“Youth Participation and Leadership in Political Parties in Africa: Special Focus on Young Women” was the theme of a national youth dialogue hosted by the National Youth Parliament of The Gambia on Saturday 24th November, 2015. . The event, held at the American Corner Comium, was organized as part of a series in various African countries, leading to the fourth High Level Dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance in Africa, initiated by the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission.
The Gambia dialogue brought together about 50 youth from the different political parties, youth organisations working on issues related to the theme, the local media and representatives of partner organisations. The dialogue kicked off with a short opening ceremony, where these latter gave brief statements, before participants were placed into four working groups, each with a specific focus topic for discussion and consequent presentation.
An effort to live-tweet the discussions, and contribute to the growing online documentation of the dialogues across Africa, led me to float over the four groups, trying to capture the most pertinent points, while gaining a better understanding of The Gambia’s political environment.
Participants deliberated on the theme, with specific discussions on women’s political participation, youth political participation, women’s wings, and youth wings of political parties in The Gambia. One could easily feel the energy in the room as the youth, especially representing the different political parties, shared their experiences and debated various issues in response to the questions tabled before them.
There were moments, when one of the groups got distracted by party politics, as each party sought to highlight its work, but their unity of purpose and the agreement that more needed to be done for youth in politics, eventually drew them back to the task at hand. I was naturally drawn to the two groups discussing questions specific to women’s political participation, and couldn’t help noting a familiar refrain.
Participation, Not Representation
‘Women are not interested in politics or political leadership’ is a statement often heard, when the status quo, where men hold dominance at the helm of affairs, is challenged. The veracity of this statement, I believe, is relative to where we find ourselves, even if passed on as a global truth. One of the women present gave a succinct distinction between participation and representation, noting that women in The Gambia are the largest group of participants in the country’s politics. An observation that was unanimously affirmed by the youth at the dialogue.
However, it is important to note that their participation does not necessarily translate to the effective creation and implementation of policies relevant to the cause of women. Even when women do participate in politics, it is usually on the sidelines, as cheerleaders for men occupying positions of power and making the decisions on all issues. Women are still greatly limited to fulfilling tasks that fit the traditional gender roles which, I daresay, have led us to this point of attempting to diagnose the reasons behind the low political participation of women.
Wielding the power of mobilization and coördination, women are greatly involved in all preparations leading to the moments that truly matter, handling the cooking and feeding of the masses, the cheering and dancing for prospective male leaders, and forming the bulk of the people dressed in ashobee to show support and solidarity. Yet, they remain on the fringes, sometimes never knowing or understanding the proceedings of political meetings and gatherings, where key decisions are made.
At an event in Uganda this summer, attendees raised the issue of women participating in conferences as singers and dancers, and never having the chance to get into the conference halls to use these same voices to their benefit. As a result, their contributions are not reflected in the final resolutions and decisions made, thereby placing a dampener on their hopes to have their voices represented, and their problems addressed at these gatherings.
The exception to this norm is seen in the few women who rise to secure and maintain a place at the decision-making table. We refer to them as having broken the glass ceiling, and keeping hope alive that more women will make it to those positions, leading to more impactful change in the lives of the majority of women who do not have that opportunity. Representation matters, but how well-represented are women and girls in political spaces, even by the women who have a seat at ‘the table’?
It is worthy of note that not all of these women are elected to these positions, the majority making that ascent through nominations. This begs the question: who do they really represent? A lot of talk has emerged on increasing the number of women in political leadership spaces, and promoting its longevity through a quota system. This is done, of course, with the assumption that the more women we have in these spaces, the better chances we will have of addressing issues related to women at the policy level. The reality shows us different, with tokenism being the order and many women in these positions subscribing to the views and voices of their male counterparts, who are still in the majority. Otherwise, they are ‘yes women’ to the views of the political parties they represented, as opposed to the many people who placed them in those positions, if they were elected.
A solution was suggested: more women should rise to the occasion and contest elections, starting at local government and moving up to the presidential race. Though ideal, this suggestion ignores a multitude of factors and conditions, especially social, which could be a limitation to realizing this idea.
Social Factors Need To Be Taken Into Consideration
Much hope is placed on the youth to create a new generation of leaders that challenge and close the gender disparities in politics, especially with effective and impactful representation. Encouragement is doled out in generous amounts to young women, reminding them that the past is gone and the future is theirs to shape.
This is a positive step towards closing the gaps, but it should be proffered on realistic grounds, taking into consideration the social set-up of our various societies, and how this affects the leadership aspirations of girls and young women. Gender inequality in all spheres hinders progress and has a consequent effect on the issue at hand.
We live in societies where the role of a girl is defined even before birth, and her life is set to follow the path created without her contributions, and with little regard to her preferences and ambitions. It begins with the provision of quality education for the girl child, which has, for a long time, been trashed in favour of teaching girls to handle domestic responsibilities in preparation for marriage and child-bearing.
Progress has been recorded in this regard, but there is still a gap in the figures for enrolment and those for completion. This is due to several reasons, ranging from financial inability to the intentional decision to pull girls out of school and marry them off. For those who do complete secondary school, many are still denied the opportunity to access higher education, based on the belief that too many professional qualifications may render them undesirable to men, for marriage.
From a very early age, our societies teach girls to be followers, to embrace their place as secondary citizens in most spaces, and to submit to the will and desires of the men in their lives, including fathers, brothers, husbands etc. Girls are taught to be seen and not heard, to use their voices only in ‘women’s spaces’, and to accept their conditions and struggles without much objection. The few who dare to break these laws are referred to as rebels, disrupting the natural order and attempting to get rid of our traditional values.
We cannot expect girls who grow up in communities where leadership has a male face, to suddenly understand that they can be leaders too. The long-term social conditioning has a lasting effect on how far girls go and how much they can achieve, both in personal and public circles. There is an urgent need for change in the messages we send to our children, taking into consideration the effects it will have on their lives. When girls are empowered and raised to believe they are as equally human as men, and have the right to equal opportunities, we create a generation of socially aware, independent-minded young women who will no longer be limited by society’s dictates.
And Still We Hope…
Achieving gender equality in politics is not impossible. There is a growing will to make this a reality, backed by numerous initiatives to facilitate the process. The world can be witness to a transition that opens a path for more women to assume positions of power, and fully participate in decision-making, to advance the cause of women. The necessary structures – social, economic, political- need to be put in place to ensure that these visions are realized.
The involvement of young people will contribute a lot to this process, bringing in new realities where a conscious population is the norm, and everyone is aware of their role in the political leadership of their communities. Social constructs that hinder the progress of women in leadership should be reviewed and revised to ensure access to equal opportunities. Access to data should be improved and conditions made favorable to ease meaningful participation.
The initiatives to involve youth and women in political leadership are commendable, but if these basic challenges are not addressed, we may be hanging on to rhetoric for a while longer, without a chance at progressive change. At best, we will continue to see a minimal number of women ascending to power, with little impact felt in the lives of the majority of women.
The support has been immense, the voting power is evident and the contributions of women in politics, as it stands, are appreciated. However, it is time to move away from the politics of clapping and dancing, to contesting elections and taking our rightful places as leaders beside men. In concert, more progress and development will be registered for our different communities and States, as evidenced in places where women are increasingly active in politics.