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Gender Differences and Political Participation of Women in Africa

Salwa Mansuri. Resident Intern, Princeton Foundation for Peace & Learning; and Graduate Candidate at the London School of Economics.


Political participation is the bedrock of any democracy (van Deth, 2016). Though political participation is normative for citizens (Dalton, 2008), it is unequal due to gender, a significant form of political inequality (Marien, Hooghe and Quintelier, 2010). Stark gender differences in formalised political participation in the UK (Inglehart and Norris, 2000; Norris, 1991; Krook and Norris, 2014) and non-institutionalised political participation in UK, Sweden & USA (Roth & Saunders, 2018;Cicognani et al., 2012) have thoroughly been explored. However, there is scarce focus on gender differences in a Global South context, barring discussion on Latin America (Espinal & Zhao, 2015; Desposato & Norrander, 2009) & Africa (Gottlieb & Robinson, 2019; Struwig & Grossberg, 2012). Such western-centric literature embodies a colonial view of Third World Women as politically distant (Waylen, 1996). This essay challenges the above colonial notion to prove that Third World Women, in the African context, previously underexplored, are not politically distant but face implicit violence that curtail participation and representation (Bufacchi, 2005). Here we describe gender differences broadly in Africa and discuss the economic violence and online semiotic violence (Krook, 2020) as reasons for gender differences which reduce descriptive and symbolic representation respectively

Gender Differences in Political Participation in Africa

Here we interpret gender differences as differences between male and female political candidates and political participation as electoral campaigning for parliamentary positions, underexplored in contemporary literature. Even though several African national parliaments consist of atleast 30% female parliamentarians (Bauer, 2018), African politics is largely male-dominant (Obbo, 1976). According to IDEA (2021), only 24% are female parliamentarians across Africa (IDEA, 2021, p.7). Uganda and Kenya are close to the “critical mass” (Childs and Krook, 2009, p.2) set by IDEA at 40% (IDEA, 2021). However, the inability of Uganda and Kenya to reach the critical mass make violence, normalized in politics, a potential reason for gender differences in political participation (Krook, 2020).

Broad Reason for Gender Difference:

Equating “Politics as war” (Krook 2020, p.75) makes violence and misogyny normative to political participation (Piscopo, 2016). Foucault (2003, p.16) considers politics like war but through “other means” (Mills, 2003). Such notions encourage “dirty tricks”, “cheap shots” (Cummins 2015, p.2) and “hominem personal attacks” (Kahn & Kenney, 1999, p.878), where violence is institutionalised (Puwar, 2004). Therefore, female electoral candidates are targeted because they are part of a social group, (Young 1990), “because they are women” and “because they are in politics” (Kuperberg, 2018, p.686). One such form of violence is economic violence discussed subsequently.

Economic Violence & Descriptive Representation in Kenya

Despite institutional efforts such as quotas (Bouka, Berry and Kamuru, 2019), gender differences in Kenya remain stark with only 22% of women occupying National Assembly seats (IDEA, 2021). A potential reason is economic violence defined as the withdrawal of economic support, denial of political finance and restriction of financial resources (Krook, 2020). Economic violence is particularly problematic because relative to men, women possess fewer assets and personal earnings (Chen, 2005). Globally, women own scarce land compared to male counterparts with broadening assets gaps (ibid). They therefore require additional funds for political campaigning and are unable to rely on personal finances.

In Kenya, money is a determinant in elections (Ballington and Kahane, 2014). Economically deprived groups with “less access to money, including women” are disadvantaged (Ohman & Lintary, 2015, p.7). Pinto-Duschinsky (2004, p.24) further highlights that “political finance is money for electioneering”. As such, the media is unable to broadcast campaigns or cover campaign activities of female candidates without funds (Opoku, Anyango and Alupo, 2018). Susan Kihika, a Kenyan politician recalls her experience: “funding the campaign was a challenge, especially as my opponents were moneyed” (UNWomen, 2019, p.47). Additionally, growing corruption in Kenya especially in the context of electoral campaigning and political party funding (Mwangi, 2008) expose the presence of economic resources, but the deliberate deprivation from women, a key feature of economic violence.

Even though economic violence is a “largely invisible phenomenon” (Krook, 2020, p.177), relative to sexual and physical violence (Krook, 2020), it is like any other form of violence. The deprivation of political finance highlights unequal power relations which limit women’s access to public discourse, power and agency in the political arena (Caldas-Coulthard, Coulthar & Davis, 2013). Such deprivation as Heise, Ellsberg & Goheemoeller (1999) discuss is further entrenched by the norm of women’s subordination and subjugation in the political arena and ensure that women’s inferior status in society, economically and political remains so. Female politicians from disadvantaged backgrounds are isolated and further dependent on perpetrators such as patriarchal political parties to fulfill fundamental needs (UN Department on Economic and Social Affairs, 2014).

Impact of Gender Difference on Political Representation:

Childs & Lovenduski (2013, p.5) consider representation necessary because women are able to identify and advocate for “overlooked interests” (also see Dovi 2007, pp. 307–309). One type of political representation is descriptive representation explored both normatively and empirically (Bratton & Ray, 2002; Reynolds, 2013; Schwindt-Bayer & Mishler, 2005). It is most effectively encapsulated by Phillips (2020) who defines descriptive representation as one where the compositions of elected members, whether in gender and/or ethnicity largely reflects the identity (gender and/or ethnicity) of the represented. The expectation is that descriptive representation must support “principles of democracy” (Arnesen and Peters, 2017, p.869).

The lack of political finance indicates that female candidates from traditionally marginilised and economically deprived backgrounds face further barriers to collect sufficient funds to campaign effectively. Most importantly, descriptive representation does not merely involve “delegates” or “trustees” (Eulau, Wahlke, Buchanan, & Gerguson, 1959; Esaiasson & Holmberg, 1996) (see Arnesen and Peters, 2017, p.870) but instead the represented population must be “present in the represented” (ibid). Without sufficient political finance, electoral candidates from traditionally marginilised backgrounds are unable to highlight similarity of identity with the represented but fail to prove that they truly reflect political interests and are part of the “in-group” (Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995) (see Arnesen and Peters, 2017, p.875).

A consequence of decreased descriptive representation is reduced perception of legitimacy within the political system. As Bratton & Ray (2002), Reynolds (2013) and Mansbridge (1999) argue, descriptive representation increases perceptions of legitimacy, decision making and governance which leads to more effective legislature for women (Schwindt-Bayer & Mishler, 2005). For example, Mwatha, Mbugua and Murunga (2013) highlight the growing challenges young Kenyans face in their desire to participate in politics and would greatly benefit from interactions with female political leaders. Through these interactions, leaders would understand political interests and needs and bring legitimacy to decision-making. With decreased descriptive representation such legitimacy is further reduced. This is particularly true for individuals from traditionally marginilised backgrounds who uphold descriptive representation more than other citizens (Arnesen and Peters, 2017). Despite economic violence, female candidates who host campaigns face semiotic violence online.

Semiotic Violence & Symbolic Representation in Uganda

Despite quotas (Josefsson, 2014; Muriaas & Wang, 2012), gender differences in Uganda are stark with ~32.26% female parliamentarians (IPU, 2021) due to violence, a widespread phenomenon (Krook 2017; Krook and Sanín 2016) which limits agency and violates human rights (Ballington, 2018). A type of violence is semiotic violence (Hay, 2007) perpetrated through images, sexual objectification, words or symbols and is largely targeted towards female electoral candidates, characterizing them as unworthy and incompetent (Krook, 2020).

In the 2021 election, female electoral candidates in Uganda faced semiotic violence in an online environment (NDI, 2021). The NDI (2021) reports that relative to male counterparts, female candidates experienced “50% more trolling, 18% threats of sexual violence, 14% body shaming, 34% insult and hate speech, 27% satire” (ibid). Neema Iyer, Executive Director of Pollicy, a feminist collective and think tank in Uganda argues “it shouldn’t be on women alone to protect themselves online” (ibid). Trolling involved sexual assault and rape threats, hate speech, reputation-related blackmailing, and sexualised insults (NDI, 2021). Consequently, 14.5% of female candidates deactivated their social media accounts and tweet 50% less frequently compared to their male counterparts (ibid).

Through their presence beyond the domestic sphere, female electoral candidates transcend traditional gender roles by actively participating in public discourse (Eagly and Karau 2002). Such engagement emphasises “role incongruity” of women as leaders (Krook, 2020, p.187). The image of a powerful female leader is a “psychic threat” (Manne, 2018, p.76) to patriarchal structures and to the male-dominant political arena (Paxton, Hughes, Barnes, 2020). The motivation of trolling is to cause fear and force women outside male-dominant politics (Mantilla, 2015). However, semiotic violence is more than just pushing women out of politics but rather a means to place women back into the traditional domestic gender role (Bourdieu, 2001), punish and discipline them for “perceived status violations” (Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, and Nauts 2012, p.166).

Negative Symbolic Representation

Semiotic violence targeted at female candidates entails negative symbolic representation of the wider gender and political constituency. As a relatively new concept, a growing body of scholarship explores symbolic representation (Verge & Pastor, 2017; Lawless, 2004; Burnet, 2011) but much of it involves political symbolism (Marat, 2010) and concludes that symbolic representation is derived from descriptive representation (Hayes & Hibbing, 2017). However, Lombardo & Meier (2019) best define symbolic representation as the perspectives and perceptions of the electorate when women are present in politics, the impact on youth mobilization and the desire to participate actively (Zetterberg, 2012).

The impact of semiotic violence on symbolic representation is evident empirically in young Ugandan girls. UNDEF (2017) found that only 19 out of 50 women would choose to stand for elections as the rest believed that they did not feel equipped to handle a largely male-dominant sphere considering the gender-based harassment and humiliation that women faced in the 2016 election. In addition, UNWomen in Uganda stated that “the political context before and during the general election of 2016 was no safe! This kept many women and girls from actively participating” (UNDEF, 2017, p.8).

Symbolic representation is therefore deeper than recognizing the presence of women in politics and its impact on the electorate. Instead, it is focused on deconstructing the “codified expression of power relations it presents” (Lombardo & Meier, p.237). In order to holistically grasp symbolic representation, understanding of deep-seated power relations (Diehl, 2016, 2015; Connell, 2002) is necessary. Semiotic violence highlights patriarchal power positionings in the online space and express men as a dominant form of authority and socially welcomed relative to women (Yuval-Davis, 1997). When semiotic violence is conducted online, it oppresses the female candidate the violence is targeted at, but also an entire constituency of young women and girls who share similar characteristics with the female candidate (Saward, 2010). As Kertzer (1988) highlights, symbols are related to a specific constituency and involves the presentation of a constituency in a specific manner rather than mere re-presentation (see Disch, 2012). Therefore, when female political candidates face semiotic violence, it characterises young Ugandan women as powerless and deters them from active political engagement.


In conclusion, the essay first highlights gender differences in political participation in Africa followed by economic violence and semiotic violence as causes for gender differences which reduce descriptive and symbolic representation respectively. Though the impact on representation is discussed separately, they are interdependent in practice (Lombardo & Meier, 2019). The essay demonstrates independent and critical ability by applying scholarship empirically to Uganda and Kenya. Uniquely, it challenges western-centric scholarship and proves that Third World Women do engage actively in formalised political processes but face implicit violence which restricts participation and representation (Afshar, 1996). Ultimately, gender equity triggers resistance in patriarchal governance structures (Goetz, 1998) where womens’ ‘‘loudest voice[s] [are] treated like whispers and hence ignored’’ (Davison, 1996, p.13). Despite, this essay argues why loud voices become whispers, or the reason for gender differences and the impact of such gender differences on political representation of women.


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