What women bring to local politics

What women bring to local politics

Date: January 1, 1970
  • SHARE:

Kaija Shililifa is an even-tempered woman. However, when the male colleagues in the seven-member council of Tsumeb in Namibia, on which she is the only woman councillor, wanted to turn down an application by a woman to set up a car wash, she blew a fuse.

Using her clout as chair of the powerful management committee she asked: “The three other cars washes, who owns them? It is men. Now why can’t we give an opportunity to this woman who also wants to progress? They tried to say ‘no’ but I said, let’s give this woman a car wash and see what she will do. It’s up to her.”
Shilifa believes that it is important for women councillors to take up gender issues. “Some think that when we talk of gender we are talking about women, but gender is about balance, we want balance in the community where we live,” comments Shililifa.  She also believes that as a woman councillor she has a special responsibility to empower women for whom the playing field is not level.
Do women bring unique agendas, interests, perspectives, styles and skills to local government? Women are not a homogeneous group. However, research for the study “At the coalface: Gender and Local Government in Southern Africa,” found overwhelming evidence that ensuring women are present in local government, or any other decision making body, ensures that issues of concern to women are on the table.
Published by Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental organisation specialising in gender, governance and the media, the research included interviews with 946 councillors, experts, officials, and civil society representatives in Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa and Mauritius. The study set out to draw lessons on increasing the representation of women in local government in a way that minimises conflict; increases participation and leads to more equitable, responsive government at the coalface of delivery.
Many of the issues dealt with at the local government level are those that affect women most, such as access to water, safe spaces, and community services. Mathabiso Lepono, Minister of Gender in Lesotho says that women “know what the needs are with regard to the issues such as families, electricity, water etc.  If women are elected into decision-making they will make decisions to help reduce the burden of women in rural areas.”
One school of thought argues that by simply being present, women make a difference. They become role models, shattering the myth that only men can walk the corridors of power. This is especially important at local level, where the forces of culture, custom and tradition are strong.
Research with women in Maseru, Lesotho, said “It is significant for women that the Mayor is a woman, she is a role model.” Young people in Namibia agree, “It is important for women to participate in local government so that they encourage other women to take part in decision-making,” said one young woman.
Some men also see the importance of women role models. One man participating in the same research in Johannesburg said that when women “see their female counterparts participating in local government, it encourages them to be part of the processes within local government. Not only in the field of politics, but also in all the fields in which women were denied participation.”
Many see women as more accessible; better at communicating; concerned about the every day issues that get lost in big picture politics; more thorough; hard working; diligent and having greater integrity.
On the other hand, some people express the view that women make no difference and that when they get into positions of power they behave just like men. “Most women are there for ‘window dressing’, just to say to the world that we have this many women in local government.”
One participant in the research said “half the time they are trying to prove that they are capable of being in such positions. The issues that are important and that do affect women end up taking a back seat and go to the bottom of the priority list.  The problem is with the system which needs to be changed to make it more women friendly.”
There are of course women councillors who do not perform well, and many aspects of the male-dominated system that create challenges to getting the job done. Yet the majority of councillors in South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, and Mauritius – 61 percent of women and 39 percent of men– who were asked whether women in local government have different interests and concerns to men, said that they did. 
Similarly, an overwhelming majority of councillors, 81 percent (90 percent of women and 66 percent of men), in the four countries agreed that women are more sensitive to local concerns than men are. 
Selma Taukuheke from the Grootfontein Municipality in Namibia believes that as a councillor it is her responsibility to help other women.  Although she has not been a councillor for long she pulls out a sheath of handwritten pages with ideas that she has. Her list of 17 projects range from irrigation, poultry and catering projects to domestic work, yard cleaning and house watching. 
Councillors in the region tend to agree. 83 percent of all councillors surveyed (86 percent women and 76 percent men) agreed that women have the responsibility to raise other women’s issues.
There are issues that women feel more passionately about than men, especially at the local level. If the essence of democracy is that every interest group should have the chance to represent its own interests, then women, the largest such interest group in any society, must be heard.
These views and priorities, long neglected in the public sphere, bring crucial new perspectives to policy making and to more responsive governance. Thus, for example, while it is important to fight soil erosion in Lesotho, a priority of predominantly male decision-makers, it is also important to build bridges over the dongas so that children can get to school.   
The nurturing qualities associated with women have for too long been a missing ingredient in mainstream politics. The clear message is that having women in local government is not just a pre-requisite for representative democracy; it is also indispensable to transforming governance and society.  
Susan Tolmay the gender and governance manager at Gender Links. This article is excerpted from ‘At the coalface: Gender and local government in Southern Africa,” as part of a special series for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

Comment on What women bring to local politics

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