Breaking the glass ceiling in Burkina Faso

The research team
The research team studying women leadership and decentralization in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

A power transfer to the municipal level has opened up opportunities for women to take the lead in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Still, change has been slow. 
- What does the glass ceiling look like in Burkina Faso and how do you break it? says Sten Hagberg, one of the anthropologists who tried to find out.


The Forum for African Studies is running the research project Burkina Faso seen from below together with the Burkinian Institute des Sciences des Sociétés and the Swedish Embassy in Ouagadougou. The project, which is funded by Sida, results in annual studies of how residents view different social issues.

An important part of the project is to develop research collaboration with local actors, both researchers and actors within the state and civil society. Professor Sten Hagberg, who has more than 30 years of research experience in Burkina Faso, leads the project together with associate professor Ludovic Kibora, from the Institute of Sciences des Sociétés, but a number of younger Burkinian researchers also participates.

The research focus of 2019 was female leadership and its link to the decentralization - a power transfer from central to municipal level - which has characterized Burkina Faso and many other African countries in recent decades.

- With the decentralization, a lot of opportunities were opened for women to step up and develop a leadership, says Sten Hagberg, who previously researched many aspects of decentralization.

Sten Hagberg
Sten Hagberg

He describes that there is a strong rhetoric that women should participate in politics, and yet the result is very modest.

- And it was even more modest in the freest democratic elections the country has experienced, in 2015. By then, the number of women elected to parliament fell. And it was the same case in the municipal elections the following year. We could see a reduction in the number of female politicians who were elected, both to the municipal council in 2016 and to the parliament in 2015, Hagberg says.

To understand why this is the case, one cannot just examine the national level, Sten Hagberg argues. One has to study from the bottom up - by starting from small towns and at the municipal level, and thanks to the fact that the project's many anthropologists are conducting fieldwork in several different municipalities they hope to still be able to draw conclusions about society as a whole, and thus show that anthropology, despite its common focus on the local also is extremely relevant to highlight greater contexts.

Moreover, it is not sufficient to focus only on the women who actually succeeded, but also on those who did not, the researchers have concluded. Younger women are rarely seen in power, for example, while strong female leaders at the national level are often over 50 years of age.

- Many studies have focused directly on these women, trying to understand their situations, but it is at least as important to look at high school and working life, for example, to detect the young ones. We have interviewed female students, and they have told us about their dreams as well as the problems they face, says Sten Hagberg.

Female students participating in focus group discussions
Students participating in focus group discussions.

The end result of the research will be a book in the series Uppsala Papers in Africa Studies, published initially in French, as the series' largest readership is found in West Africa but also in countries such as France, Belgium and Canada. An English version of the book will come later.

Text: Alexander Öbom