At a first glance, the Transitional Charter released by the Comité national du rassemblement et du développement (CNRD), the junta that led a military coup in Guinea in September, seems like a small win for Guinean women. The charter stipulates that the National Transitional Council must be composed of at least 30% women members. This would constitute notable progress in political representation for Guinean women. Despite a May 2019 law mandating that parties submit electoral lists with equal men and women candidates, women won less than 17% of seats in Guinea’s National Assembly in the March 2020 elections.
However, such gender initiatives cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. While the CNRD’s resolve to include women in Guinea’s transition is laudable, it should not distract from the patently undemocratic direction the junta has taken the country. This will ultimately produce worse outcomes for women that a quota cannot offset. The rights of Guinean women will be better protected and promoted under a strong, well-entrenched, citizen-centered democracy than by any other form of government, even one that is gender inclusive.
The CNRD’s strategy is not new – leaders often promote gender initiatives as a tool to gain goodwill from the international community and to temper criticism of democratic backsliding or authoritarianism. The conflation of gender equality with human rights and democratic norms and values allows authoritarian leaders to point to indications of women’s political representation as evidence of democracy. This placates potential critics while they silence detractors, rig elections, and consolidate power.
The archetype of this practice is Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame’s actions over his 21 years in power have garnered the country praise as a “feminist fantasy.” Yet while Kagame receives praise for moves like appointing a 52 percent female cabinet, his government is cracking down on opposition and dissent, including the arrest of Diane Rwigara, a vocal critic of Kagame’s who was disqualified from running in the 2017 presidential election.
Even Rwanda’s 62 percent female Chamber of Deputies, a much-cited data point on a continent where women hold an average of 25 percent of seats in national parliaments, has raised questions about the meaningful participation of women in politics. Rectifying historically-entrenched inequalities is not as simple as “add women and stir.” In governance systems where ruling parties hold considerable power, they often manipulate gender quotas and reserved seats to further consolidate power by rewarding women party members and sympathizers who will support and push through reforms that allow for further repression.
Further examples dot the continent. Beninese President Patrice Talon has recently led a series of legal initiatives on women’s rights, including legalizing abortion, a first in West Africa. Talon also established the Institut national de la femme (National Institute for Women), put forth a bill on gender-based violence, and was re-elected in 2021 on a ticket with a woman vice president Mariam Chabi Talata, the first to be elected to the newly created position. In addition, reforms under Benin’s 2019 constitution add 24 new seats to the National Assembly that will be reserved for women. This suite of reforms follows a hotly contested presidential election in a period of elevated political tension, during which critics including Reckya Madougou, opposition candidate, and Gariya Saka, leader of the women’s group Les Mamans du Benin (the Mothers of Benin), were arrested and remain in detention. Cameroonian President Paul Biya has also made commitments to increase women’s representation in Parliament, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni recently appointed women as Vice President and Prime Minister.
Women lead better lives under strong, consolidated democracies because democracies are better able to provide for citizens’ needs and interests than other forms of government. Dictatorships are associated with worse civil, economic, and political rights than democracies. Military coups undermine political institutions, promote political violence, can lead to a militarization of the state and increased chances of civil conflict. Democracies experience greater economic growth due to enhanced quality of governance. Democracies ultimately produce better outcomes for women’s rights, freedoms, and quality of life than do discrete, piecemeal measures like quotas imposed in undemocratic systems of government.
The CNRD’s gender quota is a positive step, but it remains a quota imposed by a military junta who took power after deposing an elected president. Guinea and other African countries’ international partners should not allow the expedient gender initiatives taken by these leaders to cloud their responses to concerning developments that subvert democratic norms and institutions. The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), France, and other stakeholders must ensure that Guinea swiftly begins its return to democracy in order to safeguard the rights and freedoms of Guinean women.
Furthermore, Guinea’s path forward must involve comprehensive and intersectional gender equality initiatives that go beyond designating a small percentage of positions for women. After all, an increase in the number of women in positions of power does not necessarily translate to improved respect for women’s rights and freedoms. In addition, changing gender roles without also changing gender norms could result in backlash against the women who dare to challenge these restrictive norms.
The steps taken by the CNRD in Guinea and other African leaders show that international norms are changing with regard to women’s rights. Governments, even non-democratic and authoritarian ones, recognize that they can gain legitimacy with the trappings of gender equality. The international community must ensure that this legitimacy is contingent on the full and equal participation of women in all aspects of public and private life.