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The gender divide in Africa - breaking the glass ceiling

 Street News Service 13 January 2019

International protocols, by their very nature, can be long on optimism and short on pragmatism. So, when the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) set its 15 members lofty targets and a strict deadline with its Protocol on Gender and Development, even the most positive gender activist couldn’t have expected politicians to pay more than lip service to the document’s ‘outlandish’ demands. (2272 Words) - By Joseph Opio

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Gender activists hope that the SADC Protocol’s 50:50 stipulation in the number of women in the political and public decision-making process will produce laws to curb such anti-women cultural practices like Female Genital Mutilation. Photo: Sharon Wibabara

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After all, the same SADC Member states had, in 1997, committed to more 'down-to-earth' goals and then proceeded, over a course of a decade, to prove the signing a mere waste of ink with only five countries in the region achieving the stipulated targets.

It didn't help that the Protocol, born after three years of intense labour pains, kicked off on the wrong note when four Member states declined to assent to it.

The quartet - Botswana, Mauritius, Madagascar and Malawi - cited various reasons, including the constitutional implications of signing so stringent a document.

And truth be told, the SADC Protocol was stringent!

Signed on 17 August 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Protocol was a legally binding instrument that not only set seemingly 'unachievable 'targets, but also dictated that the targets be met by 2015.

Seven years? To ensure, among others, the inclusion of gender equality in national Constitutions, the repeal of all discriminatory laws and 50% political representation for women in the region?

No wonder the foursome begged off! It all must have seemed like Mission Impossible.

But what a difference two years can make!

Two years since it came into the existence, the Protocol has been signed by 13 of the 15 Member states and SADC is happily basking in the afterglow of its sunny optimism back then.

With five years to the deadline, not only are Member states on a clear path towards achieving the goals set but confidence is high that the deadline will not only be met, but beaten with sometime to spare.

Which all begs the question: How has SADC achieved what it's accomplished thus far?

The formula for SADC's success can be traced right back to the protocol itself.

As a regional blueprint, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development was unique.

Unlike most international instruments, the protocol, from its inception, refused to lend itself to diplomatic elasticity; it set specific targets and timeframes for achieving its goals in all SADC countries. The 28 substantive targets were divided into eight thematic clusters namely constitutional and legal rights, governance, education and training, productive resources and employment, economic empowerment, gender based violence, health, HIV and AIDS, peace building and conflict resolution and media, information and communication.

For good measure, the protocol also contained effective monitoring and evaluation; with Member states required to submit national reports to the SADC summit every two years on progress made in implementation, including the development of national plans of action.

Article 34 of the protocol insisted on institutional arrangements for its implementation.

Among the committees instituted was the Committee of Ministers Responsible for Gender/Women's Affairs whose duty was to ensure the implementation of the Protocol and supervising the work of other committees established under the legal instrument.

This committee was to report to the Committee of Ministers, supervise the work of the Secretariat, and invite the Secretariat to make presentations on gender and development to the Committee of Ministers.

The SADC Secretariat, as the third institutional mechanism, was meant to facilitate and monitor reporting by Member States on the implementation of the protocol, coordinate its implementation, identify research needs and priorities in women's affairs, and provide technical and administrative assistance to the other two committees.

With no wiggle-room normally resident in all international protocols, SADC Member states decided to dig in and dedicated themselves to implementing what legal and gender experts describe "as the most far reaching of any sub-regional instrument for achieving gender equality." In so doing, SADC has made a decisive shift away from being a region of commitments to one of action.

South Africa, unsurprisingly, has led the way. Earlier this year, following a cabinet reshuffle by Jacob Zuma, gender activists were delighted to note that the percentages of women in the cabinet was near the SADC Gender Protocol target of 50%.

Out of the 34 ministers appointed, 14 were women, accounting for 41% of the total while among the 32 deputy ministers, 13 were female, again with a 41% percentage.

To put those figures into perspective, in 1994, when South Africa's first democratic government assumed power, only 18% of the cabinet were women.

Zuma's gesture though wasn't merely statistical.

The South African president named women in strategic and traditionally male-dominated portfolios like Defence, Home Affairs, Energy, Mining, correctional services, International Relations and Cooperation, public enterprises and science and technology.

The increase in female representation in Zuma's cabinet has been matched by the rise of the number of women in the South African Parliament. From 1994, when women represented just 23% of the MPs, South African has seen that number jump to 45%, putting it third, behind Rwanda (57%) and Sweden (47%) in the global women-in-Parliament rankings.

Again, to contextualize South Africa's performance, the global average for female legislative representation still stands at only 16%, with Canada, a more developed country and a full G8 member for example, achieving a mere 23% representation.

At provincial level, South Africa's figures are even more impressive, with the representation of women in the provincial government standing at 55%.

Not that Zuma's government is planning to rest on its laurels.

The South African president recently admitted that "the struggle for a truly better life for women continues," adding: "A lot of work needs to be done to increase the representation of women at senior levels of the public service. At the moment, women make up an average 36% of senior management."

South Africa is the regional giant and every time it sneezes, the entire SADC catches a cold.

Which should explain why Zuma's dedication to the SADC Protocol on on Gender and Development has had the inevitable spillover effect.

Zimbabwe, South Africa's neighbour and another signatory to the SADC Protocol, has increased its female representation in cabinet to 20%. Women now comprise 33% of the Zimbabwean parliament while 29% of judges on the Bench are also female.

Further north, the contagious female empowerment bug initiated by the Protocol has also infected Tanzania. President Jakwaya Kikwete, determined to match South Africa's pace, recently pushed through the Election Financing Act to ensure that women compete with men for elective posts on an equal footing financially.

The law seeks to create a level playing field to stop men from exploiting their financial clout to elbow female contestants out of political races.

Kikwete's devotion to the 50:50 political representation for women has already seen him grab headlines by nominating 10 MPs, five of whom were women and spearheading the elevation of Anne Makinda to the role of deputy speaker of the National Assembly.

The president's activism has also seen women representation in Tanzania's Parliament increase to 31% from the miserly 21.3% in 2003.

What makes the gains within SADC in the last two years even more remarkable is the fact that before the Protocol came into existence, increasing women participation in governance and gender equality as a whole had moved at a snail's pace within the region. 10 of the same SADC nations that now seem hell-bent on achieving all their set targets failed miserably to achieve the 30% political representation for women that the 1997 instrument stipulated.

Something obviously changed to lend political will to the cause.

But whatever it is that changed, gender activists won't dare look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth provided SADC Member states continue their smooth path towards attaining the women emancipation goals set out in the 2008 Protocol.

SIDEBAR: Women in Malawi

WHEN the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) met to sign its Protocol on Gender and Development on 17 August 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Malawi was among the four Member states that declined to ratify the instrument that the quartet deemed too demanding.

President Bingu Wa Mutharika did eventually overcome his jitters, putting pen to paper last October.

But, having dithered for two years, President Mutharika's belated signing means that henceforth, his country faces a race against time to achieve the set goals before the 2015 deadline.

As the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a Malawian human rights watchdog, hastened to remind Mutharika in the aftermath of the signing ceremony, his government now has five years to eliminate gender based violence, repeal of all discriminatory laws and work towards the achievement of the 50% women representation in political and decision-making positions.

"The importance of implementing this Protocol cannot be overstated," CHRR chief Undule Mwakasungura says. "As CHRR, we take note that there are still some major crosscutting challenges that must seriously be addressed if gender equality is to be achieved in the country."

If Malawi indeed does achieve the set goals, it promises to be a close-run thing.

Since assuming power in 2004, Mutharika has set an aggressive pace for empowering Malawian women; appointing women in key government, statutory and ambassadorial positions. Mutharika's pro-women policies have also been credited with the increase in the percentage of women MPs from 15 to 22%.

"There are now 42 women members of parliament [in the 192 seats House], the greatest number in the history of this country, all because of the vision of His Excellency the president" says Minister of Gender, Children and Community Development Patricia Kaliati.

Critics counter that, while it's true successes have been registered, it is still clear that women in Malawi remain largely invisible in key decision-making structures.

"Nowhere is this gender disparity clearer than in Parliament itself," points out CHRR's Mwakasungura. "Out of the 16 parliamentary committees set up recently, only one is chaired by a woman - and this is the International Relations Committee chaired by Hon. Dr. Jean Alfazema Kalilani. Even with the increase in female MPs, Malawi is still far from the set SADC target of 50% as our percentage is still only 21%. In the private sector, the absence of women in strategic decision-making positions also makes a sad point.

The gender gap isn't just restricted to the corridors of the legislature.

Up to now, Mutharika's most celebrated masterstroke occurred when he picked Joyce Banda as Vice President, making her the first woman second-in command in the Malawi's history.

However, while Banda enjoys such an exalted position, it's inescapable that she could use more female company in the Cabinet.

Although women representation has increased from seven in the previous 41-member cabinet to 11 in the current 42-member cabinet, only five women are heading ministries while the rest are deputizing men. Unlike neighbours South Africa and Zambia were women hold powerful, traditionally male-dominated cabinet portfolios, women in Malawi's government are still restricted to the traditionally female-oriented ministries like Gender and the arts with men at the helm of strategic ministries like economic planning, defence and finance.

The role of women as 'glorified assistants' in Malawi has been asserted by the turnaround in VP Banda's recent political fortunes.

Banda became vice president after she was chosen as Mutharika's running mate in 2004.

Early this year, rumours circulated that Banda might be interested in taking over the top job once Mutharika's second term runs out in 2014.

The immediate after-effect of this development was a bitter intra-party succession battle with Mutharika's young brother, Peter. It's a succession battle that has seen the party conduct a smear campaign against Banda, its second senior member.

To most men in the party, Banda was tolerable so long as she stuck to her role as a deputy and didn't develop any ideas beyond her station.

As soon as she strayed beyond her nature-ordained parameters, she had to be reined in.

The ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP) has since launched a spirited media campaign to promote Peter Mutharika at the expense of the vice-president. State media cover his activities and host experts praising his leadership capabilities. Top management at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation has openly declared Peter Mutharika the better presidential candidate.

Vice-president Banda has, on the other hand, had to cope with a press blackout, and regular ridicule as commentators question her capacity to take the hot reins.

One high ranking DPP official, Noel Masangwi, was even bold enough to dismiss Banda as delusional.

"The vice president might have her ambitions but all I am saying is that Malawi is not ready for a woman president," Masangwi told the media. "I am sorry to say this but it's true."

Banda's response to the smears has so far been measured.

"Women leaders face challenges because of our societal and traditional values," Banda told the press when the smear campaign started. "Sometimes society finds it difficult to accept that you, as a woman, can achieve as well as, even better, than your male your counterparts."

The crusade against Banda has cultivated a culture of fear, especially after female DPP MP Anita Kalinde was attacked at a ceremony where President Mutharika was presiding over due to her alleged support of the VP's presidential bid.

Banda might have the political muscle to overcome her detractors come 2014.

But, according to CHRR, other women aren't so lucky. CHRR insists that the situation is even worse in rural areas where reports reveal that women who dare run for elective office are routinely summoned before village courts on allegations of insulting men. The most resilient ones, CHRR discovered, lack the financial resources to compete with their male rivals.



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