Southern Africa: Women still missing from the corridors of power

Southern Africa: Women still missing from the corridors of power

Date: August 19, 2015
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Gaborone, 19 August: The SADC Heads of State ended their 35th summit yesterday with a bland communique congratulating countries that have made progress in increasing women’s political representation and urging others to follow suit. It’s typical of this all-boys club to equate women in politics to gender equality, even in the crucial year that the 28 targets of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development expire, and serious political will is needed to take the region forward by aligning this instrument to the Sustainable Development Goals.

With a regional average of 27% women in national parliaments, 24% in local government and 22% in cabinet, Southern Africa is barely half way where it needs to be to meet the target of 50% women all areas of decision-making by 2015. The fact that progress is so slow in this high profile area of gender equality should raise serious alarm bells in this crucial year of reckoning.

Women’s political participation and representation is central to achieving the full dividends of democracy. When women are marginalised in politics, issues that concern them, children and youth tend to be compromised at the political decision-making level. When women are equal partners in decision-making, and their experiences considered and their voices heard, national and development policies are more inclusive and have a broader influence and impact. This makes a difference in people’s lives, which supports the need to have more women in local and national parliaments.

While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) only had a target on women’s participation in parliament, the SADC Gender Protocol went further and tracked progress at the local government and cabinet levels. The 50/50 target is one of the best known of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol targets. The period has seen a paradigm shift from the call for 30% women in decision-making prior to 2005, to gender parity in the current period.

The Southern Africa Gender Protocol Barometer launched ahead of the HOS shows that in the last year, SADC countries held three local and five national elections (in Madagascar, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Lesotho and Tanzania). Seven local elections are taking place in one or other of these countries and in South Africa in 2015/2016. Tanzania and DRC will also be having national elections this year. This flurry of elections gave countries a real opportunity to make up lost ground in the final count-down to 2015.

Since the baseline Barometer in 2009, progress on the three governance indicators (national, local and cabinet) has been wide and varied with countries like Seychelles and South Africa missing the target with single digit points while in DRC the variance runs in the double digits.

The period under review demonstrated yet again that the First Past the Post System (FPTP) with no quota is hostile to women’s political participation, with women’s representation declining in both the Botswana and Mauritius national elections. In contrast, in the municipal elections where the 30% quota for women in local government held sway, women got voted in at the local level in Mauritius. The village elections are yet to take place later this year. In Madagascar, the increase of women’s representation from 8% to 21% showed that it is possible to have an increase in a FPTP system without a quota, but with concerted lobbying and advocacy. However, this still remains far below the 50% mark.

Countries with a Proportional Representation (PR) system (Namibia and Mozambique) did well but fell short of the 50% mark. As a result of the ruling South West Africa Peoples (SWAPO) 50% zebra quota, the representation of women in the national assembly in Namibia shot up from 26% to 47%, but the overall figure is diluted to 38% because of a weaker showing in the upper house.

Lesotho, which has a mixed system, missed the opportunity to escalate the quota at local level to national level. Again, the PR seats delivered a higher proportion of women, but the overall performance (25%) fell short of target. Tanzania is strengthening its constitutional quota from 30% to 50%, but this is unlikely to be adopted before the elections later this year.

Recognising the quotas and electoral systems are key to increasing women’s political representation, the 50/50 campaign is sharpening its tools. A high level local government study visit from Zimbabwe to Mauritius in April 2015, resulted in a proposal for the adoption of a quota for women in local government in the 2018 elections. This should inform the continued 50/50 campaigns across SADC towards more strategic approaches with clear emphasis on electoral systems and quotas, accompanied by strong advocacy campaigns, combined with increased training and financing of women in leadership and politics.

Cabinet is a one area governments should more easily make rapid progress as members are appointed rather than elected. Over the years, South Africa has consistently held the highest percentage of women in cabinet at 41%, while Mauritius and Zimbabwe have low scores below 15%. Over the last ten years, the average women’s representation has remained relatively low: between 21% to 22%.

Since the adoption of the SADC Gender Protocol there has been an unprecedented flurry of women in top leadership. In 2012 Malawi became the first country in the region to have a female head of state after deputy president Joyce Banda stepped in following the death of the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. She later lost the post to Peter Mutharika, brother to her predecessor in the 2014 Presidential elections.

This June the Mauritian Parliament voted Ameenah Gurib-Fakim as the country’s new president following the resignation of her predecessor, Kailash Purryag. Though her title is a ceremonial one, she becomes the first woman in the island nation to hold that office. Currently only Zambia has a female vice president, Inonge Winga. Namibia has a woman Prime Minister (Saara Kuugongelwa) and Deputy Prime Minister (Netumbo Ndaitwah).

SADC has had two female presidents (Malawi, Mauritius) and three female vice presents (Zimbabwe, Mauritius and Zambia) since the baseline barometer. The current Chairperson of the Africa Union Nkosazana Dlamini and UN Women Executive Director Phumuzile Mlambo Ngcuka are both formidable women politicians from the region.

The pattern in the appointment (rather than election) of women in top leadership is a clear indicator that the region is not yet ready for women presidents. This calls for additional measures to change mind-sets on female leadership. Until women sit at the top table with the men who debate and determine our future, commitments to gender equality will remain just so many words.

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links and editor-in-chief of the annual Southern Africa Gender Protocol Barometer. This article forms part of the Gender Links News Service).


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