Côte d’Ivoire election: Gender parity is possible, but it needs political will

On 18 December, Ivorians will go to the polls to elect parliamentary representatives following the declaration of a new constitution. The question on many voters’ minds is whether enough has been done to increase women’s involvement in decision-making positions in the country.

Côte d'Ivoire (also known as Ivory Coast) made significant progress since the end of the political crisis in 2011. According to the World Bank, the country’s economic performance over the past four years has been impressive, with a robust GDP growth (8.5% annually between 2012 and 2015), which has resulted in a decline in poverty. This year, the government adopted a new National Development Plan (NDP) for 2016-2020, which encompasses major structural reforms and is aimed at achieving an emerging economy status for Côte d'Ivoire in 2020.

But amidst this success, there is still a lack of female representation in decision-making positions. Women are actively engaged in leading sectors, such as agriculture but despite widespread recognition by the government of the need to eliminate gender inequality, female representation in decision-making is virtually absent.

Just 24 of the 255 MPs in Côte d’Ivoire are women which is less than half of the continent’s average of 20.4%. At regional councils only one out of 31 seats is occupied by women. Of the 36 ministers currently in government, only nine are female. Official figures also show that in the private sector, women account for 11.5% of all employees.

There are a number of reasons why women remain underrepresented in Côte d’Ivoire. They range from poor funding for candidates, weak electoral structures that make it difficult if not impossible for women to contest, to a skewed culture that views men as more worthy leaders.

Political participation is a gendered process. Post-conflict research has shown that whereas elections can offer women the chance to translate certain roles, such as managing households in the absence of their husbands during a conflict, into formal political representation, elections have also been known to expose women to discriminatory mindsets and cultural practices, with female candidates subjected to ridicule during campaigns or when they lose, posing considerable barriers to greater political participation.

The campaigns have shown that there is no shortage of female candidates. While some could have done better with more funding, their effort must be considered in the context of the environment in which they campaign. Against men, and in some cases, against senior government officials supported by the ruling coalition party, women’s effort was always going to be a tall order.

If women are to stand a fair chance of representation, the government must take appropriate measures to help. Article 30 of the Ivorian Constitution grants equal rights to women. Article 3 obliges the state to take appropriate measures to ensure the development of women and the realisation of their human rights. Côte d’Ivoire is also a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and a signatory to the Maputo Protocol. Importantly, in 2013, Côte d’Ivoire ratified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG).

Article 29 of the Charter requires state parties to recognise the crucial role of women in development and the strengthening of democracy. Crucially, subsection 3 of the same article, provides for state parties to take all possible measures to encourage the full and active participation of women in the electoral process, and to ensure gender parity in representation at all levels, including legislatures.

Thus, the government has an obligation under the Charter to ensure gender parity. One way of doing it would be to introduce compulsory quotas. Gender parity or quota laws may not immediately lead to tangible results, as it takes more than just numbers, but they would almost certainly guarantee increased female representation and ensure women have a presence at decision-making levels. Public financing for political parties could, for example, be tied to the stipulations of gender parity or quota laws, with those parties that do not meet the required threshold penalised with a reduction in the level of their public funding.

Gender parity laws have been implemented in other countries across Africa with much success, notably in Rwanda, where as a result of the policy, women currently hold 64% of seats in the lower chamber.

At International Alert, we certainly believe that increased female representation in decision-making positions is important not just because it offers them a say on how they are governed, but also because it ensures their voices are heard on matters that affect everyone.

This is why for the past 15 months, in collaboration with the African Union, we have been implementing a flagship project to raise awareness on the need for women and girls to register as voters, and encouraging some to put themselves forward as candidates.

While our targeted involvement will have gone a long way in encouraging women to actively engage in the political process, involvement alone is not enough.

For meaningful change to happen, the government should honour its obligations, as stipulated in the constitution, and as per the various legal instruments it has subscribed to. Quotas would be a great start, but there has to be a willingness from all the parties involved, to transform the institutions, which continue to disproportionately favour men over women.

Find out more about Alert's work on supporting female candidates in Côte d’Ivoire’s elections.