Ruanda é o país do mundo com a maior presença de mulheres no parlamento | Fonte: Umushyikirano

Trumping the notion that there is a division of roles and spheres which women and men must intrinsically occupy is a complex task. A great number of cultural values still regards the public sphere as the realm of men: only them are entitled to take part in the decision-making processes of government, taking part in the workforce; women, on the other hand, are regarded as belonging to the private sphere, running household chores and taking care of family. Such notions have permeated history for a relevant time and were the basis which a lot of societies have revolved around.

Therefore, for women to occupy public spaces more than de jure equality laws are necessary. Laws, by themselves, are not capable of changing this historical perception of unfitting female ideals for politics – even though they are extremely important for without them there would be no rights to be upheld. It is also needed to turn our attention to how reality is de facto shaped: understanding what elements help translating de jure equality to de facto equality is essential to a promotion of gender equality. This is true for all the parts of the world, including Africa.

On this note, this article’s main goal is to understand the gap between de jure and de facto equality in Africa concerning female presence in parliaments around the continent. There is no doubt regarding the existence of legislation granting women the right to occupy such spaces, but what are the factors that actually allow them to do so? Based on international documents, the existing literature and the data available on the World Bank dataset, the statistical regression model is used to try and understand how different variables influence female presence in parliaments in 51 African countries.

DE JURE vs DE FACTO equality in Africa

According to the Universal Declaration on Democracy (1997), the fourth principle of democracy is the existence of “a genuine partnership between men and women in the conduct of the affairs of society in which they work in equality and complementarity, drawing mutual enrichment from their differences”. The fact that a great number of societies present themselves with considerable discrepancies on the composition of their parliaments – with the majority of seats being held by men – suggests that said societies have not yet achieved a fully representative democracy (Thabane, Buthelezi 2008). In 2017, women counted for almost half of the world’s population according to the website Our World in Data (2019), a number that was not translated into parliamentary seats when one considers that women held less than 50% of them.

The notion of de jure and de facto equality is, in this context, extremely relevant. In the realm of gender issues, de jure equality implicates the existence of legislation recognizing women’s rights as equals to men but that also recognizing the different challenges women must face to fully enjoy such rights. Simply stating women’s rights, however, does not translate directly into the observation of said rights – does not translate directly into de facto equality. It is possible, then, to understand de facto equality as the representation of de jure equality in the material world, in a way that makes people capable of feeling it (Helvesley 2004). To study women’s presence in African parliaments, one must therefore understand how both types are present in Africa.

Legally, one of the most important documents in Africa concerning human rights, which include gender equality, is the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Bonjul Charter) adopted in 1981 and coming into force in 1986. Women’s rights, however, are briefly mentioned on article 18 only, with women being grouped alongside children. Another interesting curiosity on the Bonjul Charter is that it establishes communitarian rights over individual ones in order to protect African values when faced against the historical colonization of the continent.

Recognizing that even with the adoption of the Bonjul Charter women’s rights hadn’t progressed much farther, in 2003 (though it only came into force in 2005) another document was adopted: the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as Maputo Protocol. The Article 2 of the Maputo Protocol reaffirms responsibility to ensure de jure and de facto gender equality for their signatories, which is, in fact, the document’s main goal. More relevant to the present study, article 9 of the protocol is one the “Right to Participation in the Political and Decision-Making Process” stating that states must take affirmative action to ensure truly representative female presence in the government.

In addition to international documents, all African countries have, to some degree, constitutions which ensure citizenship equality on participation in the decision-making processes (Thabane, Buthelezi 2008). Rwanda is a great example: its Constitution from 2003 establishes, on article 10 paragraph 4, “equality of all Rwandans and between men and women which is affirmed by women occupying at least thirty percent (30%) of positions in decision-making organs”. In the 2013 parliamentary elections, a record-breaking number of women were elected, with 64% of parliamentary seats going for women (UN Women 2018).

Based on what has been presented so far, it is possible to deduce that de jure equality between women and men is widely accepted and ensured in African countries. On the other hand, data obtained from the World Bank database points out that Rwanda is an exception in Africa: de facto equality is yet to be achieved in African when talking about women presence in parliaments in the continent.

The data collected comprises the period from the year 2000 to 2017 from 51 countries. The time frame reflects the availability of data when the survey was first conducted: the year of 2000 was chosen due to the fact that information concerning previous years were scarce; and 2017 was the last year with available information. It is also a good illustrator for how the scenario was set before the Maputo Protocol and the situation after the document’s adoption.

Regardless the fact that one country presented itself with over 50% of its parliamentary seats being held by women in 2017 (Rwanda, with 61.3%), it possible to observe countries with proportions so low as 5.6% (Nigeria). The three countries with the highest proportions and the 3 ones with lowest ones are presented on tables 1 and 2 below.

Table 1: The three countries with the highest proportion of women in parliament in 2017


Proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by women (%) in 2017



South Africa




Source: own elaboration based on World Bank data

Source: own elaboration based on

Table 2: The three countries with the lowest proportion of women in parliament in 2017


Proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by women (%) in 2017



Central African Republic




Source: own elaboration based on World Bank data.

Source: own elaboration based o

Women in African parliaments

 As mentioned in the previous topic, the data used in this study were obtained from the World Bank database in June 2019. It contains information regarding 51 African countries between the years of 2000 and 2017. The selection was based on literature on the subject – based on articles and books which could help identify what could affect the dependent variable: the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women in African parliaments. The selection also took into account the available socioeconomic variables on the World Bank database and the type of data necessary for the statistical regression model.

Starting from that initial research, 10 independent variables were selected, almost all of them relatively measured towards the female population compared in proportion to total population (with the exception of the number of female children out of school). The first regressions, however, indicated that only five of these variables were statically relevant once their influence on the dependent variable (proportion of seats occupied by women in national parliaments) was measured. They are: access to antiretrovirals drugs by the female population; female children out of primary school; women who contribute to family income; GNP proportion destined to education; and female proportion of the workforce. The regressions were calculated at a 95% confidence until one was achieved in which all the data was statistically relevant.

First of all, simply granting women the right to move to the public spheres of economics and politics does not directly translate into us being actually capable of doing so (Thabane, Buthelezi 2008). One of the reasons for that to happen might be related to the high amount of money needed to run a political campaign – a sum the female population a great deal of times is not capable of affording (Ballington, Karam 2005). On that note, the number of women present in the workforce directly influence their capacity to be in parallel present in parliaments as well. A higher number of working women entitled to their own money might mean more funding for female campaigns. A variation of 1 percentage point on the amount of women in the workforce in the analyzed countries has an influence of 0.689 percentage points in the proportion of parliamentary seats held by women in Africa.

Working women also have the capacity to actively contribute to family income. The higher the rate of women who do so, the greater chances of them being perceived as equal to men inside the household. As such, they would have more autonomy to choose activities to which dedicate their time  (Ballington, Karam 2005). This study findings support this line of arguing: a variation of 1 percentage point in the proportion of women who actively contribute to family income leads to an alteration of 0.335 percentage points in the proportion of parliamentary seats held by African women.

Education is another extremely relevant matter. Lack of thereof is one of the biggest challenges to be overcome by women desiring to have a predominant role in politics (Ballington, Karam 2005). The greater the access to education by the female population, the higher the chances are they will hold parliamentary seats in their countries. Hence, the proportion of the GNP which is destined to education must be taken seriously. One expects the educational system to be broader and broader (and even better) if more resources are spent on its development – which in turn, is a highly important factor in women’s formation. The data used on this study supports this analysis: an increase of 1 percentage points in the proportion of the GNP destined to education leads, by its turn, to a 0.806% increase in the proportion of African parliamentary seats occupied by the female population.

This alone, however, is not by itself the most important variable. What could/would good education be if girls themselves were not capable of accessing it? Grating female children access to schooling – and actually ensuring they are capable of living up to this right – is another crucial indicator. A variation of 1 percentage point of girls in primary school corresponds to a -5,54e-0,6 percentage points variation in the proportion of women in parliaments. This contradicts this author’s original assumption stated in the beginning of the paragraph: the more female children are enrolled in primary school, the lower the number of women holding parliamentary seats.  There are a number of reasons for this, one example might be that getting young girls to school may not necessarily mean they are actually following up on their education.

Besides education, health is also extremely important. Studies have shown that women with higher access to health services are more likely to leave domestic settings and enter public life (Morrison, Jütting 2005). In this present article, women’s access to health providers are measured by their access to antiretroviral drugs – which includes necessary drugs on HIV treatment. HIV, the causing virus of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), has been widely disseminated amongst women in Africa – particularly the younger ones (Harrison, Colvin et al 2015). Considering HIV has no cure so far, having access to drugs which can make life manageable is directly related to improving women’s health conditions in Africa. An increase of 1 percentage point in the proportion of women who have access to antiretroviral drugs leads to a 0.176 percentage points increase in the percentage of women holding parliamentary seats in Africa.

Based on this information, one can analyze the average of proportional seats occupied by the female population in Africa (see Graphic 1 below). It is noticeable that the average increases with time, but there is still a long way towards complete equality. This indicates that African governments have put some effort into achieving de facto equality and not only de jure equality when talking about female presence in African parliaments.

Graphic 1: Proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by women in Africa (average) through 2000 to 2017.

Source: own elaboration based on World Bank’s dataset data.

Even though they are extremely relevant, the averages presented above must be carefully read. On the one hand, Rwanda presented itself with the highest percentage of all in 2017: 61.3% of parliamentary seats were held by women; on the other hand, Nigeria presented a 5.6% average in the same year. 2017’s overall average is 22.07%. This information suggests that there is a considerable amplitude among the data: the difference between the highest value and the lowest one must not be taken lightly. Despite the indication of improvements around the whole continent suggested by Graphic 1, there are some values that stand in the way for its complete representativeness: Rwanda and Nigeria being themselves examples of  such, being considered outliers.

Final considerations

As was presented, even though there are countries with high levels of proportion of women in parliament, such as Rwanda, there is still a long way in the road to achieve completely de facto equality. Overtrumping cultural notions regarding women’s role in society, the role of private life running the household chores is an effort greater than any number can express. A good indicator that this change of cultural norms is taking effective place in societies is the number of women holding parliamentary seats – a number that has increased over the analyzed years. This suggests some action into really granting women de facto equality towards men is indeed taking place in Africa.

It is worth noticing that the subject in question is broader and more complex than any article – including the present one – could fully embrace. Statistically measuring cultural values’ strength is challenging – starting from actually successfully identifying every and each value. Particularly, even such values are believed to determine women’s role in society, including whether they are entitled to occupy only one of the spheres, public or private, or both. Obtaining data is another challenging aspect. Even from the ones used in this research, not every single gap was filled – some combinations of year/country/variable did not present themselves with any value at all. These gaps make the analysis of the information which is actually available even more complex.

However, this is not to say that researches on minorities inclusion in Africa are to be treated as irrelevant. Precisely because of these factors studies should be further encouraged in order to stimulate the discussion on the subjects as well as the proper release of relevant data and information. Even further, considering how expressive has been the acceptance of international documents promoting women’s rights in Africa, holding such States accountable and studying their progress so far is imperative for the political field.


African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Kenya, 1981.

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Ratification Table: – African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

African Union. List of countries which have signed, ratified/acceded to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on The Rights Of Women in Africa. 2019.

Ballington, Julie. Karam, Azza. Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral System. Switzerland, 2005.

Harrison, Abigail. Colvi, Christopher J. Kuo, Caroline. Lurie, Mark. “Sustained High HIV Incidence in Young Women in Southern Africa: Social, Behavioral, and Structural Factors and Emergind Intervention Approaches”. The Global Epidemic, Sh Vermund, Section Editor, 2015.

Helvesley, José. “Isonomia constitucional. Igualdade formal versus igualdade material”. Revista Esmafe: Escola de Magistratura Federal da 5ª Região, n. 7, ago. 2004.

Morrison, Christian. Pütting, Johannes P. “Women’s discrimination in developing countries: a New Data Set for Better Policies”. World Development, vol. 33, issue 7, pp.1065-81. July 2015.

Our World in Data. Gender ration. 2019.

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights. Maputo, 2003.

Rwanda’s Constitution of 2003 with Amendments through 2015.

Thabane, Tebello. Buthelezi, Michael. Bridging the gap between de jure and de facto parliamentary representation of women in Africa. 2008.

Universal Declaration on Democracy, 1977.

UN Women. Revisiting Rwanda five years after record-breaking parliamentary elections. 2018.

World Bank. World Development Indicator, 2019.

Sobre o Autor

Mestranda em Relaçōes Internacionais pela Universidade de São Paulo. Bacharel em Relaçōes Internacionais pela Pontíficia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais, na qual atuou como monitora do Núcleo de Instituiçōes Internacionais, Organizaçōes Internacionais e Política Externa.

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