Mozambique: When party politics beats sisterhood

Date: August 26, 2014
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Pretoria, 3 April: You would think that the Mozambican Parliament, of which almost 40% are women, would not approve a law that affords rapists impunity if he marries his victim and thus “cleanses her honour.” You would hope female Members of Parliament would have even marched with the women’s movement down the streets of Maputo last week in protest of this law and other backward articles. Alas, you would be very wrong. This month, MPs were due to deliberate and finalise articles found in the revised version of the Penal Code, which Parliament approved in December, but all discussions have been postponed until June.

The female MPs of ruling party Frelimo and opposition parties Renamo and Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) stayed deafly silent. Just a handful of them unofficially told NGOs that they disagree with these laws, but officially remained tight-lipped. With the elections just around the corner, party loyalty and concomitant business opportunities beats loyalty to a constituency. Political opportunism takes precedence over women’s rights, even in the face of a growing movement for gender equality in the country.

On the eve of the protest last week, in exchange for vague promises, Speaker of Parliament Veronica Macamo even attempted to persuade the organisers to call the march off. The feminists refused and marched with signs saying, “On top of being raped, I am punished” and “This Penal Code does not represent us”. Indeed, it does not, especially considering it is 127 years old, dating back to 1886.

When government proposed the revision of the Penal Code in 2006, women’s groups pointed out the many laws that do not belong in the 21st century. Since 2012, when the revision gathered speed, women’s rights groups pored over the drafts as thick as two telephone books, and sent comments to Parliament, yet the offending articles remained.

For example Article 218 on child rape only covers rape of girls under age 12, although male and female children are considered minors until age 18. The revised Penal Code also very narrowly defines rape: vaginal rape is a crime but anal rape or rape with objects are not punishable. Marital rape is not illegal or punishable, and the age of criminal liability is lowered from 16 to ten years. If a criminal’s relatives conceal or tamper with evidence, shelter or help the criminal escape, whether the crime is rape or murder,it will not be considered a criminal offense.

The day before the march, a senior and very conservative Frelimo MP- Teodoro Waty, told the national press agency AIM that the offending articles had been removed in February. Somehow, he forgot to inform fellow MPs and civil society. He also forgot that he alone has no authority to remove anything: the final decision lies with Parliament’s plenary session.

Fifteen key NGOs issued a press release just days after the march, which deplores this lack of transparency. Referring to the Parliamentary Commission on Constitutional, Human Rights and Legal Matters they said, “We have never felt much openness or a climate of true dialogue.”

How do these problematic laws and female MPs failure to vote against them reflect on the campaign to implement the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, to achieve gender parity in government by 2015? This failure is an effective reminder that just having women in power does not breed solidarity among women, nor a passion to defend women’s rights.

Similar arguments ran through Frelimo’s failure to nominate Luisa Diogo as the presidential candidate before the upcoming elections. She was the Prime Minister between 2004 and 2010, is a competent economist, businesswoman and former World Bank official. Some in the Mozambican women’s movement believe her candidacy would challenge gender inequality and give Mozambican girls a positive role model of a woman in power.

Others argue that Diogo was an arrogant, neoliberal authoritarian who did not advocate pro-poor policies, did not reach out to civil society and only paid lip service to gender issues.

But, whatever politics she holds, the truth is Diogo did not lose the nomination because she is a woman, but instead because she is not a close ally of President Armando Guebuza. In fragmented Frelimo, the pro-Guebuza faction won – for the time being. Perhaps in the next administration, Diogo could return as Prime Minister. If she does return as prime minister, will her loyalty be to rural women or to capital and investors? Might she privatise land as the World Bank wants? Valid questions, since women would be the first to lose land held under customary law.

As we get closer to the elections and as the SADC Gender Protocol Alliance’s 5050 campaign continues, we must remember that having women in power is not enough. They must be agents of gender equality, willing to stand up to patriarchal party politics, otherwise as South African academic Louise Vincent puts it, gender parity in government becomes “a strategy to change the way things look without changing the way things are.” Although 5050 and an equal numerical representation of women and men is the first step, substantive representation is the ultimate goal. What matters is quality not quantity!

Mercedes Sayagues is a journalist and editor who worked as a Knight Health Fellow as well as a technical adviser in the IREX Media Strengthening Programme in Mozambique. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, offering fresh views on every day news. Follow Gender Links on Twitter and Facebook



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