African Women’s Participation in Political Leadership

Share this:

Historically, politics or government leadership have been depicted as a masculine line of work. Generationally speaking, men have been given the inherent right to govern society’s public arenas. Political cultures and current theorists have either expressly or tacitly granted males the right to lead (Annan 87). According to ancient philosophers and contemporary theorists, men are born with the right to lead (Annan 87). The purpose of this article is to investigate this concept and its implications for the African continent.

In African communities, patriarchy constructs an artificial gendered divide between the private domestic realm and the public arenas of society. In a journal article titled “Gender Trauma in Africa: Enhancing Women’s Links to Resources”, academic and writer Sylvia Tamale explains this constructed divide by identifying the public sphere as symbolizing men and being the site of socially regarded undertakings like business and politics, whereas the private sphere symbolizes domestic activities focused on the family and is commonly associated with women (52). Although the divide between the public and private arenas is a divide that was distinguished in Africa prior to colonialism, the gendered component to this constructed divide was introduced and reinforced by colonial ideologies and practices. According to Tamale;

Where land had been communally owned in pre-colonial societies, a tenure system that allowed for absolute and individual ownership in land took over. At the same time, politics and power were formalized and institutionalized with male public actors (52).

What can be understood from Tamale’s above assertion is that, after the instigation of colonialism to the African continent, African communities were forced to adopt Western political ideologies that are inherently rooted in capitalism. These political ideologies profoundly impacted African women’s access to resources and power, notably because the shift towards western political ideologies resulted in a major change in political values for African cultures. Namely, African societies shifted from societal values centered on collectivism to adopting political ideologies that valued philosophies of individualism (Tamale 52). This shift placed African women at a disadvantage in terms of political power and leadership.

Today, women’s political advancement in Africa continues to be hampered by social and cultural views. It is possible that the African continent may serve as a good model for proving ongoing speculations claiming that gender equality directly affects the economic growth of a country. What can be observed is that the greater the gender disparities in all sectors of a society, the slower the society develops economically (Tamale 50). In “Gender Trauma in Africa: Enhancing Women’s Links to Resources”, Tamale presents a statistical example to prove this, according to a modern report called Engendering Development, published by the World Bank on Women’s Day; “improving rural women’s access to productive resources including education, land, and fertilizers in Africa could increase agricultural productivity by as much as one-fifth”(50), Regardless of all of the research exposing the negative consequences of gender disparity, it has largely prevailed throughout African societies, and this is something that has primarily been reflected by political structures and how political leadership has been conducted across the continent.

Despite the barriers and prejudices imposed by patriarchy, African women are proven to be more adaptive than opposing forces predicted. In recent years, African women have gained more prominence in the political arenas, with several African women leaders creating history by tearing down barriers and opening doors for women to boldly enter these arenas. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania, and Madam Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma of South Africa are just a few of the African women leaders who are seen as the pinnacle of the continent’s development toward women’s political engagement.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected as Sub-Saharan Africa’s first female head of state in 2005. When Sirleaf first took office, she was confronted with a problem that resembled a global economic catastrophe. According to Liberian-born American journalist Helene Cooper, at the time when Sirleaf entered office, Liberia typified the expression “African basket case” (44), having been decimated by twenty-five years of bloodshed, two terrible civil wars, and countless coups that had murdered; “upwards of 250,000 of the country’s three million people”(Cooper 44). By the end of Sirleaf’s first term as president, the country had made tremendous progress. Cooper’s journal article describes some of the major strides achieved during Sirleaf’s presidency;

Liberia still looks like a hellhole. But there’s electricity in Monrovia and a handful of other urban areas. School enrolment has shot up forty percent, and the country’s external debt has plummeted thanks to Sirleaf s personal efforts with big donor countries. A tourism industry is getting off the ground; in September, Delta Airlines inaugurated the first U.S.-Monrovia flight in twenty years (44).

The story of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s political journey and her election into political leadership may be interpreted as a reminder that political progress for women is intertwined with a country’s economic growth and improvement. Sirleaf was re-elected to a second term as president in 2011. Sirleaf’s victory in both elections called into question African society’s artificial constructed ‘gendered divide’ between the public and private arenas of society. According to academic and author Lennie M. Jones, Sirleaf used several discursive identities to appeal to masculine and female constituents. Specifically, Sirleaf challenged the ‘gendered divide’ by bringing certain media stylizations that were previously associated with the private arena into the public arena; “qualitative pragmatic discourse analysis supplemented by quantitative data, reveals media stylizations of Sirleaf ranging from that of a ‘grandmother’ to the ‘Iron Lady’ to ‘Ma Ellen’, mother of a country”(315). As a result, Sirleaf was instrumental in establishing the theoretical basis for a more gender-neutral approach to political leadership in Africa. Her accomplishments called into question the age-old artificially constructed gender divide.

On the other hand, Sirleaf’s win aligns with emerging attitudes across contemporary Africa towards women’s political leadership (Adams 475). According to scholarly writer Melinda Adams, it was a little more than two decades ago that; “African women held just 10.7% of the seats in their legislatures, falling below the global average at the time of 12.2%” (475). Adams further explains that in more recent years [2008], “women in Africa hold 17% of legislative seats, matching the global average”(475). Women have made considerably more headway in many African countries, Adams highlights that [by the year 2008]; “They hold nearly 50% of legislative seats in Rwanda (48.8%) and over 30% of seats in Mozambique, South Africa, Burundi, and Tanzania” (475). Tanzania is particularly relevant because the country just made history by having its first female president sworn in. Samia Suluhu Hassan assumed office on March 19, 2021, following the death of Former President Magufuli on March 17, 2021.

The first female president had many doubters, Samia Suluhu Hassan told the BBC that; “Even some of my government workers dismissed me at first as just another woman, but they soon accepted my leadership” (Hassan). With her first 100 days in office being over, Samia Suluhu Hassan’s approach differs from her predecessor’s, although there is significant policy consistency (Oxford Analytica). However, in clear contrast to late President Magufuli’s mistrust of the COVID-19 virus, Suluhu’s government launched measures to combat the COVID-19 epidemic in Tanzania. In present-day 2021, Samia Suluhu Hassan is one of only two incumbent female political heads of state in Africa, the other being Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia.

Madam Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma of South Africa is another African woman leader viewed as the pinnacle of the continent’s development toward women’s political leadership. Dlamini-Zuma was elected chairwoman of the African Union Commission on July 15, 2012, making her the organization’s first female leader. As a result of her leadership, the AU improved considerably. She was a strong proponent of more female participation in the AU, addressing issues; such as civil rights, gender, and agricultural production. In 2017, she campaigned for President of the African National Congress but was beaten by Cyril Ramaphosa. However, Dhlamini-Zuma was a national favourite who was narrowly defeated by a mere few hundred votes.

To conclude, Africa’s advancements and successes in women’s political leadership are noteworthy, especially given that most of the continent’s countries are nascent democracies (Annan 107). Nonetheless, the continent still has a long way to go in fighting gender inequalities and advancing the larger majority of women from the margins to positions of leadership in public political arenas, or at the very least boosting women’s involvement in political leadership.



Works Cited

  • Adams, Melinda. “Liberia’s Election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Women’s Executive Leadership in Africa.” Politics & Gender 4.3 (2008): 475-484.
  • Annan, Nancy. “WOMEN AND POLITICAL LEADERSHIP IN AFRICA.” Pathways into the Political Arena: The Perspectives of Global Women Leaders (2020): 87-107.
  • Cooper, Helene. “Iron lady: the promise of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” World Affairs 173.4 (2010): 43-50.
  • Jones, Lennie M. “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture (DAPSAC) (2015): 315.
  • Kikeke, Salim. “Tanzania President Samia: We’re Here To Show That Women Can Lead”. BBC News, 2021, Accessed 11 Aug 2021.
  • King, Elizabeth M., and Andrew D. Mason. Engendering development through gender equality in rights, resources, and voice. The World Bank, 2000.
  • Oxford Analytica. “Tanzania’s president will blend change with continuity.” Emerald Expert Briefings oxan-db (2021).
  • Tamale, Sylvia. “Gender trauma in Africa: enhancing women’s links to resources.” Journal of African Law 48.1 (2004): 50-61.



Image Credit: JACOB LAWRENCE/ Muscarelle Museum of Art

Subscribe to Shuddhashar FreeVoice to receive updates

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!