No use crying over spilt milk

No use crying over spilt milk

Date: January 1, 1970
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When the men who lead the 14 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed a Declaration on Gender and Development in 1997, the day of reckoning seemed far off.

When the men who lead the 14 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed a Declaration on Gender and Development in 1997, the day of reckoning seemed far off.

Among the several commitments made, they promised to ensure at least 30 percent women in all areas of decision-making by 2005. That year has arrived, but the promises made have not.

The harsh lesson to be learned is that commitment without strategies — both by governments and advocates of social change — do not take us far.

Let’s start with the numbers. Since 1997, representation of women in Southern African parliaments has increased by 1.3 percent, from 17.9 percent to the current level of 19.2 percent. Only two SADC countries, South Africa and Mozambique, have achieved or exceeded the 30 percent mark for women in parliament. Namibia has achieved 42 percent women in local government, but lags behind at the national and provincial levels.

Tanzania, scheduled to hold elections in October, is likely to make the grade because activists used the 2005 deadline to pressure the government into increasing a constitutional quota of 20 percent to 30 percent. Two trends that resonate with international experience are apparent. First, women clearly perform better in countries with the Proportional Representation (PR) electoral systems (in this case, South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia). Second, in order to achieve significant change, this system has to be combined with quotas.

The high proportion of women in local government in Namibia is explained by the combination of a PR system and legislated quota. Conversely, the fact that representation in the national assembly following the 2004 elections in Namibia sits at 25 percent (slightly less than in the previous assembly) is accounted for by the lack of either a voluntary or legislated quota at this level.

Tanzania, the only country among the “achievers” that has a First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system owes its success to a constitutional quota that distributes a portion of seats in the house reserved for women on a PR basis, after constituency based elections. The lessons for the rest of the region, where levels of women’s representation wallow at 15 percent and below, are clear. To achieve the thirty percent target, they would either have had to change their electoral system and combine this with voluntary or legislated party quotas; or they would have had to reserve seats in a FPTP system along the lines of the Tanzania model.

Alas, in most countries, activists began their advocacy too late; and political leaders looked for short cuts at the last minute.

Botswana, home of the SADC secretariat, is a prime example. The country experienced a devastating drop in the representation of women in the 2004 elections thanks to a lack of strategy that led to women being played off against each other in primaries and fielded in precarious seats during the elections. The last ditch effort to increase women’s representation through nominated seats helped to save face, but still leaves Botswana with only 11 percent women in its parliament; down from 17 percent in the 1999 elections.

Lesotho, which missed the mark in the 2002 elections and only has another go after the 2005 deadline, has tried to make amends by introducing a quota for women in the country’s FPTP local government elections scheduled to take place in 2005.

But by reserving constituencies, rather than seats for women, the government has sparked off a crisis, with opposition parties threatening to oppose the new law as unconstitutional. Though not ideal, the Tanzanian model – of opening FPTP elections to women and men, and then having additional seats for women distributed on a PR basis – would have been less contentious. Planning, strategy and learning from best practice in the region could have prevented the present debacle from occurring.

Mauritius, the country in SADC with the lowest representation of women in parliament (5.6 percent) had a chance to change its electoral system and introduce a quota following a report into its electoral system well in advance of elections scheduled for this year that pointed to the “democratic deficit” in the otherwise stable and prosperous island. But petty horse trading within the ruling party alliance led to this advice, based on best practice in the region, being cast aside. No one outside the ruling elite turned up the heat sufficiently to make a difference.

Herein rests the nub of the matter. Our dark-suited leaders nonchalantly sign declarations, and talk the good talk, without any intention of learning the good lessons or walking the good walk. They have much to answer for at the upcoming SADC Heads of State Summit in Gaborone in August this year.

But we as gender activists also have some soul searching to do. We are quick to cry over spilled milk. But what do we do to prevent the milk from spilling? Slogans and declarations are all very well. When they are not accompanied by plans and strategies they will always end up as just so may words.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links and Chair of the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network.

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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