Studies show higher numbers of women in parliament generally contribute to stronger attention to women’s issues. Women’s political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. It facilitates women’s direct engagement in public decision-making and is a means of ensuring better accountability to women.
In pursuing its goal to attain the implementation of national commitments to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment (Strategic Plan 2008-2011), UN Women adopted an approach that aims to increase the number of women in decision-making positions and build their capacities for effective engagement and influence. UN Women in partnership with women’s organizations, governments, the United Nations and the private sector has been creating and strengthening partnerships to foster women’s roles in governance what includes political and other decision making positions participation. The programmes that UN Women implements and supports help bring more women into all levels of government, train women leaders, equip women with the skills to actively participate in elections as candidates and voters and raise awareness among different actors on women’s rights and gender equality.
Of the top 24 countries with a 30% critical mass of women in national parliaments 3 are Southern African countries that form part of the region covered by the UN Women sub-regional office. While recent elections in South Africa which led to an increase in the proportion of seats held by women in parliament are encouraging and Malawi’s increase in seats from 13.9% to 20.5% point to improvements and progress in this respect others such as the nomination of only 6 women by Botswana’s two main parties for the forthcoming elections, confirm once again that progress in the region remains uneven.
As in many other regions, states have expressed commitment by signing on to international and regional commitments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (more popularly referred to as the African Women’s Protocol). Translating these commitments into domestic laws, practices and procedures related to decision-making and political leadership, remains a challenge. Other guiding instruments to the region such as the SADC Gender Protocol challenges states to put in place effective laws, policies and programmes, to achieve an agreed upon target of 30% representation of women in public life by 2005, now increased to 50% by 2015. At least 12 out of 14 countries covered by UN Women SARO have signed on to the Protocol and 2 (South Africa and Mozambique) have achieved this target. They have done this through a combination of measures including: electoral reforms to adopt proportional representation or single member and proportional representation systems; political party quotas.
In 2007 the sub-regional average for women in parliament was 19.4%, higher than the global average of 15.4%. Although there are vast differences between countries, from 5.7% in Mauritius to 30% in Mozambique (2007). Following the 22 April 2009 South Africa elections results, the country achieved 45% of women in parliament and has soared from 17th place to 3rd position in the global ranking of women in Parliament. This development is part of a global trend whereby women are using electoral gender quotas to take a ‘fast track’ to equal legislative representation.
A study conducted by Gender Links (The Coal Face – March 2007) shows that a growing number of Southern African countries from different political and electoral backgrounds proves that gender parity can be achieved in local government. Examples like Lesotho, South Africa and Namibia (representing the constituency, proportional representation and mixed electoral systems) show that the SADC target of 50% of women in decision-making can be achieved in pretty much any situation, providing that there is the necessary political will:
Lesotho which, with 58%, has the highest level of women in local government in the region, thanks to a legislated 30% quota in the country’s first elected local government in 2005.
Namibia, which has had over 40% of women in local government for several years, thanks to a Proportional Representation (PR) system and legislated quota.
South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) fielded a substantially higher proportion of women in both the ward and PR seats in the country’s mixed electoral system in the 2009 elections, boosting the proportion of women from 29 to 45%.
Mauritius which, with 6.4 % of women in local government, represents the many countries in the region that have a constituency electoral system and also an extremely low level of women in all areas of decision-making.
The relatively high levels of women in parliament in South Africa, Mozambique and Seychelles, as well as local government in Namibia and cabinet in South Africa make it possible to start assessing the impact of women in decision-making in the region. In addition to providing training and empowerment programmes for women who are aspirants and those who make it into Parliaments and various governance structures, governments will be called upon to remove discriminatory practices which inhibit the full participation and involvement of women in all political and public life. Women will also be trained on how to use their positional power to effect positive change for the enjoyment of rights in their countries.
On the other hand, all SAR countries have established national gender machineries or women’s ministries/departments. In 2004 SADC conducted an institutional assessment of national gender machineries. The assessment made mention of the low capacity of the national machineries to fulfill their mandates but also indicated that they did not have sufficient knowledge and skills to fulfill their roles as a coordination mechanism. Additionally, national budget assessments conducted by UN Women in Swaziland, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe in 2003 showed that the national gender ministries are the most under resourced ministries in government structures and they also have the smallest compliment of staff. For Zimbabwe the Ministry of Youth Development, Gender and Employment Creation received the lowest vote in the social sectors.
Within this scenario UN Women SARO is preparing in partnership with civil society organizations a women in politics sub-regional programme that aims to address
the abovementioned gaps in representation of women to be implemented in 2009.