Where will the women vote in the next elections?

Date: January 1, 1970
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A conversation with my 12-year-old daughter triggered a series of very uneasy questions that have preoccupied my mind over the last few months. The conversation revolved around the idea that Jacob Zuma would be the next president.

Her concern, and indeed quite vehement opposition, was that Zuma has not treated women very well. The evidence she presented was the rape trial and the way Zuma’s supporters vilified the young woman concerned. This future voter was clearly not impressed!
It started me thinking, not as a gender activist, but very simply as a woman voter. I want to vote. Yet, looking ahead to the forthcoming elections and the options available, I ask myself what the contesting parties have to offer me.
As part of their campaigns to attract votes, parties put up manifestos outlining strategies to address the needs of all South Africans. This includes addressing inequalities.
The entrenched inequality between women and men in South Africa is a leading cause of very high levels of gender violence, women’s increasing poverty, and lack of access to resources and services. As such, gender equality is central to addressing the needs of the country as a whole, and bears some scrutiny as we head to the polls.  
This is not to say that gender equality has a single, straightforward solution. Thenjiwe Mtintso, South Africa’s ambassador to Cuba and board member of South African-based Gender Links, recently highlighted in a lunch time discussion on elections how very different women’s needs are.
Mtintso pointed out that some women are fighting to get out of the kitchen (and into the boardroom, office, workplace, etc), but others are still fighting for kitchens (along with water, education, housing, and other necessities).
So, the question becomes even more complex – how will the contesting parties contesting help women get out of the kitchen, or get their kitchens, depending on their needs?
A starting point is looking and gender within the elections themselves. In August 2008, Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders signed the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which, among other provisions, commits SADC states to 50% representation of women at all levels of decision making by 2015. Given the very small increases (3% percent between the last three elections), political parties must make substantial gains in the forthcoming elections to meet this goal.
Recognising the need to institute a revised quota as key to achieving gender parity in decision-making, the African National Congress (ANC) raised their quota from 30% to 50% for the upcoming polls. This should result in some shifts.
However, none of the other parties have quotas and voluntary party quotas mean that if the support of that party declines, the representation of women also drops. There is also the more fundamental question about the responsibility of all parties to ensure women’s equal participation in politics.
There have been two important developments since the 2004 election. First, Helen Zille took over as leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party. It will be interesting to see if Zille pushes the gender agenda.  The other major development was the launch of the Congress of the People (COPE). COPE has 50% women represented in its National Executive Committee.
The challenge for all contesting parties is to ensure that their lists include substantial numbers of women appearing high up on their lists. In addition, parties should demonstrate a clear strategy to ensure meeting the 2015 goal of 50/50.representation at all levels of decision-making and representation in government.
The other issue on my agenda is leadership on gender issues. Will the next administration have the commitment and will to make the necessary legislative and functional changes required for gender equality in the country?
The current, and in all likelihood the next, ruling party showed clear commitment to women’s representation by adopting the 50/50 principle. Yet, contradictions are apparent within the party.
The first cause for concern is that the President of South Africa will most likely be the leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma. What is Zuma’s commitment to gender?
He has shown questionable judgement in his treatment of women, having sex with a young woman living with HIV without protection and taking a shower afterwards as a HIV prevention strategy. Moreover, Zuma did not attempt to stop the demonisation of the young woman during the rape trial.
Zuma’s strategy for appointing and advancing women in a parliament under his leadership is not clear. There is a fear that SA might lose ground in its quest towards achieving gender parity.
Another matter of serious concern is Zuma’s polygamous lifestyle, a practice that severely disadvantages women. What type of role model does this demonstrate? Also, what strategies will he use to address the very high levels of gender violence? Will it be a priority? Indeed, will gender inequality be recognised and addressed in all spheres of government?
Other parties raise questions as well. Will Helen Zille push the gender agenda? Historically, the DA has not attached much importance to issues of gender, playing out patriarchy in its approaches. It is confusing for me where the DA stands in relation to gender or other issues. The DA opposes ANC policies and strategies without providing viable alternatives. 
New kid on the block COPE intends to provide a viable alternative to the ANC. On the gender-metre, COPE began well with 50% women represented in its National Executive Committee. What I am waiting for with great interest is how COPE will articulate its plans for gender equality.
Will COPE simply be oppositional to the ANC or provide viable alternatives? Will COPE articulate a clear commitment to gender equality and present strategies for women’s advancement?
There are many more questions than answers. Will this citizen vote? That too remains a question. I want to do the responsible thing as a citizen and exercise my right to vote. However, if none of the parties responds to my needs as a woman who still lives in society where women and men are not equal, I am faced with a serious dilemma.
Kubi Rama is the Deputy Director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service, which offers fresh news on every day news.

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