[ANALYSIS] What ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’ Means for Women’s Political Representation in the Southern African Development Community?

Ndondwa Msaka

In 2022, the international community and the African Union commemorated Women’s Days on March 8 and July 3, respectively. On both occasions, the theme underscored the link between gender equality and sustainability. The March commemoration specifically sought to “recognize the contribution of women and girls around the world leading the way on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a healthier and more equal and sustainable future for all”. However, the glaring underrepresentation of women in politics worldwide, and not least in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, takes away from that recognition, as it impacts substantive contribution to sustainable solutions inclusive of the perspectives of women.

Women’s Political Representation in SADC

Socio-cultural underpinnings — masculine dominance of political life, poverty, and the cultural profiling of women — that limit women’s participation in politics have a presence in southern African societies and are evidently translated into politics and governance. These factors continue to undermine women’s historical place in politics evidenced by their contribution to the liberation struggle in Africa and the SADC region from the 1950s to the 1990s. 

The South African women’s 1956 protest against apartheid passing laws to the participation of Zimbabwean women as combatants within the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) attests that advancing their leadership in politics is necessary for a ‘sustainable tomorrow‘. In Namibia, a remarkable experience of women engaging in political resistance was the challenge of the “relocation of the residents of the old location to a new apartheid-style black township of Katutura” ordered by the Administrator General of the South African apartheid regime. Yet, after independence, only a few women occupied political positions in SADC governments. Even the politics of patronage — awarding of political positions to former participants of liberation movements — that came to characterize post-colonial states of southern Africa did not allot most former women liberation stalwarts prominent positions within political structures. 

This is reflected by the current narrative of the region. While women constitute the majority of voters by virtue of being the more populous electorate, they continue to be underrepresented in political and decision-making positions. For example, women in Botswana constitute “just 10.77% in the National Assembly and 18% of councilors,” Zimbabwe’s women make up 14% of councilors, and Malawi has 23% of women in the National Assembly. The proportion of women in South Africa’s National Assembly is 45.25%, which is quite significant when compared to her neighboring countries which still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity. 

Factors that Contribute to Women’s Underrepresentation in Politics in SADC 

Constituents queueing to vote during primary elections in Phalombe North Constituency in Malawi. Photograph by: Ndondwa Msaka

The overarching socio-cultural gender norms in the SADC region are patriarchal in nature with men at the forefront of leadership in all societal spheres and women placed at the periphery of decision-making. This gender-based imbalance impacts perspectives toward women’s capacity to lead. And, it hinders active political will in government and political party structures to introduce policies that support and improve women’s active participation in politics. 

Secondly, the systematic departure from issue-based politics followed by the strategic adoption of money politics has significantly skewed the political playing field and placed women at a disadvantage. Women in the region have fewer means to access financial markets and income-generating activities. Therefore, they have comparatively less financial capital, which negatively impacts their viability as dependable candidates to political leadership and impacts their ability to campaign effectively. In the case of Malawi, the average candidate contesting for a Parliamentary seat spent approximately $20,000 during the 2019 general elections. It is this commercialization of politics that compromises the democratic values and tenets to which fair elections find their ground and basis. 

Thirdly, violence against women in politics in recent years has manifested to include different forms of abuse such as humiliation, intimidation, damage to property, and assault. For the most part, the violent acts towards women in politics and elections are not condemned, which in turn fosters an environment that is not conducive to women’s active participation.

Beyond the many other factors that facilitate and contribute to women’s underrepresentation in politics in the SADC region, there is a continued pattern of insufficient political will to support the agenda of inclusive politics.

Measures Adopted to Address Women’s Underrepresentation in the SADC Region and Progress Made

SADC countries need to implement strategies for equal representation. Source: Flickr
  1. Regional Legal Frameworks 

The majority of SADC countries are signatories to several regional gender equality legal frameworks such as the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Convention on the Elimination for forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW). The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development takes on an equal opportunity approach and calls for the “use of special legislative measures to enable women to have equal opportunities with men to participate in electoral processes including in the administration of elections and as voters”. On the other hand, SDG 5 calls for the gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, with women’s political participation noted as a key indicator.

Article 7 of CEDAW states:
“Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men to:

  1. To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies ;
  2. To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government;
  3. To participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.”

While the adoption of these regional frameworks marks an important step toward enhanced participation of women, greater commitment needs to be applied to the implementation of key strategies and initiatives that will allow for these goals to be realized. 

2. Gender Quotas

Notably, according to International IDEA’s gender quota database and data from EISA, several countries in the SADC region have adopted Legislative Quotas, or Political Party Voluntary Quota for Parliamentary representatives:

Country Legislative QuotaPolitical Party Voluntary Quota 
AngolaYesNo
BotswanaNoYes
Democratic Republic of the CongoNoNo
EswatiniYesYes
LesothoYesNo
MalawiNoYes
MauritiusYesYes
MozambiqueNoYes
NamibiaYesYes
SeychellesNoNo
South AfricaYesYes
TanzaniaYesYes
Zambia NoNo
ZimbabweYesYes
Table 1: Status of Adoption of Legislative and Political Party Voluntary Quotas by SADC Member States (Source: Illustrated by the authors)

According to data collected by the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa in 2019, there appears to be a positive correlation between countries that have adopted gender quotas and high levels of women’s representation in the national assembly – South Africa (45.25%), Zimbabwe (31.48%), Namibia (43.27%), Angola (26.82%), Tanzania(36.56%), Lesotho (22.13%), with a few outliers; Mauritius (18.84%) and Eswatini (6.15%). The SADC countries without gender quotas have comparatively fewer women in Parliament on average; Malawi (23%), Botswana (10.77%), Seychelles (21.21%), Democratic Republic of Congo (9.8%), Zambia (16.67%). Mozambique impressively demonstrates a 42.2% representation of women in it’s National Assembly. While it appears that the introduction of quotas makes a significant difference to women’s representation in Parliament, it remains unclear whether this translates to widespread national gains towards gender equality. 

Missed Opportunities to Achieve Gender Parity in Politics and Governance in SADC

Sustainability requires that equity in political representation and development interventions is achieved. The significant absence of women in politics and policy-making forums, notwithstanding the progress made to address it, challenges the notion of sustainability. Regionally, there is a missed opportunity to achieving 50% representation by 2015 as provided for by Article 12 of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Countries like Botswana for example only got to accede to the Protocol five years into its implementation — it came into effect in 2013, which is indicative of the lack of political commitment to the realization of equal representation. While adopted gender quotas appear to have progressively increased women’s numbers in the legislatures of several countries in the region including South Africa, Tanzania, and Namibia, they are questioned for seemingly giving into meeting policy objectives rather than on appointment by merit. This to a certain extent defeats the purpose of sustainability and substantive contributions of qualified and dedicated women.

Governments and civil society organizations should therefore look into opportunities that can empower women financially and cognitively to take on political roles, as well as decision-making positions in government administrations across the SADC region. The newly launched Charter Project Africa intends to achieve the cognitive aspect by boosting civic engagement with the African Union’s Charter on Democracy, Elections & Governance (ACDEG). While this will raise awareness of the ACDEG and encourage participation in politics, it falls short of alleviating the financial obstacle of women entering into politics and competing with their counterparts. An aspect of advocating for public financing of women in politics should also be incorporated into such projects.

It would also benefit the project to train aspiring women in politics in the SADC region on the utilization of digital platforms to lobby for electorate support. It is noted that the accessibility and affordability of digital platforms have given rise to new forms of political mobilization and electioneering such that the election win of presidents like that of Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana was attributed to their engagements with civic technology. Moreover, a review of the electoral systems that are criticized for perpetuating the exclusion of women from participation in political structures and contesting elections such as the first past the post electoral system adopted in most SADC countries is ever more necessary.

“Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” may have been inspired by the progress achieved to have women and girls contribute to climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a healthier and more equal, and sustainable future for all, globally. But, regions like SADC are yet to achieve desirable levels of representation in the domain of leadership of women.


Suggested Readings

Geisler, G. (2004) Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa: Negotiating Autonomy, Incorporation, and Representation. Spain: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

Leach Melissa (eds.) (2016). Gender Equality and Sustainable Development. Taylor and Francis.

Mudeka, I. (2014) Female Combatants and Shifting Gender Perceptions during Zimbabwe’s Liberation War, 1966-79.International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 83-104.

South African History Online (2021) History of Women Struggle in South Africa.

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