Family support key to the success of women in local government

Date: January 1, 1970
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Councillor Theresa van der Merwe, a first time councillor in Johannesburg, says that having a safe home environment with a supportive husband and children is at the root of her success. “My husband is proud of what I am doing and so are my children, and they all share and encourage me in all events. I think without them all it would have been much harder to cope with and to see the importance of what I do.À

In addition to coping with the challenges of their jobs, women councillors – like most women in the region – have to shoulder the dual burden of their political work and home work; and for part time councillors a full time job as well. For Van der Merwe the family support means a great deal to her, “I would not want to come home from work and find a stressful and tense environment, I need to relax and that is what my husband ensures.” 
Van der Merwe was one of 946 councillors, experts, officials, and civil society representatives interviewed in Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa and Mauritius as part of the study At the coalface: Gender and Local Government in Southern Africa, published by Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental organisation specialising in gender, governance and the media. Unfortunately, unlike Van der Merwe’s experience, few women enjoy this kind of family support when it comes to choosing a political career.
In response to the question concerning marital status, the study found that male councillors (77 percent) are more likely than women (55 percent) to be married, and that women (23 percent) are more likely than men (14 percent) to be single. Family and cultural expectations often present formidable barriers for women to take part in decision-making processes, including local government.
Many men think that it is simply not possible for women to balance personal and political roles. A participant in a research focus group in Vacoas-Phoenix, Mauritius, argued that: “Women going into politics would also mean that they are giving up their roles as mothers and wives.”
According to Councillor Mosiuoa Buno from Mohale’s Hoek in Lesotho, “Another problem is with regard to the spouses of the women councillors who feel jealous and do not want their wives to speak to other men and to come home late or be away. They make comments like “it’s as good as not having a wife” or “I might as well get another wife.” 
It is true that many factors, including meeting times, lack of childcare options, and social expectations of family, all present family related challenges to women’s participation. Yet many families are putting their full support behind their wives and mothers, to encourage women to pursue their careers in politics.  This may mean sharing the load when it comes to home work, and opening up communication about spousal expectations.
Many councils are also taking women’s multiple roles into consideration to facilitate participattion, for example, making earlier meeting times to ensure that women can travel home safely and manage their home responsibilities.
The Labour Party approached Sandya Luchoomun-Boygah to stand for the December 2005 village elections in Mauritius on the eve of the birth of her second child by caesarean section.  Inspired by her father’s dying wish that she become a politician, Luchoomun-Boygah went on the campaign trail three weeks after the birth of her child. “I was still very weak but, the hardest decision was to stop breast feeding my baby. I had to put the baby in the care of a nanny as I was leaving home very early in the morning and coming back after midnight.”
However, her mother and in-laws supported her throughout the campaign. “My in-laws knew that I was interested in politics and there was no point in stopping me. They helped with the children as my husband was accompanying me everywhere. My baby is now seven months old and my eldest son is four years old.”
Despite resistance from one or two men in her neighbourhood, Luchoomun-Boygah won fair and square, becoming the district councillor for Pamplemmousses/ Riviere du Rempart, and one of the just six percent women councillors in this Indian Ocean Island state. 
Elaine Trepper, a councillor in the City of Windhoek, juggles being a teacher, a mother and a councillor – all of which she regards as full time jobs. The principal of the school she works at has learned to be supportive after initially having reservations about the time needed for council work and the effect of this on her teaching position.
“One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is to employ someone to take care of my child,” she said. Trepper added that the support of her husband has been crucial to her success.  Councillor Victoria Kauma from Rundu in Namibia agrees that balancing roles is much easier when the load is shared with a caring spouse.
Nozibele Mtyali from Ukhahlamba district in South Africa says that more often than not women councillors do not have understanding partners, “Society and men have yet to adjust to the demands that come with being a working woman.” She says that many of her councillor colleagues have gone though marital problems and even divorce because of the demands of their work.  
Theresa van der Merwe regrets that being a councillor has resulted in her losing time with her family, “I have lost a percentage of quality time with my family, but I try to make up for that on the days that I am not doing council duties. I try and create a balance.” She does so by ensuring that she sets aside some family time and some “me” time, because she feels that it is important for women to do some introspection and to see the broader picture and the direction in which they are going. 
Despite the loss of her time, she believes that she has gained a lot as well, “I have actually gained insight into the lives of the people in the community. I now know how people live and the conditions that they live in and this has strengthened my character….these in turn give you a reason to wake the next day and want to make a difference and keep you determined and motivated to go on.”
There continues to be resistance to women’s participation in politics based on family responsibilities. Yet, as examples of women across the region show, it is very possible for women to juggle multiple roles. As with many other potential hurdles, family, like cultural, institutional, and other social factors, can quickly change from barrier to enabling factor, given commitment and cooperation.
Colleen Lowe Morna is Executive Director and Susan Tolmay the Gender and Governance Manager at Gender Links. This article, an excerpt from ‘At the coalface: Gender and local government in Southern Africa,” is part of a special series for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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