Swaziland turns a new leaf on the page for gender justice

Date: January 1, 1970
  • SHARE:

The movement of more women into the Parliament and Cabinet after the 2003 elections, sets the stage for more attention to be paid to gender equality and the removal of discriminatory laws.

Women’s participation in Swaziland’s 2003 elections received mixed feelings in a country where women are the majority of the over 228,000 registered voters. Only five women were elected, compared to two in the previous election.

Of the House of Assembly’s elected Senate candidates, four are women, and the King appointed nine women among his 30-appointee entitlement. In addition, the King appointed from the House of Assembly, women as heads of the ministries of Housing and Urban Development, Tourism, Environment, Communications and Education to his 15-member cabinet.

In the women’s movement, there is disappointment that the number elected into office was less than expected, especially after an extensive ‘Vote for a Woman’ campaign run by the civil society group LeaRN.

Those who participated in the campaign however, viewed the election of the five women as a success and an indicator of progress.

The total number of women in Parliament is now 18, up from nine. This could be regarded as an indicator that women are coming into their own in terms of political participation and realizing that is possible to make an impact on the structures of decision-making that were perceived before as inappropriate for them.

Not only did women make a significant showing in Parliament, their participation increased as nominees and as candidates.

Women’s heightened visibility in these elections is due to the tireless efforts of civil society and the women’s movement in the country. In the months preceding the election, the ‘Vote for a Woman’ campaign conducted voter education, raised the awareness of women’s abilities as decision-makers, and ensured the election of more women into Parliament.

A variety of women’s organizations, such as Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) and the Umtapo waboMake Women’s Resource Center, trained women candidates on the issues involved in the election process and empowered them with the requisite skilled to effectively participate.

Although the result was not dramatically positive, it must be appreciated that in the context of Swaziland and its heavily traditional and patriarchal system, accessing positions of decision-making by women is a slow process that is only beginning to gather momentum.

But it also is true that the mere increase in numbers does not guarantee that women’s issues or those pertaining to the advancement of gender equality will necessarily and qualitatively be addressed.

One steep hill facing the women is the Tinkhundla system. In its present form, this system selects on the basis of individual merit. The honorable MPS have sworn their allegiance not to any party position, not to their constituencies, not to a specific sector of society such as women, but to the King. It is to him they are accountable and not to the people who voted them into office. The pursuit of the gender agenda by women therefore, will depend on the interest and commitment of the individual member.

However, it is still too early to conclusively assess the new MPs’ commitment to gender, and it is clear that many need to be sensitized to such issues. But the demands for change are strong and issues of gender equality can no longer be denied or ignored.

Swaziland has not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but it has committed itself to instruments of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women, and the 1997 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Declaration on Gender and Development.

The tiny mountain kingdom is the only country in the Southern African region that has not ratified CEDAW and one of the two remaining African countries in this position.

Much work awaits the new Parliament.

A draft Constitution is yet to be finalized and important among the proposed Constitution’s reference to gender equality are draft Sections 21 and 29. Section 21 entrenches the equality of all before the law and prohibits discrimination against persons based on “gender, race, color, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, social and economic standing, political opinion, age or disability”. Section 29 specifically entrenches the right of equality of treatment and opportunities between women and men, provides for the potential of affirmative action for women, and empowers women to refuse to undergo any custom to which they may be opposed.

A plethora of archaic and discriminatory legislation also exists within the statute books that need immediate review and amendments to comply with the imminent supreme law.

There is hope, however, in that some of the new members of Parliament, women and men, come from the sectors calling for democratic changes to the present system of governance and respect for human rights.

The importance of addressing gender issues, as imperative for Swaziland’s development is not in question, it is just a matter of time.

Doo Aphane is the National Coordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) Swaziland.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information.

Comment on Swaziland turns a new leaf on the page for gender justice

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *