It is crucial that we increase women's participation in political and decision-making structures, from grassroots level and up, says Blessing Vava.
The late Mozambican President Samora Machel once said: "The liberation of women is not an act of charity but a fundamental precondition for the success of our revolution." These words remain relevant as we reflect on the status of women's participation in the sphere of politics and decision-making processes on the continent. Early this week, South African opposition politician Julius Malema bemoaned the lack of representation of the youth in the Pan African Parliament. Malema's call comes against a backdrop of low participation in the representation of women and the youth in political processes.
Statistical figures show that more than half of the world's population is female, but worldwide only 21 percent of national parliamentarians are women. Globally, according to UN Women, there are only eight countries - Bosnia Herzegovina, Brunei, Hungary, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Tonga and Vanuatu - that have no women in their governments. UN Women also noted that in Africa, strides have been made in South Africa, Cape Verde and Rwanda - where women account for more than 30% of ministers in the Cabinet.
Though it is significant, it still remains a small figure as far as the realisation of gender equality is concerned. It can be argued that the composition of legislative bodies can have a serious effect on the quality of laws passed where pushing the interests of women is concerned.
The participation of women in political decision-making positions was recognised as a political right after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. UDHR Articles 2 and 21 stipulate the equal enjoyment of political rights without discrimination on the basis of one's sex or any other ground.
Hence, the strengthening of women's participation in all spheres of life has become a major issue in the development discourse, and socioeconomic development cannot be fully achieved without the active involvement of women at the decision-making level in all society.
What are the obstacles that hinder the political participation of women, especially in Africa?
In my own observation, the first obstacle has mainly to do with traditional and cultural beliefs that entrench a patriarchal view. This view is based on the idea of male supremacy and goes against women as leaders and decision makers. While there has been active participation of women in other spheres, motherhood and marriage have been viewed as the most important goals in a woman's life. The other myth portrays politics as "a man's game" and that women are "too emotional" to deal with affairs of the state. In this regard, there is a need to change societal attitudes but, ultimately, the need is for social and family support for women to overcome such barriers.
The second obstacle is the nature of the political operating environment, which is riddled with violence and intimidation. This has been a major barrier for women's participation. The political environment has to be friendlier and less corrupt for female participation to become established.
Thirdly, there is an economic aspect to the blockage of women's political participation. The lack of financial resources has been a hindrance to participation, especially when it comes to electoral campaigns. Women need financial support to overcome the barriers to political participation.
Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and EFF leader Julius Malema share a light moment at the 80th birthday celebrations of Winnie Madikizela Mandela held at Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. (Photo: GCIS)/Flickr
Above all, there needs to be a long-term strategy that focuses on training and development, with the aim of building women's confidence to take on leadership roles and inculcating a culture of female leadership, beginning at grassroots level. We have to start with local laws, whose vague provisions on gender need to be revised. This is especially true of governments that are signatories to international conventions and the standards they set, such as the Beijing Platform for Action, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This also includes regional instruments for gender equality like the African Charter on Human and People Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We must also increase the participation rates for women because it has a snowball effect - it encourages other women to participate in political processes. This helps do away with harmful stereotyping and assumptions that impede women's ability to play a central role in public life.
Are quota systems the way?
Progress has been made in increasing female political participation by way of quota systems, especially at parliamentary system and political party level, in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Zimbabwean constitution stipulates a quota of 60 seats for women to be deployed to parliament by their parties. This is a progressive move, but it has its drawbacks - the system is open to abuse and lacks transparency, especially for women who are less likely to have strong political networks. Having said that, any process that promotes and guarantees women's decision-making within political parties will ultimately increase their public voice.
It is important that the political participation of women be based on equality and merit. Women should represent the communities they belong to by means of election, appointment and merit. It is important that the inclusion and involvement of women is both quantitative and qualitative. The recognition and inclusion of women in governance and decision-making structures should reflect the collaborative inputs of all members of the community, without discrimination.
Increased participation by women has been proven to result in a bigger economic benefit for all. It is therefore important to raise women's engagement in politics by raising their awareness of the opportunities available to them and building confidence and skills. Ultimately, this will be to the benefit of all members of society.