By Lilly Biddell
Guinea-Bissau’s Presidential Election initially took place on November 24th 2019, contested by 12 male candidates. No candidate received a majority of the vote, and incumbent President Jose Mario Vaz finished fourth. A run-off vote was held on December 29th between Simoes Pereira and Umaro Sissoco Embaló, both ex-prime ministers of the country. Embaló beat Pereira by 54% to 46% and was inaugurated on February 27th 2020. Pereira, from Guinea-Bissau’s traditional ruling party, the PAIGC - the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde - denounced the score as a fraud, asking the court to order a re-vote. The four-month dispute over the results ended in April 2020 when ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African States - recognised Embaló as the winner of Guinea-Bissau’s presidential election. Embaló is the first president to be elected without the backing of the PAIGC.
Guinea-Bissau has experienced a period of political uncertainty since August 2015, when then-President Jose Mario Vaz appointed seven different prime ministers during a series of political disputes. Jose Mario Vaz was the first democratically-elected president of Guinea-Bissau to finish his term. Prior to that the country has suffered nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974, with PAIGC dominating Guinea-Bissau politics. Women represent 51% of the population but are still underrepresented in the political sphere, having only been granted the right to vote and to stand for election in 1977. In 1984 Carmen Pereira became the first female president of Africa,and the only female (acting) president of Guinea Bissau, although she served for only three days.
Guinea-Bissau has a unicameral parliament, the People’s National Assembly, which consists of 102 members who are directly elected for 4 years. As of 2017, women hold 14 (13.7%) out of the 102 seats. The President, who is the Head of State, is elected to a five-year term by popular vote, and appoints a Prime Minister, who is the Head of Government. In August 2018, parliament unanimously approved a law to ensure a minimum quota of 36% of women’s representation to be respected in elections or appointments to the National Assembly and Local Governments.
Women’s Political Participation
Nancy Schwarz, the only female candidate to stand in the election, had her application rejected by the Supreme Court before the final twelve candidates were announced, due to “incomplete files.” Schwarz is a prominent sociologist, having studied at the University of Lisbon. Whilst there she became co-founder of the “Guinean Student Movement for Civic Emancipation”. Schwarz campaigned on a promise to build a more inclusive and balanced Guinea-Bissau society, particularly with regard to involving women. She has dedicated her professional career to social causes. Schwarz is the second woman in Guinea-Bissau history to experience the presidential race, with the first being Antonieta Rosa Gomes who stood for president three times in the nineties but never received more than 2% of the vote.
In the 2015 election, nearly 53% of registered voters were women. In the most recent election the African Union noted that women turned out massively to vote, although more showed up for the first round at 56.46%, compared to only 43.83% in the second round. After the April 2019 election women held 13.7% of seats in national parliament - ranking them 147th in the world - compared to the 88 seats that men occupied. The Quotas Law was unanimously voted in by 81 MPs present, in August 2018. This law ensures a minimum quota of 36% of women’s representation to be respected in elections or appointments to the National Assembly and Local Governments, with a view to achieving parity. It only came into force just before the election in November 2019, so it is hard to say how successful it has been so far.
Guinea-Bissau’s political instability, corruption and poor access to justice has led to increased gender discrimination and violation of human rights. However, recent years have seen the Government adopt some legislation and implement policies with respect to women’s rights and gender equality, including laws which address criminalising domestic violence and FGM/C. Although the domestic violence law has received little publicity since it was passed in 2013, the Ministry of Justice along with the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Program on FGM/C have worked hard to strengthen the dissemination and application of this law that was brought in in 2011. Conviction of the practice is punishable by a fine of up to XOF five million and five years in prison. Guinea-Bissau is one of the least developed countries in Africa, and women are particularly affected by the country’s extremely high rate of poverty. Personal wealth and power are necessary to get on a party’s candidate list in order to gain support from other party members; however many women interested in politics are unable to accumulate resources since the social and financial wellbeing of the community and households rely entirely on them.
Overall, Guinea-Bissau faces development challenges as it emerges from years of government instability and institutional failure, particularly with regard to women’s rights. Women have not made huge progress politically, as seen in the recent presidential election where the only female candidate to run had her application rejected before the final round. While there is some effort being made to address issues of gender inequality through laws such as the recent Quotas Law and the criminalisation of FGM/C, politics in Guinea-Bissau continues to be dominated by men. The country needs to keep pushing to increase women’s visibility, both in political as well as socio-economic spheres.