By Dumiso Gatsha
“I do not believe in sex distinction in literature, law, politics, or trade – or that modesty and virtue are more becoming to women than to men but wish we had more of it everywhere.” Belva Ann Lockwood
Africa will have 19 elections by the end of 2019. Notably, South Africa (8 May) and Malawi (21 May) have just successfully had theirs and soon, Chad (TBC May), Mali (TBC June) and Mauritania (22 June). All varying between General, Legislative and Presidential. This signals the diversity of African states beyond just language (Arabic, Luso, Anglo and Francophone), subregions and economic disposition. However, a common narrative within the context of governance and leadership is corruption. Even more glaringly are issues of a lack of civic participation of young people and women. Where countries have had a woman head of state, there is little readily available evidence of institutional transformation that can guarantee women’s active engagement in policy making and leadership.
Ethiopia, Rwanda and at some point, South Africa, have been making progress in ensuring women are equitably included. However, with the first two examples; it took male leadership to transform shortcomings in representation. South Africa’s ruling party has ensured a 50/50 quota system. Notwithstanding, the meaningful engagement of women remains a challenge. I view meaningful engagement as an environment that allows for women to stand before communities and lobby for support. This includes resources, free will to decide on political positioning and the exercise of navigating politics without mental, family, physical, economic or social safety compromised. Where there have been successes, interventions have been made to ensure inclusion. Although these address the symptoms of socialization and inequity; they do not transform society to encourage young girls to run for office, or for teenage girls to be allowed to go to school without restriction.
We are constrained by structural barriers of femininity not having a decision-making role in households or the power to prevent abuse in spaces of living, working and learning. Customary courts in Botswana dictate limits of engagement based on gender and age. Harmful cultural practices further impede the health and well-being of young girls in their most fundamental years of development. All these are conditions in which the girl child is to grow up to experience in some way or another. What does this reflect in their future political participation? A mere 24% in women in parliament in November 2018. Being subject to the same political governance and ideology in ruling parties that have never lost elections since independence. All this despite advocacy and accountability mechanisms such as the African Union’s Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and Southern African Development Community’s Protocol on Gender and Development; instruments with tangible measures for compliance and advancing women’s political participation.
There is a clear gap in the socialization for young girls and women’s progress in politics. Gender parities within and outside its constructs of fluidity need to unpacked and shared without polarization. The need to ensure that society can measure leadership potential and ability outside issues of gender or other attributes cannot be stressed. We can no longer depend on the institutionalization of gender sensitive programming, budgeting and representation for governance. There are clear gaps in the beliefs and values that influence the bureaucrats, experts and development practitioners within democratic institutions. Even more glaringly, those who are eligible to vote. The need to ‘normalize’ female leadership should not just reflect in single parent households, tokenism, quotas, over-achievement or civil society. There is a need for all of us to start questioning our leaders in community, online or accountability spaces. The answers might not be ideal, but the conversations are necessary to better understand how gender can be emboldened within our post-colonial democratic ecosystems.