Face to face with Swapo’s women champion

Eunice Iipinge returns to the helm of the Namibian politics, following her election as Secretary of Swapo Party Women’s Council. She was elected during the fourth congress of the party’s women’s council held last year in December at Keetmanshop. Iipinge returned to steer the ruling party’s women’s wing for the second time, and brings with her a wealth of experience in women affairs, from academia and politics. She holds a master degree in development studies with strong emphasis on women development. The veteran politician took over the reigns of the women’s league at the same time when calls are made that time is nigh for Namibia to have a female as head of state.  The Southern Times’ reporter LAHJA NASHUUTA caught up with Iipinge for a wide-ranging interview.

The Southern Times (TST): Let’s first congratulate you on your election as secretary of SWAPO Party Women’s Council. Please Educate us on the relevance of SWAPO Party women’s Council?

Eunice Iipinge (EI): The SWAPO Party Women’s Council is a tool that the party is using to advance and to further the interests of women within the party and the country. Since women issues are very different from men, and culturally there are those women who are not so open to speak in front of men, the SWAPO party decided to introduce a platform that will give women space to deliberate their issues, interests, problems, strategies and forward it to the party. Women within the party are also using this forum to mobilise other women to participate in political activities of the party and the country. The SWAPO Party Women’s Council was formed in exile in 1969 during the liberation struggle and has been influencing politics in exile as well as inside the country. It is through the council that women were mobilising to take part in the liberation struggle at all level and to link up with other women of different countries and different organisation who have experience and knowledge on how to fast-forward women’s issues. It is the Swapo Women’s Council that managed to influence other women organisations to advocate for equal rights and encourage women to stand up and fight for themselves. It is because of pressure form the council that Swapo formulate a Constitution that speaks of gender equality and women rights. It is obvious we are free from colonialism, but we are yet to achieve women emancipation. We are still experiencing problems whether it’s in politics, in economy, culture, traditions. Statistics shows that though women are the majority, they’re the ones that bear the blunt of poverty in this country. Therefor it is important that we have a women structure within the party that advocates for women’s interests.

TST: Please name some of the SPWC’s achievements over the years?

EI: To start with the concept of gender equality that was advocated by the Swapo women’s council. The women council has fought to ensure greater representation of women in leadership position both in politics and government through quotas or affirmative action, thus allowing them to participate more in decision-making processes.  When our constitution was being drafted, the Swapo women council pressed for our secretary that time, Pendukeni Ivula Ithana to be part of the drafting committee to ensure that women rights and dignity are included.   Namibia has ratified UN Conventions that are talking about women. The Swapo Party Women’s Council has also managed to make sure that the country has implemented the UN gender policy. The debate around the issue of 50/50 gender representation in decision-making, came up for the first time at the Swapo party congress held in Rundu in 2006, and it was presented by Netumbo Nandi- Ndaitwa. Since then the council has been calling for the implementation of this resolution.  In 2013, Swapo amended its Constitution to make the 50/50 resolution a constitutional requirement. Although women representation in Cabinet has not changed drastically, there are now more women in parliament with female deputy ministers accounting for almost 50 percent. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are also women. It is because of the introduction of the quota system in local authority elections by Comrade Libertina Amathila that today we have more women leading at local authority level.

TST: What hampers the progress of advancing the interest of women in Namibia?

EI: A lot has been achieved to advance the interest of women. The Constitution was changed to pave way for women to get into decision making level. Today if there are two positions to be filled, for instance president and prime minister – one has to go to a woman. But challenges still persist in the form of national policies that are being formulated and passed by our parliament. Most of the policies are not gender sensitive enough and some are even gender blind. The congress of the Swapo Party Women’s Council has now passed a resolution to review all policies from gender perspective so that we don’t just deal with the number in quantity but also the quality.   The council is currently busy doing an analysis on gender and energy because we realized that we have a problem there to see how gender equality can be effective within that sector.  Apart from that, we are experiencing challenges in our effort to introduce the 50/50 concept at regional election where the winner takes all, unlike at other level where there is a proportional list. Regional council members in Namibia are elected by plurality in single member constituency elections, a system that has generally led to a severe under representation of women. In this regard, the women council is trying to find mechanisms within the party to allow women to make it to those positions.

TST:  There are calls that it is now time for Namibia to have a woman president. Where does the Swapo Women’s Council stand on this issue?

EI:  The Swapo Party Women’s Council has been using different platforms to encourage women to partake in decision making and to contest for high positions within the party. It is not something new. We have women of presidencial material, it only depend on the arrangement within the party. The women’s council is ready to contest for all positions, whether it is for the president, vice president, secretary general and other central committee seats. Ofcouse we don’t have candidates that came forward yet, but if we found out that there are women who are interested, we will rally behind them.

TST: There is a perception that women don’t like to vote for each other, is this true or is it a myth?

EI: Women should not be blamed for this and neither should the men. It is cultural and traditional beliefs that we grew up with.  The gender issue is also ideological. When you are born in that system of male-dominated society, you are bound to believe that it is not normal for a woman to be a president. As a result, you will definitely vote for a man. So we need to sensitise women about these perceptions and theories. This is the same theory for instance that black people are not smart and cannot do mathematics. That’s a socially constructed ideology that people are made to believe and as result most blacks did not make an attempt to try study mathematics. Therefore, the issue of women not voting for each other are made-up, socially constructed, cultural beliefs and it is something difficult to get away from. That’s why our gender awareness programmes are ongoing to educate our men and women to be able to change their mind-sets and to realise that this is just a myth.

TST: And how about the perception that women are not doing enough to empower themselves  and hence being dependant on men to further their interests such as the women empowerment agenda.

EI: That’s a wrong perception. I don’t think when women are using men is because they are not empowered but that’s just one of our tactic to advance ourselves. Women have done a lot to empower themselves. For instance if you look at graduates from our universities, majority are women. Women are very much aware of their position   and where they want to go. So whoever they use to advance their agenda is not a problem. Which means if there are those using men to advance their agenda because they don’t have capacity, skills and tools that’s not a problem? Using men, is even a good tactic as long as they’re not being manipulated for the interest of men. If you think people won’t listen to you because you are women and people are likely to listen to a man, let the man raise your issue.

TST: What will the SPWC do different, under your leadership, especially at a time when people are calling for a woman president?

EI: I don’t really want to share our tactics on this forum but we have our ways of doing things within our party. Those that are calling for a women president in the corridors are also advised to join the party. Beside that our members have grown in politics, they know their needs and interests and how to further them unlike before when people were not really informed. The women council has trained them on lobbying and leadership skills, as a way of preparing them to face the challenges. So should we found ourselves in the battle, we are equiped and ready to battle for our own interest and that of the party. However I want to make it clear that for the Swapo Party Women’s Council, the party comes first. Our big focus is to strengthen our party and makes sure our congress goes well. We will elect people who will put our interest first and to ensure government  is running forward regardless of their biological status.

TST: Are you happy with progress made in Namibia as far as gender empowerment and equality is concerned?

EI: Of course, I am happy with the progress made so far even though there is still a lot to be done. Yes, much has been done, and much of it is worthwhile. The foundation has been laid and awareness is being carried out. There is no body in this country who doesn’t know about equal rights, there is affirmative action in this country and gender equality is a government priority.  Women are leading on the enrolment at all education institutions and even at our Medical School, women are in majority. Women are  even in private sector, of course we are not leading but at least we are in the system.

TST:  What is your vision for the Swapo Party Women’s Council and what issues are you planning to tackle?

EI: The vision is to see women in good health and benefiting equally from the resources that we have in our country. To achieve that there are certain things that we need to do.  Women need to be capacitated order to participate in, contribute to and benefit from, particularly, the country’s social and economic growth processes. I want to see women being empowered so that they can have access to economic resources and opportunities such as skills development, jobs, financial services, property, productive assets and market information. When women are given opportunities to fully take part and empowered economically these will result in strengthening their rights and in the end make them have control over their lives as well as the ability to influence positive changes in their communities. The council will intensify efforts to address the serious challenges that remain. These include discriminatory attitudes and social norms that fuel violence in our country.  We cannot rest until we reach women emancipation.

February 2017
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