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POLITICS-BOTSWANA: Parties Block Women Candidates for Upcoming Elections

Ephraim Nsingo

GABORONE, Jul 3 2009 (IPS) - As Botswana prepares for general elections in October, gender activists are protesting against the lack of female parliamentary candidates.

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and its key opposition, Botswana National Front (BNF), have each fielded only three female candidates for the 57 contested parliamentary constituencies.

In most cases, women have received nominations in regions where they have little chance of winning, gender activists argue, because they are up against seasoned male politicians with substantial financial backing.

Botswana’s president Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama has done little to enable women’s participation in politics. He continues, for example, to postpone signing the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development, adopted by the regional body in August 2008.

But Khama, a former military commander, insists that despite not signing the protocol “Botswana has fulfilled most of the requirements in legislative reform as well as socio-economic policies”.

“This is demonstrated largely by the increasing numbers of women, both in government and the private sector who hold executive, director and ambassadorial positions,” he told the BDP Women’s Wing Congress.

While, Khama and other politicians at various levels of government publicly support women’s representation in parliament, their promises of greater gender equality in politics have so far remained lip service. Currently, only four out of Botswana’s 57 Members of Parliament are women. An additional three got seats as presidential appointees.

Addressing the BDP Women’s Wing, Khama said his “greatest concern is the declining number of women who will be contesting the next general national elections”.

“This is a worrying trend indeed. I know that it is not out of a lack of capability or willingness by women to stand for positions of responsibility at council and parliamentary level… I remain committed to help where I can,” Khama told more than 200 congress members in the audience.

He also claimed that “it would not be farfetched to attribute much of our success as a party and as a government to the support we receive from Batswana women”.

Khama’s statements present him as an advocate for women’s participation in politics, but senior members of the BDP Women’s Wing Congress think otherwise.

“That’s what Khama has always been saying. He claims to support the issues we stand for as women, but there is nothing the president has done to show this commitment,” complained one senior BDP Women’s Wing official who did not want to be named.

“Now that we are not standing in elections, we will have to fight for the few non-constituency seats in parliament. It is sad that, as women, we have to get into parliament as specially elected MPs. When it comes to women’s representation, it seems all these parties are the same,” she added.

The BDP Women’s Wing Congress believes male political heavyweights try to expand their power base by internally lobbying against gender quotas. This became evident when male BDP MPs joined forces with opposition parties in arguing against a motion to include more specially elected female politicians in parliament.

The motion was passed in April by the Botswana National Assembly, however, as an amendment to Section 58 of the constitution, allowing for the special election of at least four out of eight non-constituency legislators. Mahalapye East MP, Botlogile Tshireletso, lauded the move as a step towards gender equity, as women were currently disadvantaged by male dominance and sexist language in parliament.

Gender activists say the under-representation of women is a serious problem in all political parties in the country and demand serious changes in the distribution of party positions.

“In most cases, party leaders create an environment that makes it difficult for women to participate,” said gender activist Maungo Mooki, who is also chairperson of the Botswana Congress of Non-Governmental Organisations (BOCONGO).

“Decisions from the top brass within the party cannot be questioned because one can be expelled or being starved of party benefits. This has made it difficult for women to stand up and challenge,” she explained.

Only few politicians have been open about the lack of gender equality in politics. Addressing journalists in April, BNF President Otsweletse Moupo acknowledged: “I should admit the issue of women’s representation is quite a challenge. It is an embarrassment that, as a party, we have a 30 percent quota for women, but we have less than ten percent representation.”

In 1999, BNF and another opposition party, Botswana Congress Party (BCP), committed themselves to ensure that almost one third of their election candidates will be female, but, as shown in the run-up to this year’s elections, the quotas only exist on paper. Currently, all opposition MPs are male.

After gender activists and female politicians voiced their outrage about persistent gender inequality, the BDP is now trying to make amense and include more women in their election list. BDP executive secretary Batlang Comma Serema promised that, at the ruling party’s forthcoming congress in July 2009, all male politicians contesting against female candidates for party positions will be asked to step aside.

“Where a woman is challenging a man, it will be negotiated that the man makes way for the woman,” claimed Serema. Female politicians, however, remain sceptical, believing it is yet another empty promise.

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