The holding of elections in southern Africa and the rest of the African continent has always created some interesting reading.
Not short of eye-catching headlines and commentaries, focus is usually on the ruling party’s election campaign to deal with service delivery and unemployment, as well as what the opposition say are the shortcomings of that government.
Little is reserved on other pressing issues such as the need to facilitate gender parity in political decision-making positions.
For example, the SADC Gender Monitor 2013 notes that participation of women in decision-making structures across the region is low, despite the fact that women make up the majority of voters.
All member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are signatories to various regional, continental and international instruments that promote gender equality and empowerment, yet most of them continue to have fewer women in political decision-making positions.
Therefore, as the region anticipates at least five national elections this year, there is need for stakeholders to focus more on how southern Africa could address some of the challenges affecting gender equality and parity.
The five elections in South Africa on 7 May, Malawi on 20 May, Botswana in October, Mozambique on 15 October, and Namibia in November are very strategic as these are being held one year before the 2015 deadline for SADC to attain the target of 50:50 representation of men and women in key decision-making positions.
According to the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development signed in 2008 and entered into force in early 2013 after ratification by two-thirds of the signatories, southern African should achieve 50:50 representations of men and women in key decision-making positions by 2015.
Only five SADC countries are significantly close to the target of parity in parliament, having gone above the 30-percent threshold set previously by regional leaders for representation of women.
These are Seychelles (43.8 percent), South Africa (42.3 percent), Mozambique (39.2 percent), the United Republic of Tanzania (36 percent) and Angola (34.1 percent).
Zimbabwe, which introduced a quote system under the new constitution, now has 31.5 percent representation in the National Assembly.
The average representation of women in parliament is well short of the 50 percent target agreed under the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, even though it is on the increase from 20.6 percent and 23 percent in 2005 and 2011 respectively to 25.8 percent as of mid-2013.
In terms of representation of women in cabinet, only South Africa has surpassed the previous 30-percent target, but more women in the region now hold a wider range of ministerial portfolios such as foreign affairs, home affairs, defence, finance, education, health, and trade and industry.
The forthcoming elections in the five SADC countries should thus aim at consolidating the gains and improving the achievements.
Increasing women representation in political decision-making positions is necessary as it also advances the rights of children.
However, participation of southern African women in key decision-making positions may only remain at the parliament, cabinet or judiciary levels as a few women are expected to contest in the presidential elections to be held in 2014.
These are Malawian President Joyce Banda of Malawi, who became the first women president in SADC after succeeding the late President Bingu wa Mutharika who died in 2012.
She will be contesting against Peter Mutharika, the brother to the late Bingu wa Mutharika. In Malawi, the president is elected directly by the voters.
Helen Zille leader of the of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance political party is another women who is expected to contest against President Jacob Zuma of the African National Congress.
South Africa uses a system of Proportional Representation in which the electorate votes for a political party, not individuals. The political party gets a share of seats in Parliament in direct proportion to the number of votes won in the election.
Each registered political party submits a list of candidates to the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa IEC in advance of the election, and the IEC determines the number of seats for each party based on the election results.
The President is elected by the new National Assembly from among its members, usually the leader of the majority party.
The candidate resigns from parliament upon election as president, and becomes the head of state and government and commander-in-chief of the defence force.
The other presidential elections in Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia will see men compete among themselves.
However, reports are that more women have expressed an interest in taking part in the parliamentary elections, raising hope that most of them would win some seats and occupy key decision-making positions.
Botswana has a total of 9.5 percent women in parliament, while Malawi and Namibia have 22.3 percent and 24.4 percent respectively.
However, for SADC to achieve this agenda of empowering women there is need to come up and implement wide-ranging measures that promote gender equality and parity.
These may include addressing a number of cultural and patriarchal systems that continue to look down upon women, as well as gender-blind legal and policy framework that constrain women from fully participating in socio-economic activities.
“The nature of the barriers to full and equal participation and representation by women, therefore, requires a holistic approach to solutions. This calls for joint efforts by all stakeholders – women’s groups, political parties, government ministries, traditional leaders, men’s groups, and parliamentarians to ensure there is national buy-in as member states accelerate initiatives towards the goal of 50:50 by 2015,” reads part of the SADC Gender Monitor 2013 produced by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre.
The gender monitor calls for better coordination of relevant government ministries, women’s parliamentary groups and other stakeholders to promote gender equality and empowerment.
Another solution to addressing the challenge is for member states to review their electoral systems to ensure gender representations in Parliament.
“Voluntary quotas are better than no quotas, and have been important in some Member States in reaching 30 percent representation quickly,” the gender monitor said.
Countries that have experienced positive results because of legislated quota for women include Tanzania — the only member state to have legislated a quota at national level, of 30 percent women representation, although some others have a quota at the level of local government.
Mozambique and South Africa use proportional representation electoral systems and their ruling parties have a policy that reserves quotas for women legislators, guaranteeing higher representation.
Head of the SADC Gender Unit, Magdeline Mathiba-Madibela, believes all is not lost for southern Africa to address its gender imbalances.
“In terms of progress, SADC is doing well although it is inconsistent across member states, some countries are doing good while others are lagging behind but it is achievable, there is still need for capacity building in key stakeholders who can promote gender equality,” Mathiba-Madibela said at the launch of the SADC Gender Monitor 2013 at the SADC Summit held in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Gender equality is firmly rooted in SADC’s regional integration agenda and member states support the fundamental principle that both women and men must be equally engaged in decision-making at all levels and in all positions of leadership.
Most countries in the region now recognise that gender equality and the empowerment of women are crucial for the attainment of sustainable democracy.
This is reflected in the constitutions of most SADC countries that provide legal frameworks for non-discrimination on the basis of gender differences.
A few countries have also legislated affirmative action and quota systems that guarantee the participation and representation of women in political and other decision-making positions. However, implementation of these measures remains a challenge.