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LESOTHO: Local Elections May Hold the Key to National Success for Women

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Mar 26 2007 (IPS) - As Lesotho’s newly-elected legislators settle down to the task of governing, activists are expressing disappointment at the low representation of women in the country’s parliament.

Just under a quarter of the legislators are women – 28 out of a total of 120. While this is 11 more than in the previous parliament, it still falls “far below” the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) target of 50 percent, says Keiso Matashane: co-ordinator in Lesotho for the Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Trust. This grouping seeks to improve the situation of women through lobbying, and researching various issues related to the law and rights.

No deadline has been set for achieving equal representation of women in decision-making posts of the 14 SADC countries, which include Lesotho; the 50 percent target reflects the position taken by the African Union.

In 1997, SADC set a goal of having 30 percent of decision-making posts in government occupied by women, by 2005. However, only South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania met the deadline.

Women’s groups say they are still analysing the reasons why female candidates did not make a better showing in Lesotho’s Feb. 11 polls. In the meantime, those searching for pointers on how to improve gender parity in the next parliamentary vote may wish to take a closer look at local elections, which have resulted in a 58 percent representation of women in Lesotho’s local government offices.

This figure is the highest in the SADC region, says Loveness Jambaya of Gender Links, a non-governmental organisation based in the South African commercial hub of Johannesburg.

“Lesotho tops the league in local government. At the bottom is Mauritius with 6.4 percent representation,” she told IPS. “If we understand the strategy Lesotho women used in local government, we may be able to unpack the strategy at national level.”

Concerning the overall progress Lesotho is making with bringing women into government, however, Jambaya – like Matashane – is unenthusiastic: “In terms of women’s parliamentary performance, Lesotho is not doing well…It sits in the middle rank.”

Of the 19 registered political parties in the 1.8 million-strong nation, two are led by women – the New Lesotho Freedom Party and the Basutoland African Congress.

The number of women ministers has increased from five in the previous cabinet to six. Those women who are in the legislature will have the opportunity to address issues that affect women – gender-related violence and inheritance rights, amongst others – through a women’s parliamentary caucus, says Matashane.

Women elsewhere in the region have asserted the need for female decision-makers in government to advance gender equality.

“For those of us women in privileged positions, it behoves us to use the space we have to make a difference,” Athalia Molokomme, Botswana’s attorney general, wrote in the 2005/2006 Gender Links annual report.

“We are painfully aware that the challenge before our region is not to simply occupy these spaces of power but to accelerate the achievement of gender equality in Southern Africa. We will strive to make our contribution, from what ever vantage points we are able to.”

Gender Links strikes a more positive note about the progress of women in Southern Africa as a whole.

“Although only three countries have achieved the…SADC target (of 30 percent representation), on average women comprise 20 percent of the region’s legislators: second only to the Scandinavian countries where the average is 38 percent,” the organisation noted in a statement presented to the SADC head of states summit held in Lesotho’s capital – Maseru – in August 2006.

“And where it took the Scandinavians 60 years to achieve this, SADC has shown that rapid change is possible.”

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