Making a Difference in Democracy

Speaking on Women and Democratization in Africa, Associate Professor of Political Science Anne Pitcher spoke of her recent experience as an observer of the elections in Mozambique. While observing this democratic process, she particularly noted the crucial role women play in the politics of Mozambique, a privilege they did not have until recent years. Providing a brief overview of the increased political power of women across Africa since the 1980s, Pitcher attributed this trend to five separate factors. “The first factor is the growing number of educated women,” she said, “who learn the necessary skills for the political world and make connections with people in the education system and politics.” Since the 1980s, women have gained greater economic autonomy as they helped their countries through economic crisis by contributing more to agricultural production and trade. In addition, women across Africa are very involved in anti-colonial movements as their countries move toward forming democracies. “Their active roles in these movements led to their continued activity in politics after independence,” Pitcher explained. Aside from increased numbers of non-governmental organizations (NGO) concentrating their efforts on women’s issues, governments have changed their policies since the 1980s. Today, the majority of African countries are democracies, and many have quotas mandating the percentage of women who must serve in Parliament. Due to these five factors, 15 percent of Africa’s Parliament members are female, which is consistent with the gender ratio in the rest of the world. Pitcher stressed that efforts to include women in political life are not solely due to issues of fairness and equality. Instead, research has found that women strengthen democracies by adding new voices and by making the political system more democratic at its core. Pitcher also spoke more specifically of women’s political role in Mozambique and the ways she observed women participating in the elections. “The NGOs have worked to help train polling officials,” she said, highlighting the Carter center, started by Former President Jimmy Carter as being particularly influential. Carter has been very involved in advising countries that wish to become democratic. The Carter Center invited Pitcher and 59 other election observers to Mozambique. In giving a brief history of Mozambique since its struggle for independence, Pitcher described the ways that this recent history relates to the political role of women in the country. Women were very involved in the liberation struggle by helping the men who were fighting by making supplies and fighting themselves. The Front for Liberation of Mozambique targeted women’s rights issues, including polygamy, which the government then outlawed. Furthermore, after the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975, the government ran campaigns to encourage literacy, day care and other means of improving the lives of women. After independence, the National Women’s Organization was also formed. Although independence from Portugal brought many advances for women, the growing internal conflict from 1977-1992 set them back. According to Pitcher, during the conflict, there were fewer governmental and non-governmental endeavors directed toward improving the status of women. Women played important roles in their families, and in anti-war efforts. Pitcher observed the elections for a new president and new parliament members in the Tete province of Mozambique. She discovered that of the five positions at each polling station, at least two or three were women. These polling officials told voters how to vote, reminded them that their votes were secret, checked off their names in a book and counted votes. Pitcher also noted that the officials were extremely professional and skillful. “The dedication of the polling officials and of the voters,” she said, “who waited for hours in the 110 degree weather to vote, demonstrated that women in Mozambique care deeply about the democratic process.” Pitcher was impressed with what she saw at the Mozambique elections. She emphasized that while women are much more politically active at the national level, there is much work to be done at the local level. In the villages, women still carry a great deal of responsibility for the agricultural work and for their families and homes. “Great strides are being made, though,” she said, “and as African governments move toward democratization, women seem to be moving right along with them.”