No place for complacency in gender equity

South Africa has a balance of men and women in Parliament that would rival Nordic countries, which lead the way regarding gender equity. However, it should not rest on its laurels.

“As South Africans, we should be proud but we have to be very careful of our statistics,” said Brigalia Bam, chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission. “There is a danger because the minute a country begins to boast of its numbers, there’s a danger that we may start to think the problem is solved.”

South Africa has one of the highest rates of female representation in government in the world.
Forty-two Parliamentarians are female, but despite this most South African women face violence daily.

“We cannot motivate for equality for women when there is an environment of violence against women” said Bam, who was the keynote speaker at a regional workshop on gender and elections held by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

Bam said the quota system, implemented as policy by the African National Congress (ANC), had assisted the country in achieving high rates of gender equity in government. “I am a big believer in the quota system because it allows us to get to where we need to be until such a time when there is gender equity,” she said.

She pointed out that women in South Africa are active in certain democratic processes. For example, women turn out to vote in larger numbers than men. “However, the final analysis is always the candidates,” she said. “Political parties make decisions about how many women are on the list, and more importantly, where they are on the list.”

And because politics is increasingly seen as a career, rather than a service, women are sometimes pressured to withdraw from the lists. “There are cases where a man will say ‘You and your husband are both salaried, will you please withdraw?’” said Bam

Change needed within families
Bam said that even when women get to Parliament, they often still struggle to find the balance between their leadership roles and the roles ascribed to them by society. “There have been incidents where husbands will call their wives in Parliament to ask what the name and number of the family doctor is,” she said. In other cases, husbands had called their wives at Parliament to ask how to make sandwiches for their children or to find out how to pay the electricity bill.

“Women are nervous because they’re sitting in a meeting and suddenly someone is calling [on your cellphone] asking you where is the Disprin,” she said.

“When the institutions of family and marriage begin to introduce different expectations of women, the change will come,” she said. This would require that men also take on new roles in spheres reserved for women in the past.

Bam reminded attendees that even in established democratic countries, such as Switzerland, women had only gotten the right to vote in the 80s.

Women’s rights tied to MDGs
Bo Asplund, director of the UNDPs regional service centre, said the workshop aimed to help participants, many of whom were from neighbouring countries, to find ways to encourage women to participate more in the whole democratic process. Seven countries in the region would be holding elections next year.

Asplund said that research has show that when you have progress on the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 3, which speaks to gender equity, there is automatic progress on two of the other MDGs—poverty and maternal health.

The MDGs are international development goals that United Nations member states have agreed to achieve by 2015.

“Equality for women is a basic human right. When we achieve this, it will lead to stability and a deepening democracy.”

Asplund said it was important that women also participate in local government elections, not just national elections.

“Voter and civic education are two of the most important things that we can do. We need to tell women, disenfranchised women and poor women, don’t vote the way your husband, father or brother tells you to vote. Go out there, find out what the candidates would do for you, and when you are behind the curtain, because it is a secret ballot, vote for who you want to,” he said.

Uneven progress
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development has set the goal of ensuring that women hold 50% of decision-making posts in government by 2015.

But Loveness Jambaya, justice manager at the non-governmental organisation Gender Links, said that over the last 10 years progress towards this goal has been slow and uneven.

Female representation in Parliaments in SADC countries is around 24% on average, and compares well with the global average of 19%. However, there is an uneven distribution between countries within SADC. While South Africa has a Parliament that is 42% female, women make up only 7% of Parliamentarians in the DRC for example.

In some countries female representation in government has actually decreased. In Botswana the number of women in government dropped from 18% in 1999 to 11% in 2004. “What this demonstrates is that the few gains that we’re making need to be guarded if we are going to achieve the targets set for 2015,” she said.

Jambaya warned that the gap between male and female representation is often wider at local government level than at national level. “So lot of work has to be done to catch up,” she said.

View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here:.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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