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Women parliamentarians lead major changes in African politics

© UNICEF/2008/Yeo
Joy Mukanyange of Rwanda grew up as a refugee in Uganda and has since served as her country’s ambassador to several nations.

By Maria M. Nghidinwa and Gertrude Kitaburaza

NEW YORK, USA, 22 July 2008 – Several African countries are at the forefront of a growing trend to substantially increase female representation in parliaments around the world. 

In light of growing evidence of the central role women play in a country’s development, many African governments have implemented quotas to boost the number of women parliamentarians. The phenomenon dovetails with similar initiatives to increase access to education and health care for all women and girls. 

In Rwanda, women began to take an active role during the country’s reconstruction period following the 1994 genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead. When the Rwandan Government ratified a new constitution in 2003, it required that women occupy at least 30 per cent of parliamentary seats.

Today, Rwanda’s female representation greatly exceeds that number; the country currently has the world's highest percentage of females in parliament. Nearly half of the members of the Rwandan Parliament are women, compared to the worldwide average of 15 per cent.

© UNICEF/2008/Yeo
Hon. Kate Kamba of Tanzania fights for the rights of women and girls in the East Africa Legislative Assembly.

Education is key

Joy Mukanyange, who grew up as a refugee in Uganda and has since served as Rwanda’s ambassador to several nations, says it was education that helped her and her female colleagues to achieve nearly equal representation in the government.

“I wouldn’t be where I am – I would say that even Rwanda wouldn’t be where it is today – if our parents did not put such capital on getting us educated,” said Ambassador Mukanyange.

In neighbouring Tanzania, Hon. Kate Kamba, a member of the East Africa Legislative Assembly, says the achievements of women in power are helping people understand the benefit of gender parity in parliamentary representation.

“It wasn’t easy, but now even the men are looking at it and seeing that it’s very important to have both men and women [in decision-making positions],” observed Ms. Kamba, who also runs a school in Tanzania.

© UNICEF/2008/Yeo
Sylvie Kinigi of Burundi was the first Prime Minister of an African democracy.

Special role for women

The increased representation of women in African parliaments makes it easier to pass legislation concerning women and girls, particularly in the areas of health and education, Ms. Kamba noted. In Tanzania, women currently hold 30 per cent of the seats in Parliament, matching the goal for all national governments set by the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

Women have something special to offer as political leaders, said Burundi’s former Prime Minister, Sylvie Kinigi. Her term in government made people realize “that a woman can do even more than a man can do, with a soul of a mother and strong will, at the highest level of politics,” said Ms. Kinigi.

“Even today, I receive testimonies not just from girls but also from men who recognize that women can make a difference in playing a role based on the value of all human beings,” she added.

Still much work to do

Although Ms. Kinigi, Ms. Kamba and Ambassador Mukanyange feel they have made major progress in the political arena, they agree that there is still much to be done.

“Women are really still very low in terms of economics,” said Ambassador Mukanyange. “So there’s a lot of work to be done in that sector. People’s mentality doesn’t change overnight.”

All three women were in New York recently to attend a UN conference for female parliamentarians from Africa. The event highlighted the growing role that women are playing in governments throughout the continent.




July 2008:
Parliamentarians Sylvie Kinigi of Burundi, Hon. Kate Kamba of Tanzania and Ambassador Joy Mukanyange of Rwanda share stories of breaking through their countries’ gender barriers.
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