The impact of women’s political representation on economic growth and women’s economic empowerment in Africa (GrOW)

Research on women’s political participation in 38 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is exploring how women's role in political institutions shapes their economic empowerment and how they benefit from growth.

The challenge

There is a growing consensus that economic success depends at least partly on the strength of political institutions. Yet globally, there remains a wide gender gap in political representation. This begs the question of how well political institutions are serving the economic needs of women. Despite recent gains, women lag behind their male counterparts in many important economic indicators, including income and education levels; inheritance and property rights; and business ownership and leadership. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, the links between politics and women’s economic success is complicated by the presence of two parallel systems of governance: modern political structures co-exist with traditional forms of governance, which are particularly strong in rural areas.

Women have played leadership roles in several African countries in recent years, including as presidents, vice-presidents, or prime ministers in 15 countries.  As of 2015, Rwanda was a world leader, with women accounting for 64% of national parliamentarians. More than 40% of legislators in Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa are female. However, women tend to be underrepresented at lower levels of government—in provincial, district, and municipal structures.

Women sit among traditional chiefs in several countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In many areas of Ghana, paramount chiefs have a parallel “queen mother”.

Despite these examples, there is insufficient information on the extent to which women are truly empowered in Africa. Little is known about whether their traditional rights and roles have translated into contemporary power or have helped them benefit from economic growth. Even where women appear to be well-represented, there are many cases in which both traditional and modern governance overlook women’s economic roles or overtly discriminate against them. For example, earlier research in Ghana suggests that women farmers are less productive than their male counterparts in part because of traditional rules of land tenure that undermine women’s property rights.

The research 

Researchers at four institutions in Canada, the United States, and South Africa are collaborating to shed light on the links between women’s political roles, their economic empowerment, and the extent to which they benefit from growth in selected sub-Saharan countries. Teams will apply statistical models to datasets created from existing ethnographic and demographic sources, to explore and document:

  • factors that determined traditional female political power in different ethnic groups across sub-Saharan Africa;
  • the impact of women's traditional political roles on their participation in modern democratic structures; and
  • how various forms of traditional political representation have influenced whether and how economic growth empowers women.

Expected outcomes

Building on existing data sources, two open access databases will result from this research:

  • An ethnographic dataset will be created to illustrate women’s traditional rights and leadership roles in various ethnic groups, drawing on G.P Murdoch’s 1959 Ethnographic Atlas and more recent Demographic Health Surveys, conducted since 2000.
  • A second dataset will cover the proportion of women elected to various positions at all levels of government and relate their political participation to economic outcomes, such as women's autonomy, labour force participation, and educational attainment.

A large team of young researchers in South Africa will gain skills and knowledge in data collection, data analysis, and identifying country-specific policy implications. Results will be shared online through open access databases, in scholarly papers, at presentations at regional and international fora, and in meetings with government officials, NGOs, and elections offices.

Project ID


Project status



24 months

IDRC Officer

Ahmed, Madiha

Total funding

CA$ 337,100