s Democratic Party. She told PassBlue that several delegates said it was not time for women to be elected into the office.
“It was a major issue which was not resolved,” she said in an interview. “Every woman that was on the ballot [aside from her party] had to pull out, except for one person who ran under a new party. At the end of the day, she could only get 4,000 votes from almost 400,000 registered voters. That is a sad commentary of the feelings of the general populace towards women.” Only 4.5 percent of Nigeria’s national representatives are women.
In Guinea-Bissau, a country of dozens of archipelagos on the Atlantic Ocean, the embattled president, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, recently appointed 35 ministers and secretaries of state, seven of whom are women. An armed attack was launched on a meeting of the Council of Ministers in the country, chaired by the president, on Feb. 1. He dissolved the National Assembly three months later and fixed elections for Dec. 18. Since the country of 1.5 million people gained independence from Portugal in 1974, only President José Mário Vaz has completed a five-year democratic term.
In the Gambia, which is still transitioning from more than two decades of authoritarian rule by Yahya Jammeh, only three women were recently elected to the 53-person National Assembly. The president, Adama Barrow, used his legal prerogative to nominate five more members, two of them women. The Gambian legislature rejected a bill that would have reserved more seats for women.
Guterres noted in his report that the efforts of Unowas are not swaying the perception of the political landscape in the West Africa/Sahel regions. He pleaded with the governments there to be more gender neutral.
“I urge national parliaments to adopt legislation to promote non-discriminatory practices and women’s participation in political processes, including through temporary special measures,” he said. “I call upon all stakeholders, in particular governments and political parties, to ensure the effective implementation of existing instruments on women’s empowerment and gender equality.”
No continent in the world has achieved the 35 percent gender parity threshold. At 26 percent, sub-Saharan Africa comes third out of the six major regional groupings, with West Africa lagging, according to data from IPU. The Americas, Europe, Asia and the Pacific stand at, respectively, 34.4 percent, 31.2 percent, 20.9 percent and 22.8 percent. The worst region for women’s representation is North Africa-Mideast, at 16.8 percent.
According to Olujimi in Nigeria, West Africa and the Sahel need to provide more representation to women to forestall a revolt by them, given that their rights are already trampled on by men who use religion and culture to back their negative actions. “In West Africa, the population figures are in favor of women,” Olujimi said. “If you don’t provide for the representation of such a great number of people, problems will ensue in the nearest future.”
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.