“Democracy is the best friend of women,” argues Aminata Toure, a former justice minister and prime minister of Senegal, who advises the current President, Macky Sall. Toure is an example of a particularly successful Senegalese woman who worked for the United Nations for many years before entering politics.
In a meeting at her stately residence in Dakar, the capital, she describes how in her youth only five or six women served in parliament. Now there are 65, which is 43 percent of the parliament.
This is greatly due to a law passed in 2010 that mandated political parties to have gender parity in their election slates. Senegal now has the third highest percentage of women in parliament in Africa, after Rwanda, which passed a similar law in 2003, and Seychelles.
Of the top 10 countries in the world with the highest percentage of women in parliament, four of them are in Africa, two are in Europe, and four in Latin America. Senegal stands out as being the only Muslim country with such a high percentage of women in politics. It is also part of a growing trend in the world to have gender parity or quotas for women in parliament.
In a meeting with Toure she explained that these kinds of laws build on existing advances in universal education for women. “One of the best achievements of Senegal was improving the status of women and girls. We still have challenges in rural areas,” she says.
“We have a long tradition of valuing girls’ schools and that started early.” She argues that the country’s unique culture of having Sufi religious brotherhoods has provided an open-minded basis for encouraging women.
Amsatou Sow Sidibe, a former presidential candidate in Senegal who wants to be the first female president of the country, says that a lack of discrimination against women can be good for the stability of a country, and that women play a special role in peacemaking.
“They need to be at the highest level for decisions; that is important.” Like Toure, she argues that the lack of education in rural areas still poses a hurdle for women’s success.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, there are 74 countries that now have different types of quotas to ensure that women are represented in parliament.
The inclusion of more women in parliaments is a good first step, but if there is a paucity of women in a decision-making capacity, these laws are only a mirage of a step forward.
This includes traditionally conservative countries such as Afghanistan, where the law requires 68 of the seats in Wolesi Jirga, or the lower house of parliament, to be women. There are currently 69 women out of 249 members. Similarly, Iraq requires a quarter of seats to be for women, and Saudi Arabia reserves 20 percent of the seats in its consultative council for women after a recent reform.
More efforts needed
Despite the widespread advances in women’s representation in parliaments around the world, these gains remain largely superficial in many countries where systematic male domination of political structures and society remains entrenched.
Even throughout societies in which progress has been made, many hurdles remain. In the US, the toxic campaign of Donald Trump has revealed disturbingly sexist comments.
Even where women rose to the highest leadership positions, such as India’s Indira Gandhi or Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto who were prime ministers in the 1980s, ingrained misogynist attitudes remained, and they have not been sharply reduced in the recent decades.
Quotas for women in parliaments are a top-down approach to empowerment, like having boardroom quotas to get companies to have more women overseeing corporate governance.
These policies have to be paired with empowering women at the bottom of the pyramid, which means education, particularly among the poor and non-elite sectors.
It means targeting advances in fields that are male-dominated. For instance, diversifying other branches of government besides parliament by encouraging recruitment of women in the civil service and in male-dominated sections of that service – such as the diplomatic corps.
Parties forced to fill out quotas of women will sometimes skirt the spirit of the law by appointing unqualified token female candidates or stuffing their ranks with nepotistic choices, so that male-dominated structures are perpetuated through family control.
The inclusion of more women in parliaments is therefore a good first step, but if there is a paucity of women in a decision-making capacity, these laws are only a mirage of a step forward.
The real test is creating a strong foundation for women’s empowerment, such as educational access, and reducing discrimination.
That means that those women in politics who have been empowered through quotas have to be involved in reinforcing those gains through indigenous and self-sustaining growth in women’s rights, and in reducing sexist views of women or laws that discriminate.
This is precisely what was lacking in the examples of Gandhi and Bhutto. There was no long-term structural change on the grassroots level, only a marginal improvement for elite women.
Women in politics serve as role models for younger women. When there is a critical mass of them, and they are visibly playing leadership roles, a cycle of progress should set in.
Senegal’s experiment, as well as other global trends, is worth watching and learning from to ensure fundamental changes for women.
Seth J Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based commentator on Middle East politics and has lectured in American studies at Al-Quds University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.