Women making a difference in local government

Date: January 1, 1970
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Women and men in local government often have different concerns and interests, making women?s participation in local government very important. Yet in many Southern African countries, the number of women in local government remains very low. When they met in Gaborone last August, heads of state of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) pledged to ensure equal representation of women in all areas of decision-making, in line with an African Union position. Yet information on women in this sphere of government is scarce at best and non-existent at worst.

Asked if a she had different concerns and interests to men, a woman councillor responded by saying, “Women think about things that are important for the people. For example men will think about a school but women think about how their children will get to school.”
Local government may seem an obvious place for women to occupy because it is closest to the people and it is the level that most affects women. However, it is also the level where culture and patriarchy are still deeply rooted and there is a belief that women are not capable and should not occupy public spaces.
On average women constitute just over one fifth of local councillors in Southern Africa and this varies tremendously from 2% in Angola to 53 % in Lesotho. Although accurate data is difficult to come by for this sphere of government, women in local government fall below the 30% mark in at least eight of the 14 SADC countries.
When they met in Gaborone last August, heads of state of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) increased the initial target of 30% women in decision making to 50% in line with an African Union position.  This includes local government.
In South Africa great strides have been made, with the number of women in local government increasing from 29 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in this year’s election, with three of the six Metropolitan councils being led by women.  The increase is largely due to the 50/50 quota of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Lesotho has also seen a significant increase of women in local government due to the 30 percent legislated quota implemented for the last election that took place early last year. Women now occupy 53 percent of the local government seats.
Namibia, which has a Proportional Representation (PR) system for local government and a legislated quota has long had among the highest representation of women in local government in the region, at between 40-42 percent.
But in other countries – especially the more conservative countries and ones which have a constituency system of elections, local government lags behind national politics when it comes to increasing women’s representation in decision-making. Mauritius, with eight percent women in local government and 17 percent in parliament (following a big boost in this quarter in the last elections) is a case in point.    
Research entitled At the coal face – gender and local government in Southern Africa, being undertaken by Gender Links in four Southern African countries (Lesotho, Namibia, Mauritius and South Africa) seeks to explore approaches to increasing the representation of women in local government; the effect of quotas on women’s effective participation and ways of increasing the effective participation of women at a local level. The research is due to be launched on 8 March, International Women’s Day, 2007.
Having a quota system does not necessarily ensure participation. Several factors contribute to the possibility of women being there but not being there. These include skills, confidence, the general environment, meeting times, whether or not they are in decision-making positions within these structures and how amenable the institutions are to change.
Council meeting observations in South Africa generally showed low levels of participation by women, with men dominating in all council meetings observed.  One of the reasons offered for these low levels of participation was that a party caucus takes place prior to the meeting and it is there that they take decisions, that get conveyed by male party functionaries. 
Gender disaggregated data within municipalities doesn’t exist in most cases.  Where this information does exist, it shows that women are not equally represented on committees and where they are, it’s usually the social oriented ones to which they belong.  Men still monopolise leadership positions in municipal structures with only 19 of 283 municipal managers in South Africa being women.
Preliminary findings of the study show that councillors identify education and capacity building as their greatest needs. Education levels vary from grade eight to PHD. 
Documentation and proceedings are predominantly in English and this too is a barrier for women who are too shy to talk and who don’t understand what it is they should be taking back to heir community.
On the other hand, women councillors tend to be the ones doing most of the work on the ground. They are often unpaid community workers with a multiplicity of functions. 
Many of the community focus groups said they found women better able to understand the needs of the community in general and women in particular.  New partnerships with local government that deal with woman and child abuse have been formed. Councillors have set up economic empowerment forums, helping to create opportunities and involving women in tendering processes where they are now able to compete for contracts. 
Empowerment of women is taking place within communities where councillors have established rehabilitation centres, homes for the elderly, and computer training centres.
Women councillors have also become role models for other women and girls in the community, which goes a long way to changing attitudes and challenging the patriarchal ideas about women’s roles.
While attitudes are becoming more positive towards women in local government there are many hurdles still to overcome for women to participate fully.
Susan Tolmay is a GL staff member and lead researcher in the regional study on women in local government. This article is part of a special series of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service produced ahead of the SADC Heads of State summit in Lesotho from 17-18 August by the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance comprising ten NGOs that promote gender equality in the region.

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