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AFRICA: Women Take Some Steps Ahead of the West

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Dec 7 2006 (IPS) - About half of the parliamentarians in Rwanda are women; many other African countries have more women in parliament than some western ones. It’s taken some doing, as Gertrude Mongella knows – and as she tells IPS in an interview.

When she was appointed Secretary-General for the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Gertrude Mongella already had a long political history. A graduate from the East Africa University College in Dar-es-Salaam in Tanznia, she has strongly supported advancement of women in the African continent in her 34-year career.

She was member of the East African Legislative Assembly in the seventies, minister of state in her country Tanzania ten years later, and Tanzanian high commissioner to India in the early 1990s before joining the Economic Commission for Africa on Gender Issues.

At 61, she is now the first president of the pan-African parliament. The parliament that is an organ of the African Union, has at present only consultative powers, but aims eventually to evolve into an institution with legislative powers, something like the European Parliament. Five delegates from each African country represent different national political parties in the African parliament.

The South Africa based institution’s first act was to elect a woman president. “Its rules confirm the African Union determination to advance gender equality,” Gertrude Mongella told IPS in an interview. “At least one of the five has to be a woman, though several delegations have chosen two or more women,” she said.

“The pan-African Parliament represents all the peoples of Africa, and its mandate is to guarantee the active involvement of civil society in the political discussions on the problems our continent is facing, from integration to resolution of conflicts. African women must have the chance to participate effectively, at all decision-making levels, in the continent’s peace and development process.”

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: Which are the most concrete achievements in this sense? And which African countries have made the most perceptible changes?

Mongella: If you look at representation in the Parliament, a Declaration on Gender and Development was signed in 1997 by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of State, in which they commit their countries to the achievement of at least 30 percent target of women in political and decision making structures by 2005. And to the promotion of women’s full access to productive resources to reduce the level of poverty among women.

But we have even gone beyond it. Women in Rwanda now top the world rankings of women in national parliaments, with 49 percent of representation. Countries in the southern region of Africa have made the biggest progress. But many others are 30 percent and above. In my own country we have 34 percent women’s representation, even in the cabinet.

IPS: Do you see major changes for women since the Beijing conference, apart from political participation?

Mongella: There have been many changes, and positive ones, since then. The status of women in most of our countries is changing drastically. Equality of men and women is becoming a reality, it’s more than a thing to be talked about now.

We’ve not reached the maximum of what we had wanted in Beijing for so many reasons, but at least there are efforts even in areas dealing with inequalities and discrimination against women. There are some laws in many countries which prohibit violence against women, laws which require at least a minimum number of women’s representation at different levels in society. This is a result of the Beijing conference.

Of course, there are still many challenges, mainly linked with political conflicts and diseases. But the biggest challenge we have to address, in my opinion, is maternal health. Statistics say that every minute one woman dies of maternal complications in sub-Saharan Africa, and we need to stop this.

IPS: Do you think more resources would help? Why are donors giving less money to address those problems?

Mongella: Of course, we still need more resources to implement the Beijing platform for action, which also includes women’s health care. There are attempts to dedicate more resources to maternal health but they are still not enough, because the situation remains very difficult. Developing countries still cannot meet the basic requirements of education for girls and requirements for women’s health. We’re still struggling, but I am confident. There are signs of improvement.

IPS: Do you see religion as a key factor impacting women’s rights?

Mongella: The problem with religious influence is not so much about the dogma, it’s mainly about interpretation, because it is always left to the men to interpret. If you read carefully into the Bible, or the Koran, you find out other truths. The Bible says human beings were created in the image of God, not that men only are created in the image of God. But when it comes to interpretation, traditional laws put the woman at a certain underclass level. It’s the interpretation more than religion in itself.

IPS: How are men positioned in this changing process? Do they have an active role?

Mongella: Men are more and more involved, we are changing also because men are more willing to change. I must say that men of today are very different from those of the past, because they are disposed to change, they are willing to share their power with women. Most of the times, men care about our capabilities, our skills, rather than just seeing us as women. And women shouldn’t even expect to go in because we’re women, we should go in because we’re capable.

IPS: Would you point out any common mistakes women make in their way to equality?

Mongella: “I wouldn’t call them mistakes, maybe assumptions. In leadership, for example, there’s nothing like ‘ladies first’. You cannot be invited into a parliament like you are invited to a party, you have to struggle, you have to campaign, you have to get there, you have to push. Many women are doing this. In the African continent we have the president of Liberia, she’s a woman, she had to struggle, she campaigned the first time, she didn’t make it, she accepted defeat and the second time she won.”

IPS: What should newly elected women do to strengthen African institutions?

Mongella: We should have as many people as possible educated in order to manage institutions properly, including governments. Education is key. Then we need to exploit our natural resources, we need to be able to use them for the benefit of the people of Africa.

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