Election Poster: Copyright © Patsy Toland

This was the question question recently explored by Malawian women’s rights campaigner Jessie Kabwila for the BBC’s Africa Debate programme last week.

There have been a number of successes for African women over the last 12 months, according to Kabwila. These include: two Nobel Peace prizes – recognised for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace building work” to Africa’s first female elected head of state Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee (both from Liberia), a second female elected head of state Joyce Banda (from Malawi) and the first female International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor,  Fatou Bensouda (from The Gambia).

However, is all as it seems? Are women on the rise in Africa? Is a difference being made? What about in political participation, policymaking or the changing role of women in private/family life? Is it, as Kabwila states, ‘laughable’, the proportion of women in positions of power (relative to the size of the continent)? Currently, only 2 out of 54 African countries are being led by women for example.

Will a female president or female friendly state make changes that are needed to empower women? Or could it potentially perpetuate women’s subordination, or in particular poor women’s subordination (due to the fact that the vast majority of the women in positions on power are from an elite section of African societies)?

Are Kabwila’s opinions about how a female president would perform too optimistic?

‘A female president can make a huge difference in her country and this can be in increasing women’s participation in democracy, making sure that the state is accessible to women.

She will make sure that their voices, especially that of the uneducated, the rural illiterate, are taken into consideration and not belittled by being assumed or spoken for.

The woman president would handle issues of the economy in an astute, mature, meticulously informed manner because she knows that poverty informs issues that produce and propel women’s oppression such as gender-based violence, maternal death, HIV and Aids, and the impact of adverse climate change.

This woman would demonstrate that she is aware that many African women are in the informal sector and they live in situations rife with power relations skewed against them locally and globally at race, gender and class levels.’

Would a woman be right for the job, simply for the fact that she is a woman? Should the focus instead be on the individual that is best for the job, whether they be a man or woman?

One point I firmly agree with Kabwila on is her last:

‘It is good that the number of women in positions of authority in Africa is increasing, but for this to constitute a rise in the definition and lives of women in Africa, the structure that produces what is called a person, man, woman and power has to change’

Why not check out our new online section on Women and Development, and in particular Women and Politics, for up to date statistics on women in parliament and the role of women in politics.