SADC leaders whisper softly on gender justice

SADC leaders whisper softly on gender justice

Date: January 1, 1970
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When African governments gather in early October in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to present their achievements in preparation for the 2005 Beijing +10 review, many will have little to say.

When African governments gather in early October in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to present their achievements in preparation for the 2005 Beijing +10 review, many will have little to say.

Gender justice is key to democratic change and any talk of democracy without the action to transform laws, policies, structures, norms and values to place women in their rightful places as equal participants in our societies, continues to be a half-stepping effort.

Leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had an opportune moment at their August summit to show that they are more action and less talk on the issue of women in decision making, one of the critical areas of women’s empowerment throughout the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.

Out of this summit should have emerged a clear strategy for presentation at the upcoming Africa Beijing+10 Review to ensure SADC member countries meet the 30% target of women set by their own 1997 declaration. But they met and left. And, at the end of all of the pomp and circumstance, the SADC summit made barely an audible noise on gender equality.

One hates to speculate that holding the meeting on the paradise island of Mauritius, which has the worst performance on women in decision-making among the SADC states, firmly clamped shut the leaders’ mouths and minds. But the evidence speaks for itself.

Of the 55 paragraphs of the Summit’s final communiqué, women are mentioned in only two paragraphs of four lines each. Paragraph 36 noted that Member States are making progress in the promotion of women’s representation in political and decision-making structures, while paragraph 37 urged those who have not attained the target to use the forthcoming elections to achieve the 30% of women in politics in line with the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development.

H.E. Patrick Mazhimake, Deputy Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union was the one who demarcated himself by saying: “women’s empowerment has to be given top priority. The continent cannot develop unless its women are empowered”. He also added that the Assembly of Heads of States of the Union had decided on a 50% gender balance of appointments at the African Union and urged SADC to follow suit. “I know that SADC had in 1997 decided on 30% women representation in decision making. There may be need to align the percentage to that of the Union.” He also congratulated South Africa for having reaching 42% women in cabinet and Rwanda with 48% in Parliament.

Members of the SADC community, especially women had their eyes, ears and minds working overtime during the summit to see if the leaders and their ‘experts’ would do all sorts of multiplication and gymnastics to calculate how the majority of the countries would reach SADC’s own target of 30% women in decision-making by 2005.

Memory seems not to have served the leaders well that 2005 is rapidly approaching. Heads of State signed the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development on 8th September 1997. A year later, they went further and signed the addendum on the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women and Children in Grand Baie, where this year’s summit was held.

Instead of showing accountability to the SADC Declaration, although not a legally binding document, but a commitment nevertheless by many of the same leaders who came to Mauritius’ premier tourist destination once again, this year’s summit was a worn-out record of the old cliché, ‘women should be seen and not heard’.

The only time we got a glimpse of the women at the SADC Summit was during a television snapshot on one of their tourist visits. They were all on parade at the Pamplemousses Garden in the company of other wives of Mauritian politicians. In the local print media, they were neither seen nor heard.

Maybe the Heads of States are not to blame. Maybe it is taboo to talk about women in a country, which boasts that it can export democracy and yet women are absent in politics. Maybe it is too shameful for SADC leaders to admit that they all went home in 1997, save for a few sterling examples, and conveniently forgot what they had signed. The media forgot too, and instead of playing the ‘watchdog’ role it likes to do so ardently on political rights (for men only) and its own freedom, the media has left the task of the SADC Declaration to women in civil society.

At the closing ceremony Mauritius’ Prime Minister Paul Berenger, very proudly announced that the 2004 SADC Summit of Heads of States and Government had been a success on all fronts. “We in SADC mean democratic business,” he said.

“Democratic business” in Mauritius translates into only 5.6% women in Parliament and 4% women in the cabinet. No final agreement on how to get more women into politics in the upcoming elections has been reached between the two political parties in power.

The newly formed Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) issued a statement at the September Gender and Media Summit held in Johannesburg challenging their leaders to explain how they intend to achieve 30% women in decision-making and politics by the end of 2005.

Seven years is a long time to show no results. If a country like Rwanda where war and genocide took place, and a country like South Africa, which has only 10 years of democracy, can do the right thing, why can’t other SADC countries finally tell the difference between talk and action?

Loga Virahsawmy is the President of the Media Watch Organisation in Mauritius, a local chapter of the Gender and Media Network in Southern Africa (GEMSA).

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.


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