Women support democracy less than men in parts of Africa – why?

Voting in Burundi, where 36% of women do not agree that democracy is the best form of government. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

In much of the world, democracy is seen as a force for good, and in development terms, it has important implications for the welfare of citizens.

Increasing the legitimacy of a democracy must by its nature happen through demand from citizens. But surprisingly, my research has highlighted that women in Sub-Saharan African countries are less likely to support democracy than men.

Why do African women reduce the much-needed legitimacy of democracy in their home countries? Research has accounted for education, employment, age, and geographical location, among other things. Yet the gender gap in support for democracy remains.

Burundi, Swaziland and Mauritius

Afrobarometer surveys conducted between 2012 and 2013 in Burundi, Mauritius, and Swaziland shed light on the extent of the problem.

In Burundi, 36% of female interviewees disagreed with the statement that “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”. The figure for male interviewees was 16%.

In Swaziland, 61% of women disagreed with the statement, compared to 47% of men.

Mauritius, meanwhile, records a lower difference between men and women. Only 17% of the women surveyed responded in the negative when asked about support for democracy, compared to 13% of men.

Women’s support for democracy in Burundi, Mauritius and Swaziland. Afrobarometer

Why don’t women support democracy?

My colleague Stephan Klasen and I have highlighted the importance of gender discrimination in social institutions as a way of explaining the democracy gender gap in Sub-Saharan Africa. We argue that in more egalitarian societies, women have more faith in democracy, possibly because the political system provides a way to support their autonomy and rights.

What do we mean by social institutions? These are long-lasting norms, traditions, and codes of conduct that find expression in traditions, customs and cultural practices in a given country.

They may be formal or informal laws, and guide people’s behaviour and interactions. We argue that inequality in social institutions deprives women of autonomy and bargaining power in the family. It also limits women’s access to the market, public spaces and resources. The way women are treated in their daily life reflects their ability to shape their own lives, and to gain or lose independence.

Women in Mauritius turn out for opposition candidate Paul Berenger in 2010. Reuters

Discrimination against women

The recent OECD compilation of the Social Institutions and Gender Index reveals that Burundi belongs to the group of countries with the highest gender discrimination within families. Swaziland has high levels of gender discrimination, while Mauritius has low levels of discrimination.

Formal laws in Burundi and Swaziland guarantee equal access to public space but informal norms and cultural practices make this difficult by requiring, for instance, a woman to be accompanied by a male relative for access to some public spaces. Women in Mauritius are better off, enjoying full access to public spaces with no informal constraints.

In Burundi, laws do not guarantee equal legal age of marriage: for women is it 18, for men, 21. The law secures equal parental authority during marriage, but customary, traditional or religious laws and practices can diminish women’s parental authority. Laws in Burundi do not guarantee the same inheritance rights to husbands and wives, allocating more rights to widowers than to widows.

In Swaziland, the laws guarantee equal age of first marriage: 18 years old for both men and women. The laws also protect gender equality for parental authority during marriage, and gender equality for inheritance. Unfortunately, informal practices mean some women get married when they are younger than the legal age. Similar practices reduce parental authority for women during marriage, and disfavour equal inheritance for widows.

Women in Swaziland face greater discrimination than in other African countries. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

In Mauritius, formal laws guarantee equal legal age of marriage, also at 18. Likewise, parental authority during marriage is equally distributed between men and women. There are no customary, religious or cultural practices that constrain women from fully enjoying their legal rights. But legal gender equality in inheritance is undermined by informal norms and practices.

Happy women = strong democracy

Social institutions are simply more woman-friendly in Mauritius than they are in Burundi and Swaziland. This could explain why the gender gap in support for democracy is lower in Mauritius than it is in Burundi and Swaziland.

Policies that promote inclusive social institutions are good drivers of democracy. And the overall level of support for democracy can be raised by giving women equal rights in the eyes of the law, and in society at large.

Women will enjoy such policies individually, but families, communities and society will be better served too.

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