The representation of women in politics is a global concern because women constitute half of humanity, yet they do not make up half the number of representatives in decision-making positions. Since the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, women have been calling for a thirty percent quota system to increase the number of women in decision-making bodies. This has not been achieved in many areas and the situation is not different in Parliamentary representation in many parts of the world.
As of December 2011, the Inter-Parliamentary Union figures indicated that globally only 19.5% of parliamentary seats were held by women. In Sub-Saharan Africa the statistical representation is almost a point ahead with 20.2% women Parliamentarians. (http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm)
In Gambia, gender representation in Parliament since Independence leaves much to be desired. Until 1994, only one woman has ever been elected into Parliament. Honourable Nyimasata Sanneh- Bojang has been the reference for elected Gambian women for a long time. However, this did not mean that women had not made attempts to get elected. Some tried during the First Republic but they have not succeeded. The trend also continued during the Second Republic. Only few women like Duta Kamaso, Bintanding Jarju, Haddy Nyang-Jagne have vied and succeeded to be elected to Parliament. However, these women were all under the purview of the ruling party of the day that is the Peoples Progressive Party in the First Republic and the Alliance for Patriotic, Reconciliation and Construction Party in the Second Republic. Women had vied under opposition parties but none succeeded. One of such women who continuously made her name among Gambian women in politics is Amie Sillah. Despite all her attempts she has not been elected. She is a role model for women in politics. Her courage to vie for election on an opposition ticket is commendable. It demonstrates an understanding of what multi-party democracy means.
Since the Beijing Conference in 1995, The Gambia has seen increased visibility of women in political decision-making positions. Up to 2011, five (5) women have held the position of Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly at one point in time. As of December 2011, only 7.5% of the Gambian National Assembly is female, representing four women out of fifty-three members of the Assembly of which one is the Deputy Speaker. It is important to adopt the 30% quota system for women to have a significant number of representatives, whether it is through elections or appointments, to change the current situation in which only two are elected and the other two are nominated.
On the 25th February 2012, the national television broadcast “Banjul Calendar” which identifies national events for public attention. One of the events listed was, “Nomination of Candidates for National Assembly Elections on the 29th March 2012”. The general public may not have taken note when the national television broadcast the announcement. People who are not in the partisan political arena may be taken unaware because it was not apparent that there was any form of lobbying for nomination going on. There was very limited discussion in the media, local newspapers or on the radios, public and private on who should represent the people in the National Assembly. Aspirants did not come out in the open to make their intention public in the media.
Why aren’t there more women elected into Parliament? The Independent Electoral Commission published the qualifications for Citizens to vie for elections. These include age, educational status, and income tax clearance, amongst others. While this may seem fair and straightforward, a closer look into political party representations would highlight gender bias and unequal gender representation.
The importance of education to increase women’s political representation in Parliament keeps manifesting itself in election of candidates. In most constituencies the vocal women leaders are not educated and are disqualified for vying for elections whether it is National or local. Yet, most of the women with formal education who are qualified to stand for election shy away from politics.
The selection processes in political parties are also obstacles to women vying for Parliamentary seats. Women in political parties have been strong mobilizers for their parties. They show commitment and dedication to whichever party they belong. This is accepted until women run against men. Once women in the same party decide to contest for a candidature once occupied by men, it becomes a problem. The women become threatening to those already occupying the seats and it starts breeding discontent and conflict in the parties.
In the on-going campaign for the 2012 National Assembly election, the ruling party approved the nomination of only three women of the forty-eight candidates that have been identified. It could mean either women in the party did not vie to be elected or the party does not have enough educated and qualified women who are 21 years and above. I put this to one of the prominent women interested in women in politics and her response was “I am disappointed, there were women from the different constituencies but the selection committees in the party at the constituency level did not select them. These are women who are capable and have presence in the constituencies. They are known supporters of the party.” When it was further asked why those women cannot stand as independent candidates, the response was “they will be seen as opposition members.” Some of the women believe that intra-party favouritism is imposed for the selection of candidates.
Six opposition parties in The Gambia have decided not to put up candidates for the 2012 National Assembly elections. The reasons published in the local newspapers include the unlevel playing fields and the manifestation of public support for the ruling party amongst officials of government institutions that are supposed to be neutral. Only one opposition party had vied but none of its candidates is a woman. Therefore no woman from the other opposition parties came out to compete for the 2012 legislative election. Also there is only one female independent candidate for 2012.
In 2008, a consultation held on women’s political participation and leadership confirmed that gender issues in politics cut across political parties, ruling or opposition. Women from different political parties raised concerns about holding meetings late at night to discourage the potential women political aspirants from attending; thus when decisions are taken in their absence, it cannot be disputed. The other aspect raised is lack of finance to engage in political campaign – the logistics to reach out to the electorates as well as lack of campaign materials to show visibility of their candidature.
Personality politics is another constraint highlighted for the lack of women vying for political positions. Marital status and morality issues are raised. Some who are against women standing for elections will want to know whether the woman political aspirant had children born out of marriage, or even who are they going out with. This type of personality politics does not seem to be attached to men who aspire to be politicians. It is an open secret that there are men in Gambian politics that have had children with women they had not married or are even having extra-marital affairs, but they are not castigated about those personal issues. Yet when men canvas for votes, they do not ask the female electorates their marital status or other personal moral issues. People voted them into political positions because they are expected to represent the concerns of the electorate in improving the development of the country. The risk of losing elections is another challenge that deters qualified women from leaving their comfort zone to engage in hassling and bustling with men in the political arena.
Selection for Parliamentary representation should be based on citizenship and the other relevant requirements. This is to ensure an effective National Assembly that represents the concerns of the electorates in the policies and laws that are discussed and adopted in Parliament.
To overcome the gender concerns and gaps in national politics, there is need to engage young women and groom them to be fine committed politicians. This requires building leadership in young people to understand national policies and the role of representatives in ensuring a conducive legal environment for protecting the national integrity. The National Assembly is where national issues should be debated and laws enacted to protect the citizens. It is one of the highest national institutions where democracy and good governance should be demonstrated.
Meanwhile, to increase the representation of women in the National Assembly, Gambian Political parties should adopt a quota system. To demonstrate the strategic and genuine engagement of women in the political parties it is recommended that the UN 30% quota system be adopted to encourage the participation of women in the national and local elections. Is it too much to ask for three out of ten for people of equal citizenship?
Human rights cannot be in realized in a space where silence is the norm. The mandate of National Assembly members includes, amongst other things, engaging with their constituencies to educate them on national policies and programmes and create enlightenment on democracy, good governance, and the roles of the government, the Parliament and the electorate. Promotion of freedom of expression within parties, between parties and in the media can entrench the culture of speaking out in the national psyche. Men and women can express themselves in a respectful, honest way on national issues to find solutions. The more people are able to openly share their ideas the wider the opportunities for them to make informed choices regarding women’s political representation in the National Assembly. In order to make informed choices, the media is key in engaging the masses to recognize the gender issues and concerns in electing women in political positions. These are key in changing the perceptions of the electorate about the responsibilities of their representatives. Perhaps silence does not always mean consent.
The 2012 National Assembly election is a foregone case in gender representation. If the nomination is anything to go by, the next National Assembly will have an increase in elected female representation. There will be four elected women. Hopefully if the Head of State follows the constitutional mandate to nominate at least two more women, then the percentage of women in the Gambian Parliament will increase from 7.5% to 11.3%.
An optimistic analysis of Women’s participation in the upcoming 2012 National Assembly election will assume that all four (4) female candidates will win and two more will be nominated thus increasing the number of women in parliament to six (6), an increase from the current four (4). On the other hand if the two ruling party female candidates opposed by men and the only female independent candidate lose then there will be decrease in the number of women representatives in the Assembly. It then implies that the only representative would be one unopposed elected woman and possibly two nominated women. Thus it will reduce the percentage to 5.6% of women in parliament far below the UN recommendation of at least 30% representation of women in decision-positions such as the National Assembly.
There are more educated women in the urban areas than in the rural areas. Yet, apart from one of the current women parliamentarians, all the women ever elected to the National Assembly were from rural Gambia. Despite the fact that rural women are perceived as docile, the educated ones have demonstrated that their leadership potentials go beyond their locality; with confidence and determination they can contest in national elections as equal citizens. Such potential cannot be realized without the selection committees treating them as equals and giving them opportunities. Their constituencies have not used culture and religion as excuses for not electing women. It also highlights that if the parties are committed to select women as candidates it will increase the chances for more women to be elected at constituency level. Therefore, with more educated women in urban areas, the selection committees of the parties should give consideration to their female members who are aspiring to vie for elections. Voter education should take the gender issues and concerns into consideration in order for political parties to demonstrate their commitment to making women’s empowerment through representation a reality.
Now it is time for the political parties to seize the opportunity to increase the participation of women in the upcoming local government elections. When one follows the pictures of political rallies women dominate in the audience. They sing and dance to show their support. It is time for women to also be elected to serve in more important roles. In the 2008 Local Government elections 21 women across the different parties vied for positions in various wards and 15 were elected. (http://www.iec.gm/previous-results ) The mass sensitization should start immediately to engage and increase women in the Ward Council elections. The local government election is equally an important area where women can demonstrate leadership. The local government elections should be taken with all seriousness because the Area Council is the governance part of the decentralization process. There are capable women in the different wards. Thus it is not too much for 50% of the population to ask for at least 30% representation in national and local elections.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.