Walking the walk on women’s rights

Date: August 27, 2010
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Earlier this month in Namibia the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance gathered to discuss our continued work to ensure the full adoption and implementation of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development in the region. We are a group of women and men committed to keeping gender issues on the agenda in every country in this region – which is one of the reasons we met at the same time our heads of state were meeting.

We continue to push for laggard states to sign (Botswana and Mauritius), and for most other states (except Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) to ratify, this important instrument. Yet it seems to me that Southern African Development Community (SADC) civil society won’t make much headway with our leaders if we can’t walk the walk ourselves.

Major challenges remains in mainstreaming gender in SADC civic society platforms and nowhere was that more obvious than at the recent meeting of the SADC Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (SADC-CNGO), also in Namibia from 13-15 August.

I found myself in this platform for the first time and was shocked to find that this body, which supposedly represents SADC civic society, was male-dominated in both attendance and organisations featured. But this shock slowly turned to anger as one after another delegates spoke about the need to support “our brothers” from the hotspots of the SADC region.

At present, SADC-CNGO is only composed of apex bodies of trade unions, NGOs and the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa (FOCCISA). These bodies are well known for excluding women in their leadership and on their agendas. Women have long observed systematic marginalisation in the Pact Alliance, the regional platform for debates and discussions of civil society.

This was also evident in the 6th SADC-CNGO forum in Namibia where the majority of participants were men. Further, the agenda, discussions and presenters were not influenced by a gender perspective; a pattern, I’m told, that has been evident in previous SADC-CNGO meetings.

The second session on the third day received presentations from five “hotspot” countries in the region. However, all the five presentations were given by men. A man also gave a presentation on the indigenous people of southern Africa. This session was meant to contextualise and expound on the challenges faced by SADC citizens in the hotspots of the region, but it ended up leaving out any gendered perspective. Yet anyone who saw this week’s headlines about hundreds of women being gang-raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo will know that the majority of those affected by conflicts are women and girls, who also constitute 52% of the SADC population.

This type of omission seriously compromises and undermines the work of the SADC-CNGO as a regional, and supposedly representative, body.

Another example was a documentary about Zimbabwean farmers, which was mostly a story about male white farmers and black male farm workers, completely lacking in the perspectives and voices of either female white farmers or female black farm workers. The documentary on its own presented a biased and unbalanced perspective of the situation. It is common knowledge that the crisis in Zimbabwe has a large impact on white female farmers and female black workers: the video was silent on this.

While SADC-CNGO is calling for regional integration and a combined voice through the Pact Alliance in order to lobby governments on development and the promotion and protection of human rights, it is leaving out more than half the population of the region affected by human rights violations and integration issues.

It is time that SADC-CNGO takes a step back and has a good long look at its representation of women. It is time that the organisation acts to bridge these huge gaps and build bridges to organisations associated with women’s issues. The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development has 28 targets for the attainment of gender equality by 2015, including equal representation and participation of women. It also demands that women and men be given equal voice in the media and public affairs. We as civil society are also bound by the Protocol. Indeed, it behoves us to lead by example when we are making these kinds of demands of our governments.

Sections 12 and 13 of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development demand that government and non-state actors facilitate the equal representation and participation of women in all bodies and at all levels. Failure by SADC-CNGO to adhere to this goes against the grain of democracy and respect of human rights that we claim to follow as civic society in the region.

We were encouraged this week after a meeting with SADC-CNGO leaders, who agreed to formally recognise the Gender Protocol Alliance as the representative of the gender sector. Our cluster groups will now be aligned with those of SADC-CNGO and we will now work together to coordinate meetings rather than regret missed opportunities after they’ve passed.

Mainstreaming happens at the level of programming; issues of representation are political and this is what we demand. SADC-CNGO should therefore put in place strong and concrete measures to capture the voice and concerns of women. The male domination of NGO leadership is a fact but we have pointed to many examples of forums that specify two delegates, one male and one female, for consideration. SADC-CNGO is aware that much as they reflect the deficiencies in the rest of society, they are also out to change these. I hope we are making headway.

I remain hopeful that SADC-CNGO will adhere to the principles of democracy, human rights and self representation. If civic society cannot respect these, then how dare we expect higher standards from our governments?

Netsai Mushonga is a member of the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.


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