Women Playing Increasingly Larger Share in Election: Their participation often makes difference

By Charles W. Corey, USIA Staff Writer
archive from 1996

Washington -- Women in the United States and Africa share many similarities when it comes to election issues and are rapidly becoming increasingly influential in deciding political races worldwide.

Anita Perez-Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus and Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for West Africa at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), stressed that theme in a November 7 "Africa Journal" program, broadcast by the U.S. Information Agency.

The program reviewed the November 5 U.S. presidential and congressional elections.

Even though voter participation lagged at around 49 percent nationwide, more women than men turned out November 5.

Results show that some 52 percent of the voters nationwide were women, with 54 percent of them backing Clinton's ticket, according to exit polls. Only 37 percent reported voting for Republican challenger Bob Dole, and just 7 percent voted for Reform Party candidate Ross Perot.

Perez-Ferguson stressed the important link between women and family and how that influences their role in any election.

Women "start with the nucleus of the family as their responsibility," and as such, "those issues that are attached to the family become" increasingly important, she said. "Child health...family health, education...the safety of the community and village" are all very important to women.

"We see these first as family issues and sometimes people say womens' issues, but in reality, as the child and the family grow and go out into the community, these become the nation's issues," she said.

Perez-Ferguson added that what happens in the U.S. presidential and congressional elections often has a direct impact on U.S. foreign policy overseas.

"A lot of what President Clinton has discussed in terms of the domestic concerns for women and their families does flow through the international front," she said.

"If we take for example, some of the decisions that pass through the Congress in our last session, in regard to international aid and the health benefits that we will offer to women and their families overseas in our aid package, we will see that there are limitations on what we offer to women in other countries...especially in regard to reproductive rights and information about birth control and abortion."

Looking ahead, she predicted that "With President Clinton [a Democrat] ... in the White House and [the continuance of] a Republican majority in the Congress, we will continue to see that 'tug of war' over what Congress votes to distribute" both domestically and internationally.

NDI's Christopher Fomunyou said the organization that he represents and other non-governmental organizations have -- with the assistance of U.S. funding -- been working to increase the political participation of women in Africa. NDI is especially active in Malawi and Kenya, he said, encouraging women to run for office and put together a Women's Caucus to lobby lawmakers for women's issues.

"Women constitute more than 50 percent of the population [continent wide] and therefore are an important part of the electorate in a number of African countries," Fomunyoh stressed.

While "women are very active when it comes to getting out the vote, attending rallies and getting out the message on behalf of their political parties," some women are "very reluctant," to become deeply involved in politics, often because of cultural taboos.

"Hopefully, as NDI and other groups continue to work with these women," he explained, "they will get a sense that their contribution will also count if they get elected into political office."

Focusing on trends of women in Africa, Fomunyoh said, overall, there has been "some improvement," in the participation of women in politics.

"In a number of African countries, there are more women elected into parliament now than was the case five or 10 years ago," he said.

"In Uganda, we have a woman vice president," he said. "In Ghana, there are about 56 women running for parliament in the December 7 election, so I am hopeful that this trend will continue."

Asked if continued Republican control of the Congress will portend increased diplomatic cutbacks towards Africa, Fomunyoh said "With the last budget and the reduction in foreign aid there was a lot of worry that Africa would be marginalized even more. One fortunate thing" he stressed, was the recent five nation Africa trip taken by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Although that was his first trip to the region as secretary of state, he said, the trip gave him "an opportunity to meet with Africans and to know the realities that Africans face on the ground."

While Africa is facing a lot of crises, Fomunyoh said "everybody is going to be affected by a scarcity of resources."