By Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
Introduction and Background
South Africa, just like other African countries, has been struggling with the under-representation of women in the legislature. The participation of women in the legislature in South Africa has, over the years, been affected by a number of factors with the major one being the patriarchal system which has resulted in the persistence of gender inequalities. According to Lijphart (1997), politics is good for democracy, but all democracies are plagued by systematic inequalities in participation. Like other African countries, such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, women in South Africa have been under-represented in decision and policy making institutions, such as the legislature (See table below). The institution of Parliament of South Africa made notable strides in working towards promoting the empowerment and representation of women in decision making. Globally, South Africa is doing fairly well when it comes to women inclusivity (see graph below). However, the Parliament of South Africa has not yet attained the 50% minimum representation of women in decision-making as stipulated in the SADC Gender protocol, issues to do with women have not been, and are still not, addressed. The protocol seeks to facilitate gender parity in political decision-making positions.
In 2014, Parliament of South Africa re-established the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus (MPWC)
with the aim of creating a platform for women to address common concerns affecting women. The platform is also aimed at assisting women to rise above party politics and to champion issues affecting women who tend to be under-represented in the policy making space. The country’s constitution provides a greater scope for women in all spheres of society in so far as empowerment is concerned. Women are the major force behind people’s participation in society today. They also play a crucial role in society as procreators of posterity, as well as producers of goods and services. Although South African women have made great strides towards obtaining a vote and a right to be elected to political offices, the parliament still remains another terrain of struggle for women. Women hold a small fraction of leadership positions in parliament, such as committee chairpersons.
Women participation in the legislature in South Africa has increased of late. Currently, the representation of women in Parliament stands at 45/6% (See Graph Above), with female/male MP ratio standing at 206:248 (See figure below). The increase, though not above the required, has necessitated the clarion call that women should be empowered by giving them due status, rights, and responsibilities to enable them to participate actively in decision-making at national level in terms of policy, political in terms of leadership.
The Parliament of South Africa has however remained a male-dominated institution in which patriarchal values inform practices. This has shaped the extent to which gender is mainstreamed within the institution. The participation of women is shaped by the cultural settings in which very few women are made to chair parliamentary committees and if they are to chair committees, these tend to deal with softer social issues. As a result, political parties, the main drivers of motions, prefer to give opportunities to men to table motions in Parliament as opposed to women. In addition, women MPs at times suffer from being heckled and suffer from sexist comments that are made by their male counterparts. Thus, the thrust of this paper focuses on the challenges that hinder meaningful inclusivity of women parliamentarians in the legislature and proffer recommendations on how increased women participation in Parliament can be achieved.
Challenges hindering meaningful inclusivity of women in Parliamentary Committees
Women in South Africa constitute 51,1% (about 30,75 million) of the country’s population but are disproportionally represented in decision making positions and in national politics. The participation of women in politics is important to ensure that decision making takes into account women’s perspectives and concerns so that legislation, policies and other facets of the national agenda become gender responsive. Participation of women in politics advances women’s rights and ensures incorporation of women’s interests, concerns and priorities in governance and national development processes. A survey carried out among national parliaments in the world by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (1997) revealed that when women are behind in political equity, they are a long way behind. Politics is everyone’s business and affects the lives of all of us. The more women are associated in numbers in political decision making processes in governments, the more they can change the modalities and outcomes of policies.
Through non-governmental organizations and grass-roots organizations, South African women have been able to articulate their interests and concerns and have placed women’s issues on the national, regional and international agendas. The South African Government has signed a number of international and regional instruments that have played a part in influencing the participation of women in politics such as CEDAW (Convention on Elimination of all forms of discrimination against Women) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Declaration on Gender and Development (1997). A number of reasons hinder women’s meaningful participation/inclusivity in parliament and these reasons include;
South Africa is a patriarchal society and it has, for years, made it very difficult for women to participate in politics. This has had a negative impact on the meaningful inclusivity of women in parliamentary work. The effect of the patriarchy on women’s inclusivity is that the institution of parliament consciously or subconsciously has reinforced this through making male legislatures continue being viewed as leaders and women as subjects. In African societies, it is believed that men lead and women follow (Ngcongo, 1993, in Grant, 2005). Historically, leadership in South Africa has carried the notion of masculinity and the belief that men make better leaders than women and this is still common today. Although the number of female leaders has increased, they are often named as an afterthought. According to Højgaard (2002), the societal conventions regarding gender and leadership traditionally exclude women, and top leadership is viewed as a masculine domain. The same author further argues that the cultural construction of leadership, in itself, instigates difference and this is only now being transformed or contested as women gain access to leadership positions. The statistics from the current 6th Parliament of South Africa indicates that only 40% of women are committee chairpersons and men still dominate with 60% further reinforcing the patriarchal notion that men lead and women follow. While this is a dramatic improvement from 1994, there is a need to address the hold of patriarchy that is hindering more women from becoming committee chairpersons in the South African parliament. In fact, patriarchy-infused stereotypes of how women lead have dominated the discourse and made it difficult for women to access or even stay in leadership positions and should be demystified.
Furthermore, because of patriarchy there is a social cost of leadership for women, which women have to pay in order to hold such positions. As such, it is little wonder that many women are hesitant to take up positions of leadership in parliament because of the stress involved. The stress is contributed by the need to balance work and family, domestic violence and discrimination (Cole, 2006; Gardiner &Tiggermann, 1999).
In the South African context, the work and family dichotomy is filled with many contradictions for women that provoke stress. African women have certain expected roles to play. They are expected to bear and nurture children, as well as to manage the home. At the same time, today’s African woman is expected to earn a living and contribute to the running of society (BBC News, 2005). In short, Gwendolyn Mikell (1997) referred to contemporary African women as walking a political/gender tightrope, but it is also a leadership and gender tightrope, and this then hinders women’s inclusivity in parliamentary committees and adds to the many roles the patriarchy has already placed on their shoulders. As a result, women have the potential to bring about change and be in leadership, but they lack organization due to lack of time, given their multiple roles as bread winners, wives and mothers that hinders their inclusivity into these leadership roles in parliamentary committees
Lack of Unity
Zimbabwean award winning novelist, Tsitsi Dangarembga, in her interview with BBC News (BBC News, 2005) said that one of the reasons there are few women in positions of power is a lack of unity among women themselves. The explanation she gave was that since women were vying for scarce resources, they tend to see other women as a threat and are jealous of one another. A case example is when female MPs heckled each other over doeks and party regalia in parliament. Rather than having women uniting to talk on very serious issue affecting millions of women, female MPs fight each other and pull each other down, and that hinders their inclusivity. Without unity amongst women, it acts as a hindrance to inclusivity as it makes women fight each other instead of supporting each other.
Fear of victimisation, violence and labelling
African women, including South African women, are hindered from meaningful inclusivity because of fear of victimisation and labelling. Women also fear raising their voices and speaking out for fear of victimization (supposedly by fellow women but also by men, given the cultural expectations of what a woman should or should not do). It should be noted that women fear excelling or taking up leadership roles in parliamentary committees because it makes them seem threatening. Women who want to get married have to present themselves as good marriage material by being meek and submissive, hence having those who are still single but in parliament sometimes taking a back seat. A study in which South Africa parliamentarians participated, indicates that they are experiencing psychological, economic, physical and sexual violence in the course of their mandate in parliament and the major perpetrators are their male counterparts. These shocking statistics (See graph below) contribute heavily to the challenges that women face in enhancing their inclusivity in parliament committees.
Lack of education
The lack of education, to a great extent, plays a significant role in hindering meaningful inclusivity of women in Parliamentary Committees. Parliamentary Committees are the engine of parliament. This is where the real work is done and where issues and budgets are discussed extensively. For one to be effective in these committees, there is need for one to be educated so that one can understand what will be discussed and be able to add one’s views to what will be discussed. Committees are too technical and if you not educated you may feel excluded from the discussions. While some women parliamentarians in the South African Legislature are educated and some keep on acquiring education, others do lack education because of a number of factors which include having grown up during the apartheid era and spending time in the struggle to lack of financial support to attend school. This lack of education hinders inclusivity and affects women’s participation or lack of it in parliamentary committees. Lack of education can limit participation, given the highly technical issues that are discussed in committees, as well as the budgets that sometimes have high figures and would require comprehension from members. Also, lack of education causes some women to not contribute to debates, as they lack the capacity to understand the issues.
Institutional factors: party politics
Women parliamentarians are elected into parliament through party lines and party politics greatly influence the participation or lack of participation of women in parliamentary committees. Consequently, whipping system cages women as it dictates the party line that a member of parliament should follow on any matter that is under discussion in parliament. Furthermore, some political parties’ still operate through inflexible schedules that do not take into consideration women’s domestic responsibilities and this may affect their participation in parliamentary committees. In addition, other political parties, such as the Democratic Alliance (DA), still have challenges in addressing gender representation. For instance, during the 2019 general elections, the DA was heavily criticised for lack of gender representation in parliamentary elections. As the main opposition, the DA did not support quotas of any kind and had only 37% women in its list in the 2019 elections which acts against the inclusivity of women in parliamentary committees.
The Role of Media
Media is also hindering meaningful inclusivity of women in Parliamentary Committees. Researchers have noted that women and men tend to be treated very differently by the media, worldwide. Similarly, men and women tend to have significantly different experiences of participating in parliamentary committees. Men are more visible and dominant in both media and parliamentary committees; and gender stereotypes prevail in both. These differences are mutually reinforcing in the sense that less visibility of women in the media impacts their parliamentary success; and fewer women politicians means fewer news stories focusing on women leaders and their role in parliamentary committees.
What needs to be done?
With the various challenges listed above that hinder meaningful inclusivity of women in parliamentary committees, there are a number of ways that women can explore to ensure that there is increased participation of women across the processes and activities of parliament. These and other factors are discussed in this section.
Unity of Purpose
Women need to unify amongst themselves to ensure that they do not fight each other but rather support and work with each other in fighting the number of challenges that hinder their meaningful inclusivity. Patriarchy cannot be dislodged if women are not united. Patriarchal tendencies that are still having a hold in the institution called parliament and in their respective political parties can only be fought when women are united. Women should make use of the Joint Women’s Caucus which is a bipartisan committee within Parliament committed to advancing women’s interests. Using this platform to create synergies and coming up with ways to address the challenges that affect women can be a first step in ensuring that barriers that hinder meaningful women inclusivity are brought down.
The lack of capacity that affects women parliamentarians, as a challenge that hinders meaningful participation of women inclusivity in parliamentary committees, requires women parliamentarians to lobby development partners and civil society to assist with capacity building on a number of issues so as to be effective in parliamentary committees. There is also a need for women parliamentarians to source financial support for them to be trained and attend leadership courses. They need to have access to resources to enable them to capacitate themselves even during their course in parliament. Collective efforts involving the government, political parties, civil societies and women’s movements also need to demonstrate more serious commitments to improving women’s participation in parliamentary committees. Further to that, women parliamentarians need to also lobby and persuade international donors to support projects aimed at advancing women’s meaningful inclusivity.
Media and Political Parties
It is also recommended that the media provide gender-sensitive coverage of parliamentary committees, avoiding negative stereotypes and presenting positive images of women in parliament. There is a need to provide women parliamentarians with at least as much airtime and print space as that given to men parliamentarians. Media should focus attention on women parliamentarian’s work in parliamentary committees. Further to that, women parliamentarians should lobby their political parties to implement reforms that will push for women’s meaningful inclusivity in parliamentary committees. While other political parties have made some progress in promoting women inclusivity in parliament, remnants of the patriarchy and the practice of dirty politics is not conducive for women to want to participate. Proportional systems should place women contenders high enough on the candidate lists to ensure they will be elected into parliamentary committees. Also, these women need to lobby Government to consider temporary special measures requiring political parties to include a substantial proportion of women high on their parliamentary candidate lists.
How can women parliamentarians lobby for their increased participation across the processes and activities of Parliament?
The parliamentary system of the country is very progressive in promoting the meaningful inclusivity of women. The Proportional Representation is a progressive approach that political parties should make use of in avoiding gender blindness as it promotes genuine and meaningful participation of women in parliamentary systems. Parliament should however, find ways through which they can change public attitudes and perceptions over women’s participation in parliamentary processes. Parliament should possibly consider affirmative action initiatives to ensure women take up chairpersonship positions of parliamentary committees, which have been held by males over the years. Parliament need to coerce political parties to consider this to consolidate efforts towards breaking the current inertia. Parliament should engage political parties and encourage them to include and appoint more women to head parliamentary committees. Political parties should grow into becoming organized vehicles through which
women’s participation in parliamentary processes is enhanced, especially in facilitating their meaningful participation within parliamentary committees.
In conclusion, it can be noted that South Africa has done fairly well in enhancing meaningful inclusivity of women in parliamentary processes. While the country is yet to reach the 50/50 gender mark the female/male MP ratio in the current South African parliament speaks of great progress. With such notable strides, it goes, without saying, there are some challenges that are still hindering full inclusivity of women in parliamentary processes and these include the patriarchy, lack of unity, lack of education, party politics and the role of the media. It is recommended that to address these challenges there is need for unity of purpose, for media to play a positive role, for political parties to embrace affirmative action and for development partners to assist in capacity building of women parliamentarians.
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