The value of initiatives around engendering the political landscape is significantly enhanced if these initiatives are widely communicated and if they are monitored, reported on, and evaluated regularly.
August is known as “Women’s Month” in honour of the August 9, 1956 march by women to the Union Building to demand the end of laws that required black South Africans to carry internal passes to regulate their movement within the country. The march to the offices of the Head of State was indicative of the strong link between political power, socioeconomic transformation and gender parity.
Women are a vibrant force and occupy an important space in advancing social, economic, and democratic progress, safeguarding human rights, and promoting peace. There is a growing recognition of the impact that women have on political institutions and agendas. Women’s approaches to governance are generally more transformative, non-hierarchical and participatory.
This type of approach assists in creating change and developing people and communities, giving priority to disadvantaged sectors. In the past decade, women’s visibility in and impact on public life has grown. A 2015 review of implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action reflected that 167 countries, of which 51 were in Africa, reported successes in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.
According to UN Women (2015:30), “Women’s representation in national parliaments has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years. Globally, in 2014, women occupied 23 percent of the seats in single or lower houses of parliament, up from 12 percent in 1995.” The report further states that “The most substantial progress between 1995 and 2014 was made in sub-Saharan Africa, where women’s representation increased from 9.7 percent to 24 percent.” (UN Women 2015:30).
In recognition that politics is an important site of struggle, dedicated effort is required to optimise access to and participation of women in this field. Such efforts should extend beyond marches, pickets, and “Women’s Day” gifts. Initiatives are urgently needed to holistically transform the structural and systemic manifestations of patriarchy. Patriarchy has unique manifestations at country level, but a number of generic initiatives with local nuances can be undertaken across the African continent to more comprehensively address inequities and to deepen the participation and representation of women in politics.
The first is encouraging a climate of peace, stability and security. Political and economic instability affects the development of a political culture with democratic norms. Socio-economic norms, religious interpretations and traditional patriarchal systems are frequently used for challenging and reinterpreting women’s rights and limiting their access to information, skills and opportunities.
It is also important that countries have enabling legislative frameworks. It is important to facilitate so that statutory provisions interface between constitutional, traditional and religious law in a manner that not only guarantees women fundamental political rights access and opportunities; but also ensures the promotion, protection and enforcement of human rights, social and physical protection of women, and equality in the economy and the workplace.
Such statutory provisions should be linked to international instruments on women’s empowerment and gender equality as part of ensuring the application of these instruments within each of the countries in the continent.
The enabling legislative frameworks should be supported by political systems that advance gender equity. These include decentralised systems of governance as women candidates are more likely to be known to local voters; and the party list system of election, which enables the reservation of a quota of seats for women.
As a demonstration of commitment to gender parity, governments should also establish specific women’s departments and/or dedicated, budgeted, measurable programmes that promote equality, empowerment and access for women in relation to education, economic opportunity and social security. They must also ensure adequate child-care facilities as parental duties are amongst the key inhibitors of political participation.
The social structural barriers to women’s participation in politics have to be broken. This will require the creation of a consciousness across gender on the cultural and traditional practices that infringe on women’s rights and the facilitation of the challenging of these practices using mechanisms that consider the material conditions. Furthermore, women have to be skilled to manage the often domineering, adversarial and aggressive nature and modes work that prevail in the political sphere due to socialisation and to deal with other aspects of oppression within the terrain of power such as sexual harassment, rape and gender-based violence.
If we are serious about increasing women’s access to and participation in politics, we have to address economic empowerment and the cost barrier. Campaign expenses are prohibitive for women, given the continued high prevalence of wage inequality. Once elected the rate of remuneration can be insufficient. Funding for political parties should have a gender quota bias.
Lastly, the value of initiatives around engendering the political landscape is significantly enhanced if these initiatives are widely communicated and if they are monitored, reported on, and evaluated regularly. The collection of data on women’s participation in politics and advocacy on what is available and progress on its implementation adds to the visibility of women, thereby encouraging gender parity broadly.
In conclusion, women everywhere continue to face challenges and barriers to substantive participation in the political sphere. The obstacles are even greater to overcome in countries with high levels of conflict or countries that have significant levels of poverty such as those on our continent. We acknowledge that there is progress, but believe that the pace is still too slow.
The exclusion of women from participation in the political arena deprives the world of the rich experiences, talents, and perspectives that women have to offer. It is thus imperative that we remain committed to advancing opportunities for women to meaningfully participate in politics by availing all requisite resources to make this a reality.
Author: Reneva Fourie