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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Ignoring Patriarchy, Female Politicians Rise

Chris Stein

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 7 2010 (IPS) - In Malawi, if both a girl and boy are born into a poor family, it will naturally be the boy in whom all the financial resources are invested.

“Money for school will be given to the boy child,” said Victor Maulidi, the acting network coordinator for the NGO Gender Coordinating Network. “The girl child will stay home. They won’t expect (her) to go higher.”

It is this general treatment of women from birth that has partially been a hindering factor when it comes to women’s participation in politics in the country.

While in Malawi civil society is driving an effort to get female candidates into office, regardless of their political party, there still remain obstacles.

This is despite the existence of the 50/50 programme: a campaign which aims to meet the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development, which commits countries to work towards the goal of having 50 percent women in political and decision-making positions by 2015.

With assistance from the 50/50 campaign, a significant number of female politicians were successful in the country’s 2009 presidential elections. Of the 237 female candidates who ran, 38 were elected to office, resulting in a total of 43 female MPs nationwide, according to Maulidi.

“It was a good result. The percentage of women jumped from 14 to 22 percent,” Maulidi said. “Though we didn’t get the number we wanted, people now want to talk to us.”

But to get there, female candidates had to overcome several hurdles on their way to candidacy, Maulidi said. This included a lack of money, isolation from the economic system, and an environment hostile to their candidacy.

“Women are denied economic rights and politics is very commercialised,” Maulidi said of the situation in Malawi. “The hostile environment in which they operate doesn’t give them a lot of support.”

The reaction from political parties to the female candidates was mixed, Maulidi said, with some accepting the female candidates and others reacting coolly. Money for the candidates was a major problem, despite a one million dollar donation to the program from the Norwegian government, Maulidi said.

The object now is for the female MPs to perform well, earn their re-election and bring the parliament to the 50/50 ratio, he said.

“The challenge is if the current women are going to perform? People will vote for them if they perform well,” Maulidi said.

Further south, South Africa boasts 45 percent of women parliamentarians, ranking it third in the world in terms of representation just behind Rwanda (56 percent) and Sweden (47 percent).

But according to Nana Ngobese, the president and founder of the little-known political party Women Forward, the country still faces challenges when it comes to recognising women politicians and women’s issues.

Ngobese started Women Forward in 2008, with the explicit goal of pushing women’s issues in parliament. She said she feels that Jacob Zuma’s presidency has failed to advocate for women’s rights, even though his party does consistently appoint women as parliamentarians.

Ngobese said she would work with all female representatives if elected to parliament, and advocate for issues such as gender violence prevention and access to education. But she could not say precisely what sort of measures she would propose.

“I’m not quite sure of the legal system yet,” Ngobese said. “(But) I more want to get younger men to understand that gender equality will achieve a lot.”

Though her party only campaigned in three of South Africa’s nine provinces, Ngobese said Women Forward garnered approximately 10,000 votes in the 2009 presidential election, short of the about 40,000 necessary to get a seat in parliament.

While political affiliation in South Africa can be a touchy subject, Ngobese said her platform was well-received on the campaign trail.

“Our stance was less threatening than other parties,” Ngobese said.

While the big political happenings in South Africa tend to take place in the country’s sprawling metropolises, Jozini, a poor municipality in KwaZulu Natal, is making its own contribution. Since 2000, Thembeni Madlopha-Mthethwa has served as Jozini’s mayor, the first woman to head the city.

“It was initially challenging for the community,” Madlopha-Mthethwa said. “Most people weren’t used to female leadership, but they ended up accepting me.”

Jozini’s population of 200,000 is 99 percent black, and predominantly Zulu, Madlopha-Mthethwa said. Voters there lean towards supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a Zulu-nationalist party of which Madlopha-Mthethwa is a member.

From the start, Madlopha-Mthethwa said her politicking defied the country’s male-dominated political and social order.

Madlopha-Mthethwa said she discovered her knack for leadership when she was appointed principal of her local high school. In 1996 she became a local councillor in the area and finally in 2000 was elected as the city’s mayor.

“If you try to infiltrate a new culture, it’s challenging,”

But Madlopha-Mthethwa said her good relationship with her party has allowed her a role as a recruiter of female politicians. The IFP has drawn up a database of female party members who will be invited for training in running in council and parliamentary elections, Madlopha-Mthethwa said.

“There is no patriarchal system per se, it is just a conception that people have that men block women from politics. Politics is a harsh field even for men to break through,” she said.

“The problem is with women being given the confidence and support to enter political frames. If more women are trained then they will be more women entering the political realms.”

South Africa and Malawi will both return to the polls in 2014 for another presidential election, and civil society in both countries expects these elections to bring further female candidates into the parliamentary fold.

When asked if she expects her party to obtain a seat in parliament in 2014, Ngobese was optimistic.

“Not just one,” Ngobese said. “I expect more than one.”

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