Home > News > In Africa, gender equality in principle faces barriers in practice
144 views 9 min 0 Comment

In Africa, gender equality in principle faces barriers in practice

Afrobarometer surveys in 39 countries highlight hurdles to women’s participation in politics.

- July 1, 2024
African women participate in an Open Government Partnership regional meeting in November 2022.
Open Government Partnership meeting, November 2022 (cc) Open Government Partnership via Flickr.

Mary Mugure received threats via phone and text message, then was attacked in the street. Assailants pulled Liz Njue’s hair and tore her blouse when she went to vote. Their common thread: They were running for county assembly seats in Kenya, and they are women.

According to the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association, Mugure and Njue are among dozens of women who were assaulted during their 2022 election campaigns. Many others, both candidates and officeholders, frequently suffer verbal abuse in person and on social media.

The personal costs of women’s participation in politics may be one of many reasons women remain vastly underrepresented in the halls of power. Women hold 27% of legislative seats in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s a lower percentage than in the Americas (35%), though greater than the legislative seat shares in the Middle East and Northern Africa (17%).

This lack of representation often results in policies that do not support women’s rights or ensure equal access to essential resources and services. In Kenya, for example, women, especially young activists, have been at the forefront of protests against the Finance Bill of 2024. They’re protesting the bill’s potential to exacerbate gender inequality by imposing economic hardships on women and girls

In 53,444 face-to-face interviews – 50% of them with women – in 39 African countries, Afrobarometer found widespread support for progress toward gender parity in political representation. But these survey findings also highlight particular hurdles that female candidates face.

Support for women’s political participation

On average, three-fourths (75%) of Africans say women should have the same chance as men to be elected to political office. In fact, more than half (52%) “strongly agree” with this position (Figure 1). Majorities endorse gender fairness in all surveyed countries except Sudan, where 53% say men make better political leaders and should have priority as candidates. 

Support for women in politics has ticked up over the past decade (by 4 percentage points across 30 African countries surveyed consistently since 2011/2013). This support is strong across key demographic groups, though somewhat weaker than average among men (70%) and rural residents (72%), as shown in Figure 2. Education may play a role in shaping these attitudes: People without formal education are about twice as likely as those with post-secondary qualifications to say that male candidates should be given priority (32% vs. 17%).

Figure 1: Should women have an equal chance to be elected? | 39 countries | 2021/2023

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 53,444 adults in 39 African countries in 2021/2023.

Surveys asked: Which of the following statements is closest to your view? (Percentage of respondents who “agree” or “strongly agree” with each statement.)

  • Statement 1: Men make better political leaders than women and should be elected rather than women. 
  • Statement 2: Women should have the same chance of being elected to political office as men.

Figure 2: Women should have equal chance to be elected | by demographic group | 39 countries | 2021/2023

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 53,444 adults in 39 African countries in 2021/2023.

Surveys asked: Which of the following statements is closest to your view? (Percentage of respondents who “agree” or “strongly agree” with each statement.)

  • Statement 1: Men make better political leaders than women and should be elected rather than women. 
  • Statement 2: Women should have the same chance of being elected to political office as men.

Women vying for elective office likely to face backlash

But even if she believes that voters will give her a fair chance, a woman may be discouraged from running for public office by the expected consequences of her candidacy.

While 79% of Africans think a woman running for office will gain standing in the community, more than half (52%) also consider it likely that she will be criticized, called names, or harassed. And 40% say she will probably experience problems with her family (Figure 3).

The expectation that female candidates will face community backlash is especially widespread in Tunisia (85%), Cabo Verde (67%), and Liberia (65%), but it is shared by half or more of respondents in 25 of the 39 surveyed countries.

Figure 3: How running for elective office might affect women’s lives | 39 countries | 2021/2023

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 53,444 adults in 39 African countries in 2021/2023.

Surveys asked: If a woman in your community runs for elected office, how likely or unlikely is it that the following things might occur:

  • She and her family will gain standing in the community? 
  • She will be criticized, called names, or harassed by others in the community? 
  • She will face problems with her family?

Women trail in political engagement

Societal norms and expectations that discourage women from seeking public office can also represent barriers to women’s participation in other political processes. Afrobarometer survey findings have consistently shown that on average, women in Africa are less likely than men to engage in a variety of civic and political activities. But researchers using Afrobarometer data from 20 countries suggest this can change. Their findings demonstrate that as women’s representation in political institutions increases, these gender gaps in citizen engagement decrease.

As of 2021/2023, the average gender gap across 39 countries is 6 percentage points for voting in the most recent national elections (66% of women voted vs. 72% of men). The gap is substantially wider for joining others to raise issues (35% vs. 49%), contacting local government councillors (19% vs. 31%), and discussing political matters with family or friends (53% vs. 69%).

Figure 4: The political participation gap | by gender | 39 countries | 2021/2023

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 53,444 adults in 39 African countries in 2021/2023.

Surveys asked: In the last national election, held in [year], did you vote, or not, or were you too young to vote? Or can’t you remember whether you voted? (Respondents who were too young to vote are excluded.) 

Here is a list of actions that people sometimes take as citizens (results indicate percentage of respondent who say “once or twice,” “several times,” or “often”). For each of these, please tell me whether you, personally, have done any of these things during the past year: 

  • Attended a community meeting? Got together with others to raise an issue? 
  • Contacted your local government councillor? 
  • Contacted a political party official? 
  • Contacted your member of parliament (MP)? Participated in a demonstration or protest march? 
  • When you get together with your friends or family, how often would you say you discuss political matters?

Disadvantages at both the grassroots and leadership levels represent significant barriers to achieving the objectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. These blueprints call for women’s full participation in political processes, both as a fundamental right and as a means to effective, inclusive policymaking in health, education, economic development, and other sectors. 

Here, too, a majority of Africans endorse progress. Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents say their governments need to do more to promote equal rights and opportunities for women. But if support for equality in principle is taking root across Africa, equality in practice still appears elusive. These survey findings suggest advocates of gender parity will need to redouble their efforts if the shared goals of Agenda 2063 and the SDGs are to become shared realities.

Maakwe Cumanzala (@Maakwe_) is an Afrobarometer research assistant and a PhD student in the Neubauer Family Program in Economics and Public Policy at Tufts University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.