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POLITICS-ANGOLA: Boys’ Club No Longer

Louise Redvers

LUANDA, Sep 30 2008 (IPS) - Something looked very different at the inauguration of Angola’s newly elected parliament, held Tuesday at the Talatona Convention Centre in Luanda, the capital – this is not a boys’ club any longer.

MP Luzia Ingles -- women's views and needs may differ from those of men. Credit:  Louise Redvers/IPS

MP Luzia Ingles -- women's views and needs may differ from those of men. Credit: Louise Redvers/IPS

The number of women elected has nearly tripled since the last polls in 1992, rising from 29 to 81, or 36 per cent of the 220 seats at the National Assembly.

This puts Angola, along with South Africa and Mozambique, among the Southern African countries with the highest number of women elected to Parliament.

The ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party (MPLA, in Portuguese), which won over 81 per cent of the vote, has 77 women among its 191 Members of Parliament (MPs). Its arch-rival the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) with 10 per cent of the vote, has 16 MPs, of which four are women.

Of the other 12 parties that contested the election on Sep. 5, three won the remaining 13 seats although no women were elected.

The poll, Angola’s second since independence in 1975, has been hailed as an important passage in the country’s journey towards democracy after a bloody liberation war from Portugal and three decades of civil war.

In today’s ceremony, held, the capital, Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos, the former Prime Minister, assumed the presidency of the National Assembly.

In a further boost for women, Joana Lina Ramos Baptista, an MPLA MP, was named second vice-president of the Assembly and to much applause took her seat as the only woman on the stage next to dos Santos.

It is hoped the increase in female MPs, driven partly by a requirement for parties to field 30 per cent female candidates, will usher in more family-friendly government policies.

And there is a lot to improve for families in Angola. The long-running civil war has left millions living in cramped housing – especially in Luanda – without basic sanitation and clean water.

According to the British charity Save the Children, Angola is the sixth most risky place in the world to give birth. Just under a quarter of births are attended by skilled personnel. Maternal mortality is high, with a rate of 1,400 maternal deaths out of 100,000 births, according to the United Nation’s Development Programme.

Child mortality rates – with one in four children dying before their fifth birthday – are the world’s second worst.

Ordinary people may be doing poorly, but the economy is doing quite the opposite. Six years into peace, Angola is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies with a booming oil, diamond and construction industry.

Luzia Inglês Van-Dúnem, an MP and leader of the MPLA’s powerful women’s wing Organisation of Angolan Women (OMA, in Portuguese) welcomed the rise in female MPs as a platform for change.

She explained to IPS that, because women run families and households, they have views and needs that may differ from men’s.

“You need to have women discussing these issues at the National Assembly,” she said.

Angola still has some way to go to meet the Southern Africa Development Community target of having a 50/50 male and female split in the National Assembly by 2015 but is definitely on course.

“Yes, it is possible,” said Inglês. “There is the right mentality and there is a will. With elections every four years, I believe we can achieve this.”

But Sizaltina Cutaia, of the non-governmental organization Open Society, believes that numerical targets can be empty of content and real change.

“Getting women into parliament is one thing but then they actually need to fight for women’s issues,” she said.

Angolan sociologist and gender expert Henda Ducados echoed this caution over quotas and said candidates should be elected for their quality and experience, not just because they are female.

But Inglês defended the 30 per cent quota, and noted that seven out of ten of her MPLA colleagues were university graduates just as deserving to be in parliament as the male MPs.

Cutaia worries that party loyalty may trump gender solidarity. “Party discipline is so strong. People don’t like to be seen to be challenging that by raising issues which are affecting society, they just keep quiet,” she explained.

The MPLA’s massive win might reduce the space for vigorous debate – already narrow – in a society which went from colonial rule into a one-party state and has known only a brief burst of democracy between wars.

“Child and maternal mortality need to be discussed at every level, from grassroots organisations to churches right up to parliament, but we have to open up more to allow these discussions to take place,” said Cutaia.

Yet she is pleased to see women in leadership positions. Cutaia, 28, has experienced first-hand the obstacle course of women’s advancement, not in Parliament, but as a civil society activist.

“It’s harder for women here,” she explained. “You have to speak louder and speak more often to get noticed. Women need to be better qualified than men to get to the same place as them.”

But she added: “It’s an exciting time and things are starting to change. We just need to keep working at it.”

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