African parliament provides a window of opportunity

Date: January 1, 1970
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Under the leadership of Gertrude Mongella, the former Secretary General of the UN 1995 Fourth Conference on Women, the new African Parliament is ripe to become an important signal of the continent?s commitment to gender equality.

The new Pan African Parliament has many windows of opportunity to uphold the rights of African women. But these opportunities will only become new realities if African women, and all progressive people on the continent, use them.

Africans in general, and African gender activists in particular, must begin to fully understand the functions and structures of the continental legislature, to strategize on how to get maximum promotion of gender equality in the Parliament.

After its first sessions in March 2004, the momentum for the historical body is still high and the continent is in the throes of reviewing the gains and setbacks for gender justice as it prepares for Beijing plus 10. This atmosphere provides an opportune scenario for African women to hold male leaders accountable.

A groundswell of lobbying must start today, not tomorrow, if women and men are to be pro-active in shaping a Pan African Parliament that reflects the reality of women as competent leaders alongside men in governance.

Under the leadership of Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania, the Pan African Parliament will initially have consultative and advisory powers. It will ultimately develop into an institution with full legislative powers whose members will be elected by universal adult suffrage.

Mongella has had a distinguished career as an educationist, politician and diplomat. In 1995, she was the Secretary General of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women and Development, held in Beijing, China.  Her election as President of the new parliament opens the door wide for gender equality to move beyond the pages of the numerous documents signed by African leaders.

For example, the new Parliament has the mandate to take a position on any issue and to make its position known to Africa’s citizens. This is an opportunity for the Parliament to have a standing item to monitor how the continent has fared on agreements and commitments like the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the 1994 Dakar Platform for Action (Africa’s blueprint on equality for women in the run-up to Beijing), the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (the 10-year review process is now underway worldwide), the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Optional Protocol on Women) and the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Gender activists must also push from the start for the Parliament’s structure to reflect gender parity. The organ’s bureau will consist of a president, four vice-presidents, a clerk and two deputy clerks. Parliaments must elect five representatives to the body, at least one of whom should be a woman.

While the African Union (AU) deserves praise for the 50 percent parity in the appointment of the AU commissioners and the election of a woman as the first president of its parliament, women are still invisible in the AU’s key bodies.

There is no woman Head of State and therefore no woman is in the AU Assembly, the highest structure. The Executive Council, which processes all issues and makes recommendations to the Assembly, is composed of Foreign Affairs Ministers. Few women sit on the Council, since there are less than five women Foreign Affairs Ministers on the continent.

The Rules of Procedure of the Executive Council, however, list one of its functions as to “ensure the promotion of gender equality in all programmes of the Union”, and governments or member states also are given the mandate to accredit any other minister to the Executive Council. Therefore, the small number of women foreign affairs ministers is no reason for the low number of women on the AU’s council.

The AU aims to promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance, and to promote and protect human and people’s rights. It can only do this by ensuring that its own structures bare the hallmark of women’s equal participation.

Barbara Lopi is the Project Manager/Editor with the Women in Development Southern Africa Awareness (WIDSAA) programme of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre.

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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