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South Africa
Politics | Society | Gender - Women

South Africa sets pace for regional gender equality

South African President Thabo Mbeki:
«Constitutional guarantees of gender equality by 2010.»

© afrol News / F de La Mure / Gouvt. française
afrol News / Gender Links, 11 April
- Later this year, women in Southern Africa expect a leap forward when it comes to gender equality as Heads of State are discussing more binding commitments to raise women's share of decision-making positions to 50 percent. South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki is putting heavy pressure on his colleagues, who also can point to considerable gains.

The story goes that when President Mbeki meets his counterparts from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, they grumble that he is putting too much pressure on them. With 42 percent women in his cabinet - second only in the world to Sweden - Mr Mbeki makes it hard for his colleagues to justify why they still lag so far behind.

Their gender performance will come under scrutiny at the SADC Heads of State summit in Lusaka in August, where activists are mounting a campaign to get them to elevate the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development to a more binding Protocol.

In Johannesburg this week, South Africa's Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) is convening national consultation on the draft Protocol that would break new ground globally in that it would be the first time that existing commitments to gender equality are brought together and enhanced in a binding sub-regional instrument.

Botswana's Minister of Health Sheila Thlou has described the difference between the Declaration and draft Protocol as one between a "nice to do and a have to do."

The draft Gender and Development Protocol follows an audit of the 1997 Declaration by a consortium of non-governmental organisations, who argue that moral suasion has not worked. Legally binding measures are now being sought to move SADC from a "region of commitments to one of implementation."

President Mbeki, who has made gender equality a cornerstone of his legacy, will be looked to give strong backing to the idea of a regional instrument that incorporates all the existing global commitments into one comprehensive set of targets and indicators for achieving gender equality; and setting new targets where these do not exist.

An example of this is in the area of decision-making, where the African Union (AU) has come out in favour of gender parity, but has not set targets. Under pressure at their 2005 summit - that also marked the tenth anniversary of Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women - to make a move on this front, regional leaders increased the target for women in decision-making from 30 percent to 50 percent. The draft protocol gives this a timeline of 2015.

Some argue that it is not useful to up the ante when the current target has not been achieved. The counter argument is that countries like South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania that have achieved the thirty percent for women in parliament, not to mention Namibia with 42 percent and Lesotho with 58 percent women in local government, should not be held back.

Experience has shown that even when they are not legally binding, targets of any kind have a dramatic mobilising effect. None of the club of 14 SADC countries wants to be shown up as the worst performer.

For example Mauritius, which sat at the bottom of the list with 5.6 percent women in parliament, made a marked turnaround in the July 2005 elections when this proportion increased to 17 percent, with a remarkable three-quarters of the women who contested seats in the socially conservative island winning them.

In other recent elections, all SADC countries except Botswana - where the drop sparked a massive outcry - have increased the proportion of women in parliament. The increases have been especially marked in the most conservative countries such as Swaziland, Malawi and Mauritius.

Although only three countries have achieved the existing SADC target of thirty women in parliament, on average women comprise twenty percent of the region's legislators: second only to the Scandinavian countries where the average is 38 percent. And where it took the Scandinavians sixty years to achieve this, SADC has shown that rapid change is possible.

But decision-making is only one of the gender gaps that needs bridging. The proposed Protocol seeks to use the positive experience of having a target in this area to set several more strategic benchmarks.

These include requiring that all SADC countries amend their constitutions to include guarantees of gender equality by 2010 - in line with the more recent constitutions in the region such as those in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia.

In doing so, countries would also be required to specify, as the South African constitution does, that should there be a conflict between customary and state law, the national constitution will take precedence.

In a region where customary law governs the daily lives of the majority of women, rendering them minors for all of their lives, this is possibly the most significant of all the proposed changes. Recent test cases pitting customary law against the Bill of Rights in South Africa have shown that while this area of change is painfully slow, constitutional provisions for gender equality are vital if root causes are ever to be tackled.

The new measures would also include a target of 2010 for all countries in the region to adopt comprehensive legislation and to make budgetary allocations for ending gender violence: one of the most glaring reflections of the gap that exists between gender equality on paper and in reality. South Africa has yet to enact a Sexual Offences Bill, on the cards since 1996, despite having one of the highest levels of gender violence in the world.

The proposed SADC Protocol comes with an annual reporting framework and a review mechanism comprising gender ministers and experts from the region. As South Africa celebrates its thirteenth anniversary of democracy on 27 April, SADC's gentle giant is well poised both to accelerate the pace of change in the region, as well as turn the spotlight on the gaps that still exist between policy and practice in this country.

By Colleen Lowe Morna.
Ms Morna is executive director of Gender Links and former CEO of the South African Commission on Gender Equality.

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