Putting Women First – Walvis Bay conference grapples with SADC gender inequality
Walvis Bay- Gender equality in political participation is a fundamental aspect of modern democratic governance, which under international standards both men and women should have equal opportunities to fully participate in all aspects and levels of political processes.
However, despite concerted effort by world leaders to reverse gender inequities, the results indicate that a lot need to be done as women are still poorly represented in parliament and other top civil service positions.
A recent study by an international development charity has warned that at current rates of progress, it will take 120 years for women to constitute half of the world’s leaders, and more than 50 years before women are equally represented in parliaments.
The Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) says women and girls make up almost two-thirds of those living in extreme poverty, yet women have the least say in what is done to tackle it.
The report puts a spotlight on gender inequality at all levels of society.
Globally, just 13 of 193 Heads of Government are women, one in five of parliamentarians is a woman, and women hold just 17 percent of ministerial positions.
VSO found that women account for 20 percent of elected councillors, and hold mayoral positions in 10 of the world’s 195 capital cities.
Namibia, like many other countries, has taken up the challenge of advancing women’s empowerment.
It is party to important international instruments, including the SADC Gender Protocol, which says member states should ensure women hold 50 percent of decision-making positions in the private and public sector by 2015.
But like its fellow SADC members, Namibia has made little progress towards this target.
Namibia is gearing up for Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2014 and gender activists are stepping up efforts to ensure women have a bigger say in these polls.
A recent high-level conference on women in politics and decision-making in Namibia's harbour town of Walvis Bay saw delegates sharing experiences on how to advance gender equality.
The gathering devised strategies to equip women in leadership and decision-making with requisite skills (in assertiveness, and lobbying) necessary for their self and collective advancement.
The three-day conference was organised by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare in conjunction with the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
Participants – who included lawmakers from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania – pointed out that women’s progress in Parliament has been patchy.
Most parliamentarians agreed that gender equality is only “occasionally or rarely” mainstreamed in Parliament and that few political parties actively promote a gender-equality agenda.
While some parliaments and political parties have implemented reforms to make them more gender-sensitive, the battle is very far from over.
Way to Go
For Namibia in particular and SADC in general to advance gender equality there is a need for legislation, including in the constitution, that provides for 50/50 women presentation, said Anne Makinda, Tanzania’s Speaker of Parliament.
This, Makinda said, will make it illegal, unconstitutional and unacceptable for political parties to not empower women.
Narrating the history of women participation in political process in her country, Makinda said Tanzania ranked 21st globally in terms of women representation in Parliament.
Of 357 MPS, 36.6 percent are women.
In the first post-Independence Parliament (1962 to 1965), women constituted only 7.5 percent of all MPs and the number fell in the 1970 elections.
Following the advent of multiparty politics in 1992, and then with the Beijing Declaration of 1995, Makinda said their cabinet prioritised women’s empowerment through legislated quotas.
Thus in the 2000 general election, the percentage of special seat members increased from 15 in 1995 to 20.
Speaking to The Southern Times, Makinda said those constitutional changes were necessary to advance the cause of women in decision-making.
“Indeed, even prior to the first multi-party democracy elections in 1995 women, along with other special interest groups such as the youth, the soldiers and workers, were allocated special seats in Parliament.
“However, the initial objective of these special seats for women and other groups was not to redress a historic imbalance, which had excluded them from Parliament, but rather to 'add' more voices, to enhance the representation of varied interests under a one-party regime,” she said.
Makinda stressed that excluding women from positions of power impoverishes the development of democratic principles and inhibits economic development.
“It remains imperative to emphasise that women must lead the process to organise and mobilise their networks, learn to communicate their interests with their male counterparts and different organisations, and push for the mechanisms to enhance their presentation,” she added.
Apart from that, Makinda said political parties should come up with internal measures to increase women’s participation at all levels.
For Namibia to achieve the 50/50 target, Makinda said there was need to create strategic plans to actively recruit, train and support female candidates.
“Education is the only key to equity and empowerment, which means women need to participate in transformative leadership training that focuses on political changes and builds their long term capacity and strategy for change,” she said.
The veteran politician, who has been in Tanzanian politics for over 40 years, urged Namibian women to be realistic in their objectives and to support each other.
The factors that hamper women’s political participation and women empowerment vary from country to country and society to society.
Speaking on her experiences, Senator Monica Mutsvangwa from Zimbabwe said women often “find that the politics, public cultural and social environment is often hostile and not conducive for them”.
Mutsvangwa pointed out that prejudice and cultural perceptions regarding the role of women, coupled with lack of financial resources, were the greatest obstacles to gender equality and parity.
“If you do your research, you will find that political life in most African countries, if not the whole world, is organised according to male norms and values and in some cases even male lifestyles,” she said.
To achieve gender balance in politics in Namibia, Mutsvangwa advised that it was important to ensure that the commitment to equality was reflected in laws and national policies.
She said Namibia could introduce an electoral system based on proportional representation and to create a quota system either through party lists or at Parliamentary level to boost women’s participation in politics.
“Such systems have resulted in three to four times more women being elected into high decision-making bodies in countries with similar political cultures and I am confident that such a system can also work for Namibia,” she said.
Mutsvangwa also outlined that illiteracy and limited access to education – resulting in restricted career choices – also hampered women’s progress in politics.
She said while Zimbabwe had ratified key international and regional gender instruments and had laws such as the Domestic Violence, Marriages and Sexual Offences acts, implementation of these remained low.
“Laws can only be useful if we implement them and not just have words on paper … We need as women to work hard and to make sure those laws are implemented,” she emphasised.
Currently, women representation in Zimbabwe’s Parliament stands at 34 percent, while 11.5 percent of cabinet members are female. The country’s Vice President, Joice Mujuru, is also a woman, as is the President of the Senate, Edna Madzongwe.
Political commentator and executive director of National Institute of Public Administration Management (NIPAM), Professor Joseph Diescho, told the Walvis Bay conference that achieving gender equality required a multi-sectional approach.
He said the multi-dimensional nature of women‘s economic empowerment demanded that political parties collaborate in developing the requisite intervention strategies.
Prof Diescho said, “For us to achieve gender equality in Namibia, it will require more than implementation of laws and policies.
“We need to go deeper and try and change the mind-set of our people in the society and make them understand there is potential within our women but only if we equip them with necessary skills.”
He said matters that had to be dealt with included education, literacy, confidence, poverty, cultural considerations, and access to land and property.