South Africa sets the pace for gender equality in SADC

South Africa sets the pace for gender equality in SADC

Date: January 1, 1970
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The performance of countries in Southern Africa will come under scrutiny at the SADC Heads of State summit in Gaborone from 17-18 August where activists are mounting a campaign to get them to adopt a Protocol on Accelerating Gender Equality in SADC.

The story goes that when President Thabo Mbeki meets his counterparts from the region, they grumble that he is putting pressure on them. With 42 percent women in the South African cabinet (second only in the world to Sweden) the leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are finding it hard to justify why they still lag so far behind.
Their performance will come under scrutiny at the SADC Heads of State summit in Gaborone from 17-18 August where activists are mounting a campaign to get them to adopt a Protocol on Accelerating Gender Equality in SADC.
The proposal follows an audit of the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development conducted by a consortium of NGOs ahead of the summit. They argue that moral suasion has not worked. Legally binding measures are now being sought to move SADC from a “region of commitments to one of implementation.”
Mbeki, who has made gender equality a cornerstone of his legacy, will be looked to give strong backing to the idea of a regional instrument that incorporates all the existing global commitments into one comprehensive set of targets and indicators for achieving gender equality; and setting new targets where these do not exist.  
An example of this is in the area of decision-making, where the African Union (AU) has come out in favour of gender parity, but has not set targets. Among the proposed measures is that the current SADC target of thirty percent women in decision-making by 2005 be raised to 50 percent by 2020 with different bench marks for each country, depending on their starting point.
Some argue that it’s not useful to up the ante when the current target has not been achieved. The counter argument is that countries like South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania that have achieved the thirty percent for women in parliament and Namibia with 42 percent women in local government should not be held back.
Experience has shown that even when they are not legally binding, targets of any kind have a dramatic mobilising effect. None of the club of 13 SADC countries wants to be shown up as the worst performer. For example Mauritius, which sat at the bottom of the list with 5.6 percent women in parliament, made a marked turnaround in the July elections when this proportion increased to 17 percent, with a remarkable three-quarters of the women who contested seats in the socially conservative island winning them.
In other recent elections, all SADC countries except Botswana (where the drop sparked a massive outcry) have increased the proportion of women in parliament. The increases have been especially marked in the most conservative countries such as Swaziland, Malawi and Mauritius.
Although only three countries have achieved the existing SADC target of thirty women in parliament, on average women comprise twenty percent of the region’s legislators: second only to the Scandinavian countries where the average is 38%. And where it took the Scandinavians sixty years to achieve this, SADC has shown that rapid change is possible.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the cabinets of the region, where leaders have the most scope to bring about quick changes. Between 1997 and 2005, the proportion of women ministers has increased from 12 to 19 percent. The region now has a woman prime minister in Mozambique, and two women deputy presidents in Zimbabwe and South Africa. At both his recent cabinet reshuffles President Mbeki has made it a point to site these as opportunities for bridging the gender gap.
Although one of the most visible and easy to quantify areas of change, women in decision-making is but one of the gender gaps that needs bridging. The proposed Protocol seeks to use the positive experience of having a target in this area to set several more strategic benchmarks.
These include requiring that all SADC countries amend their constitutions to include guarantees of gender equality (in line with the more recent constitutions in the region such as those in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia) by 2010.
In doing so, countries would also be required to specify, as the South African constitution does, that should there be a conflict between customary and state law, the Constitution will take precedence.
In a region where customary law governs the daily lives of the majority of women, rendering them minors for all of their lives, this is possibly the most significant of all the proposed changes.  Recent test cases pitting customary law against the Bill of Rights in South Africa have shown that while this area of change is painfully slow, Constitutional provisions for gender equality are vital if root causes are ever to be tackled.         
The new measures would also include a target of 2010 for all countries in the region to adopt comprehensive legislation and to make budgetary allocations for ending gender violence: one of the most glaring reflections of the gap that exists between gender equality on paper and in reality. South Africa has yet to enact a Sexual Offences Bill, on the cards since 1996, despite having one of the highest levels of gender violence in the world.
The proposed Protocol comes with an annual reporting framework and an independent SADC Commission on the Status of Women that would monitor performance.  As South Africa celebrates women’s day on Tuesday, the country is well poised both to accelerate the pace of change in the region, as well as turn the spotlight on the gaps that still exist between policy and practice in this country.
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service. More information on the SADC and gender 2005 campaign can be found on

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