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BOTSWANA: Women in Politics – A House Divided… But Determined

Alma Balopi

GABORONE, Mar 29 2011 (IPS) - “The Botswana Caucus for Women in Politics has failed to realise the objectives it was intended for, but we will not give up on it just yet,” says Margaret Nasha.

The BCWP is a platform established to enable women from all political parties to converge and support each other in their attempts to make their mark in a male-dominated field.

When it was set up 15 years ago, its membership was initially restricted to women in parliament. Nasha, the first woman to serve as Speaker of Parliament in Botswana, explained that four years in, they realised that only women from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party were benefiting from it and they decided to open membership to any active woman member of a political party.

The caucus was established to offer political education to the women with ambitions to stand for political office.

“We ran loads of seminars on that before the women contested the primary elections, and later those who won would be empowered on how to campaign and make a mark in their different areas of interest,” she said.

The Caucus also worked to educate voters. “Simply put, we were telling them that it was okay to vote for a woman to take up a political office because a woman would represent their needs and aspirations first-hand as mothers,” she explained.

No success

Nasha, who served for some time as president of the Caucus, told IPS that their efforts have borne no fruit in 14 years of existence. “We have not made any progress in increasing the number of women parliamentarians and have rather regressed. On local councils the numbers are there, but still not where we had wanted,” she said, adding that careful investigation of the reasons for their failure is called for.

Answering her own question, she said education and empowerment have not overcome material obstacles confronting women politicians. Political campaigning is an expensive business, and Nasha said few women command sufficient resources to do so.

The BCWP also perhaps suffered from being associated with the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, with women in opposition parties wary of participating – a suspicion encouraged by their male counterparts.

“They were told by the men who they consulted in their parties that joining the BCWP was selling their own parties to BDP. When they realised that they needed those political skills and decided to join, the ruling party had already built the majority,” Nasha – herself a BDP member – said.

Rhodah Sekgororoane, an activist from the Botswana National Front – has served as the BCWP deputy president for the past 11 years. “Before I joined I could not stand up and talk like a real politician on the podium. I lacked confidence and I did not believe in myself,” she said.

“To tell the whole truth, this would be a good tool for women politicians, but it is being destroyed by the women themselves,” she said.

Despite holding office in the Caucus herself, she alleges that the BDP members want to occupy all the top positions, and use their numbers to vote for only for women from opposition parties who they think they can manipulate.

“This is just some sort of BDP Women League extension,” she concludes.

Broader participation needed

But Pinkie Mekgwe, a University of Botswana academic and respected gender scholar, said the caucus is a useful structure. “It has less to do with inclination towards certain political parties, but a lot to do with numbers of women actively involved in politics that are not yet enough at key decision-making or policy-making levels.”

Mekgwe told IPS that even if there are issues amongst women within the Caucus, only if a sufficient number of women subscribe to the structure could one definitely say whether it is beneficial or not.

She said there are so many women visible in campaigns and party conferences, but the same women do not participate in the Caucus.

“We need to see those women who sing coming on board in terms of voting their fellow women to key positions where they can be involved in policy transformation and decision making,” she said.

Moggie Mbaakanyi, elected president of the Caucus late last year, said political parties are not committed to the empowerment of women. “In other parties there have a 30 percent quota system in print for women but in practice we do not see that.

There is no quota system being used for women to get into the central committees,” she said adding that the ruling party does not believe in quotas and that as long as the ruling party has nothing in place the situation cannot change to get women in parliament or councils.

Mbaakanyi – who, also belongs to the BDP – said that during her tenure she will look for ways to amend the electoral laws. She explained that first-past-the-post elections do not work in favour of the women. “We have to look at how laws can be amended,” she said.

It remains to be seen if the women from the different political parties and experience the same challenges would succeed at speaking with one voice to advance their quest to make their marks in politics in Botswana.

A young political studies student at the University of Botswana, Mpho Elliot, said there is a need for politicians to engage the youth in such structures to change mindsets and attitudes at a young age.

“Changing attitudes is not an event but a process and this is where the phrase “catch them young” comes into play.”

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