Young women in the 21st century want to drive their own destiny. We hear this all the time but the sentiment was most definitely felt during the West African Young Women Political Leadership Forum, organized by the Gender Centre for Empowering Development (GenCED) in collaboration with the African Movement for Democracy and the World Movement for Democracy (WMD).
The forum hosted young women politicians and political aspirants from Nigeria, Mali, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana. The objective of the forum was to foster intergenerational and regional solidarity among women in politics, strengthen women’s political participation and to launch the Breaking Barriers West Africa Campaign, which seeks to address the structural and cultural barriers that impede young women’s leadership and political participation in the region. The forum also served as a platform to close inter-generational gaps between older and younger women within the political arena.
Women in the sub-region are painted as abject, nurturers, emotional, and bearers of culture. Societal myths and tradition suggest and enforce that decision-making, politics, and leadership are not suitable for young women. Womanhood is often associated with being timid, reticent, and diffident, which differs from the characteristics expected of a politician, which are ascribed by same society, as strong, assertive, and confident. Young women in the sub-region must bear the consequences of patriarchy or male supremacy, which is reinforced by societal, cultural and religious institutions and norms. Some of these consequences include gender based political violence and low political participation of young women in the sub-region. Young women, under 35 represent less than 10% in their national parliaments in the West African sub-region. The likening of politics to masculine traits affects the way women are treated in the political space and beyond that, it limits the way that young women view themselves and their political capacity and leadership.
Participants felt that the forum helped foster solidarity among young women in the sub-region and gave them a common voice to address the structural and cultural barriers underpinning young women’s political participation and leadership in West Africa. Being able to share experiences in a safe and open environment helped identify common challenges and helped frame a regional response that challenges the marginal representation and political participation of young women in the sub-region. Many participants stated that the forum bolstered their leadership, afforded them the opportunity to forge relationships with established women political leaders and explore entry points for them to leverage the media and digital tools to enhance their participation.
The two-day forum held several debates and discussions including:
- the presentation of GenCED’s research paper on the participation of young women in politics and leadership in West Africa;
- frameworks governing the political participation of young women; monetization of politics; political parties driving participation of young women;
- gender-based violence in the political space;
- the role of the media in enhancing the political participation of women;
- and a book discussion on Love Does Not Win Elections.
One of the key lessons drawn from the breaking barriers session was, “Young women need mentors in the older generation, who will overlook stereotypes and inspire them to greater heights.” –Lala Touray (Independent candidate-The Gambia). Based on conclusions made, young women were cautioned to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, push for quotas in political parties, engage religious leaders to help push campaign priorities that benefit both young and older women, engage electorates in the local languages so that they can better understand you, and to be strategic in demanding your place in society.
With regards to the session on political parties driving participation of young women, the principal lesson drawn from the discussion was, “there must be policies and structures put in place to ensure participation at all levels.”-Dr. Denu (Former Deputy National Women’s Organizer (NDC). Based on conclusions made, political parties are to adopt active women’s wings and assign roles that are more active to women, young women must do the work within political parties in order to build their capacity to make well informed policies. They must advocate for structures to be put in place to involve and engage young women.
Lesson drawn from the session on young women’s participation an ensured right was “protocols should be passed into domestic legislation.” Based on conclusions made, African leaders were advised to actively implement protocols, parents must ensure gender equality from their homes since the struggle of equality transcends politics.
The main lesson drawn from the session on the monetization of politics and the book discussion was that raising money for campaigns is the most restricting barrier because the best fundraiser is the one that often wins the elections. Men tend to have more wealth and access to resources. Often times due to cultural contexts, men will not do business with women and women struggle to wield economic independence. Conclusions made indicate that, there must be proper education of the populace on the roles of parliamentarians. Political parties must allocate safe seats to women, electorates must be educated to change their mindset on the issue of money and corruption in politics, and political parties must devise sustainable ways of funding young women in politics.
To demystify the issue of sexual harassment in the political space, young women were cautioned to hold perpetrators of gender-based violence (GBV) accountable, educate other young women, and collectively reject inappropriate or unsolicited advances from men. Political parties must have an impartial discipline committee to deal with culprits.
Following the discussion on the role of the media in enhancing the political participation of young women, young women were advised to be confident and not shy away from the media, undertake research to be abreast on current affairs and share their opinions on trending issue without fears of making mistakes.
The forum came to a close with the launch of the Breaking Barriers West Africa Campaign. In my view, there are a lot of prospects for the political participation of young women. However, a lot has to be done to capture the interest of young women to participate in politics. So far, the numbers are low. National institutions and governments must help break cultural and structural barriers and also carry out civic education, targeting young women in particular on the importance of governance and civic education.