At the coalface: new study finds gender equity in local government possible

Date: January 1, 1970
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A growing number of Southern African countries are showing that gender equity in local government means a real difference in people’s lives on the ground. However, if women are to play their vital role in this sphere of decision-making – the “coalfaceÀ of service delivery À“ there is a great need to strengthen local government and integrate gender considerations into its work.

These are the key findings of a ground breaking new study on gender and local government in Southern Africa. Releasing on 22 March 2007 by Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental organisation (NGO) specializing in gender, governance and the media, the study was over a year in the making, interviewing 478 councilors in four Southern African countries.
There are a number of examples of good practice. Lesotho, with 58 percent women, has the highest level of women in local government in the region, thanks to a legislated 30 percent quota in the country’s first elected local government in 2005.
Namibia, has had over 40 percent women in local government for several years, thanks to a proportional representation (PR) system and legislated quota, as well as the “zebra” system adopted by the ruling Swapo party of one woman, one man on its electoral lists.
There are also moves in the right direction. South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) fielded a substantially higher proportion of women in both the ward and PR seats in the country’s mixed electoral system in the 2006 elections, boosting the proportion of women from 29 to 40 percent.
Unfortunately, many countries continue to lag behind. Mauritius, with 6.4 percent women in local government, represents the many countries in the region that have a constituency electoral system and also an extremely low level of women in all areas of decision-making.
Where governments have been willing to take special measures to increase women’s representation, this is more likely at local rather than at national level. For example, Lesotho introduced a quota for local, but not national elections held in February 2007.
What is unfortunate is that measures to increase women’s participation at local level appear to result from a calculation that local government is not as serious a sphere of politics than the national level, rather than because of a commitment to deepening democracy through decentralisation and the equal participation of women. 
However, as examples like Lesotho, South Africa and Namibia (representing the constituency, PR and mixed electoral systems) show, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of 50 percent women in decision-making can be achieved in any situation, provided there is the necessary political will.
Despite resistance to quotas, case studies show that rapid change is possible and does not lead to the often-predicted backlash. For example, normality has returned to the constituency in Lesotho not long after the much-publicised high court challenge of a male candidate against the 2005 quotas.
In instances where governments have been reluctant to force the pace of change, women’s representation is lower at local than at national level. This is because the forces of culture, tradition and religion tend to be more concentrated at this level than at national level.
Observation of meetings over the course of the research showed that there is a greater participation of women when they comprise half or more of the participants – a strong argument for raising the target for women in decision-making from 30 to 50 percent.
The findings also show that on average women participated more in meetings led by women, underscoring the importance of women occupying leadership positions such as mayors, chairpersons, deputy mayors and speakers.
While the study found that there are still men in local government who openly oppose gender equality (especially in countries that have a low level of women’s representation), there are also several examples of men who have become champions of women’s empowerment and gender equality as an important yardstick of change.
Not all women are the same and that not all believe it is their duty to raise the concerns of other women. However, the overwhelming majority of those interviewed spoke of the obligation they feel towards other women. In the 92 focus group meetings conducted with civil society, women and male constituents, many spoke about how women councilors are more accessible, hard working and honest.
Women are making a difference at a practical level in local government (which suffers from many structural weaknesses in all countries) by helping to cut through red tape and providing access to housing, electricity and basic needs. These practical interventions raise strategic questions: such as in Lesotho, where councils are responsible for allocating land, women are beginning to ask about access to title for land.
A key conclusion of the report is that unless the work of local government systematically mainstreams gender, increased representation of women at local level may become a case of “jobs for the girls” rather than gender equality for the region. The study highlights the absence of such strategies at local level. Efforts to ensure that women and men benefit equally are piecemeal and often driven by a few individuals rather than by institutions and systems.
Drawing from the work of Gender Links with the City of Johannesburg to develop a Women Development Strategy, including a plan for mainstreaming gender into Soccer 2010, the study recommends that all countries and councils in the region begin to look at how local government can become a motor for achieving gender equality where it matters most: on the ground.
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director and Susan Tolmay the gender and governance manager at Gender Links. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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