The 6th of February marked 100 years since women won the right to vote in the United Kingdom, and with International Women's Day just around the corner, it's a good time to look back at the history of women's suffrage. This centennial anniversary has touched the hearts of men and women across the globe who are acknowledging the heroism of the suffragettes and the debt that modern women owe to them.

Photo: The suffragettes (Credit:

In some parts of Africa, however, women had to wait much longer for the right to vote. Despite this, African women have since caught up with and in some cases overtaken their Western counterparts in terms of political representation. Rwanda, which only gave women the right to vote as recently as 1961, now boasts of the highest female political representation in the world, with 61% of MPs being women. In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, female representation in politics is currently far greater than that in the US.

Just as the battle for suffrage was hard fought in the UK, African women are blazing the trail for equal positions in politics in the 21st century. Through constitutional amendments, such as government quotas, African women are now gaining more access to seats in legislatures as well as roles in government. Although politics is still highly monopolised by men in Africa  - just as it is in the rest of the world – today there are more women in politics acting as role models than ever before.  

Winnie Mandela, who fought for political freedoms for women in South African,  was one of the first to break the glass ceiling. She also held several government positions and headed the African National Congress Women's League. Women like Mandela used their voice to fight for change and create futures for women. In recent years, women such as Ngozi Iweala have continued to push the boundaries of politics and challenge stereotypes about women in power. Iweala was both the first female and first black candidate to run for the Presidency of the World Bank group. Not only is she a Harvard and MIT graduate, but also served as the Nigerian Finance Minister and developed a programme which helped to improve economic stabilisation.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf achieved the ultimate goal of becoming the first female president in Africa, presiding over Liberia from 2006 to 2018. Although Sirleaf stepped down from her presidency in January 2018, she has left an incredible legacy: the inspiration to women and girls in Africa and across the world that women can lead their country just as well as men.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf accepting her Nobel Peace Prize

Photo: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. (Credit:

At Bread and Water for Africa UK, we strongly believe that women need the same opportunities and political representation as men for societies to thrive. We are inspired by some of the women we work with, such as our volunteer spokesperson and project leader at Lewa Children’s Home in Kenya, Phyllis Keino. Phyllis has had to overcome challenges and threats simply because of her gender, all while fighting for women and girls' rights to education, health care and dignity throughout her 40 year career.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared that “If your dreams don't scare you, they are not big enough” – a view no doubt shared by the suffragettes of the early 20th century.

Banner Photo Credit: News in Africa

Saskia Edwards is a Volunteer at Bread and Water for Africa UK.

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