The activities of local and regional governments influence the lives of both men and women in ways that are fundamental to satisfying basic needs and the quality of life. Men and women do not, however, enjoy equal access to nor have control over the basic services furnished by regional and local governments because women continue to be underrepresented in both political leadership and administration at the regional and local government levels. Yet local government most especially as the sphere of government nearest to the grassroots, is in the best position to include more women in top management positions in decisions made at regional and local government.
Although women make up over 50 per cent of the world’s population, they continue to be underrepresented as elected officials, voters and leaders at the regional and local government levels especially in Africa. The consequence of such a lacuna is that women do not have equal influence in policy making which affects their lives in one way or another. The involvement of women in top management and leadership positions at regional and local governments can have a significant influence on domestic policy especially issues which affect their families’ daily lives such as infrastructural development, sanitation, education and healthcare.
Elements that limit or facilitate the participation of women in political processes vary according to social or cultural conditions, economic situation, geography, and political context and systems. These elements commonly considered as barriers to the participation of women in top management positions in regional and local government affairs include outright discrimination and gender stereotypes. Other elements include, culturally prescribed domestic roles, lack of confidence, low voter education, lack of financial and socio-economic capital, ‘winner take all’ electoral systems, and political institutions that are not conducive in striking a balance between public life and family life.
Although internationally there exists a rights-based framework, which advocates for the equal participation ofmen and women in political decision-making, including at the local and regional government levels, progress has been uneven and slow. Despite various commitments like the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) made by the international community to empower women via increased women’s political participation, the world average proportion of women in top management positions at regional and local government levels in Africa remains low.
Despite the low participation of women in top management positions at local and regional government levels, according to the World Bank, several countries including Morocco, South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda and Mali have made some progress. For instance women municipal leaders in Ghana took advantage of new opportunities to work together and formally organize themselves via the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM)’s African Local Governance Program (ALGP). FCM and its African associates agreed to focus on gender equality and increase the participation of women in local government administration, in the context of working to achieve the MDGs related to women.
Rwanda is another African state which has taken long strides to ameliorate the situation of the participation of women at top management levels at regional and local governments. As part of the ALGP-supported workshops, participants from Rwanda tabled a report that found that women find it easier to approach women local and regional officials and women officials tend to attract more women to their community meetings.
Gender equality has been a priority of the Association des municipalities du Mali (AMM) since 2004, but until 2006 activities to promote women’s equality at the local government most especially were relatively unstructured. With financial support from FCM, 600 of the 720 women municipal officials from all regions of Mali came together to found AMM’s women’s caucus. The caucus created a structure which has focal points in each of the country’s eight regions and one at the capital, Bamako. A secretariat was also created to support its work. With a formal structure to guide its contribution to gender equality, AMM has been working with the central government on the municipal dimensions of gender equality matters, especially the fight against poverty and the right of women to own property. The existence of the AMM also allows women municipal representatives to learn from the experience of women in other parts of the world.
Men and women can best fulfill their personal, family and community responsibilities when they have equal access to regional and local government programs and services. It is thus germane for regional and local governments in Africa to be given an opportunity to comprehend gender roles and responsibilities, to recognize factors that affect gender relations, and to play a role in promoting gender equality via their policies and programs. Equitable access to programs and services at the regional and local government levels commence with measures to ensure equitable participation by men and women in consultative processes and local and regional government decision making at top management and leadership levels. Men and women need to beable to participate fully, allowing them to influence the outcome of decision-making processes and to play a substantive role in deciding on regional and local government concerns especially the allocation of public funds in order to reflect the needs and aspirations of both men and women.