The participation of women in political life today is on the agendas of most governments and political parties.
By Tamsanqa Mlilo
However, attempts to translate this goal into concrete reality has suffered setbacks and reversals and have had limited success. A basic reason for this is the lack of conceptual clarity about and genuine commitment to the issue.
That the women issue could no longer be left to the whims of individual nations was recognised by the United Nations Organisation (UNO), which has, since its early years, passed a number of conventions specifically pertaining to women.
The body realises, of course, that the degree of deprivation and its manifestation differs from continent to continent, from country to country, and within a country from one area to another.
The UN efforts culminated in the body declaring 1976 to 1985 the Decade for Women.
This was subsequently followed by other declarations including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women proclaimed in 1979.
All these efforts have been buttressed by other international instruments, for instance United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development Article 8 states among others: “Effective measures should be undertaken to ensure that women have an active role in the development process.”
For any such endeavour to be successful, it must be recognised that equal participation of women and men in decision making in all spheres is a pre-requisite for effective democracy.
Participation means more than female membership in political parties, female voter turnout in elections or token female presence in political parties.
Participation must be meaningful and effective and must include representation in the political arena. This includes, not only formal or higher level decision making forums, but also other political units namely inter alia: the family, community groups, association, trade unions, civic groups, churches and local bodies.
These are critical areas for intervention within which women can easily understand the issues and play an effective role.
The identification of barriers to women’s political participation is obviously a pre-requisite for overcoming them, but the visible barriers do not necessarily reflect the entire situation, and are often indicative of more deep seated problems.
Overcoming the barriers means not only eliminating them, but also ensuring women’s participation through other means. Affirmative action measures should not be perceived as privileges or concessions, but as interim measures to reverse existing imbalances, until such a time when genuine equality is achieved.
In the spirit of the Sadc declaration, member States are expected to review policies, constitutions and legislations to see whether these are discriminatory and retrogressive or if they have been effective in promoting women’s rights. In particular, each country has to review its ratifications of international covenants, conventions, agreements and protocols.
Since the issue of women’s participation cannot be addressed in isolation, Sadc countries must assess the factors affecting the development of a new democratic culture or the recognition of human rights concerns.
The factors include the following among other things; the country’s political history, socio-cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, impact of tradition, customary, feudal, tribal wars and religious interpretations regarding women’s rights.
It is particularly important to assess women’s political participation, including political parties, representation in legislative bodies and local councils, women in the civil service and in trade unions and women’s groups.
Barriers to women’s political participation can be legal, social, financial or political.
It will be prudent to develop clear policies articulating the effective involvement of women in the formulation of laws and policies, which are gender sensitive. Deliberate steps must be taken to ensure the principle of equality as a fundamental right is deeply entrenched.
Sometime back, depressing and disheartening figures were released by the Geneva Inter-Parliamentary group.
According to figures, women comprised a mere 10,5% of politicians worldwide, a drop of more than 4% from 1988 figure of 14,8%.
These disparities become grimmer at cabinet level, where women hold just 6,8%.
Barring women from participating in decision making is often referred to as the glass ceiling.
Let’s hope during the intervening years there has been a dramatic positive shift towards empowerment, recognition and catapulting women to positions of influence and substantive leadership roles in all spheres of life, including occupying the highest office in the land.
Although there is a school of thought that asserts that parity without equity serves no useful purpose.
As a matter of urgency, priority research must be undertaken to cover information gaps. The respective government ministries or departments in conjunction with other key stakeholders must devise mechanisms, guidelines and indicators to provide interactive real-time data, which will hopefully enable decision makers and law makers to promulgate gender sensitive laws that advance, promotes and protects the interests of women and girl child.
Civic education should be provided on electoral rights, good governance, and voter education, civil rights, political parties, election issues, women in politics, gender mainstreaming and advocacy work.
There is a need for political parties to institute and engender gender sensitive programmes in their political work to enhance and inculcate a human rights culture furthering women rights agenda in all strategic levels.
All things being constant, political parties are expected to publish positions on women’s rights issues and encourage women to vote on issues that concern them.
These are only some of the basic principles and guidelines that can be adopted; ultimately, however, no national strategy can be effective unless it is backed by the requisite political will and impetus.
Tamsanqa Mlilo is the director at Mediation for Peace Centre and is a human rights activist and social commentator