Sunday, 27 May 2007

Africa and democracy: Club rules still apply

The Club of Madrid is comprised of 68 former heads of state and effectively amounts to an old boys network. When I first heard it was launching the African Women Leaders Project - in support of high-level women politicians in West Africa – I was a little sceptical. However, Mary Robinson, one of the few women members of the club, is leading the project, and it’s a salutary reminder that we need more women leaders not only in Africa - but across the world.

With funding from the European Union, the project will provide opportunities for sharing experiences, networking and looking at feasible policy options for the increase of women’s political participation.

It’s a worthy cause. Because feminists, women lawyers and human rights activists in Africa have already been systematically addressing these issues and wherever I go the message is the same: we’ve heard the rhetoric, let’s see some action.

The key instrument for gender equality is the African Protocol for the Rights of Women (based on CEDAW) - which, after much lobbying, was ratified by the African Union in 2004. Women are still actively campaigning for individual governments to ratify and implement the protocol at national level.

In November 2006, The Gambia hosted an ECOWAS conference for women’s rights representatives to develop a common approach. The difficulty they all have is explaining to male-dominated governments that, under the protocol, affirmative action to achieve equal representation of women is not an option but a regionally (and internationally) endorsed principle.

Once this right is recognised and enforced, there are examples of electoral systems which facilitate equitable election of women candidates. The most impressive example – not only for Africa but for the world – is the quota system in Rwanda, underpinned by civil society involvement, which has resulted in fifty-fifty government. Rwanda also led the way by holding the first international women parliamentarians conference (February 2007). According to organiser Judith Kanakuze, this aimed to develop participating countries’ “insights and commitment to gender equality as a tool for nation building”.

Where this principle remains in question, women’s efforts continue to be frustrated. The Women’s Manifesto for Ghana was developed collaboratively by Abantu for the 2004 elections to provide a common platform for both voters and candidates. Their hope was: “women would be empowered to use their vote as a bargaining tool; candidates have an agenda once elected; and political parties held accountable as to where they stand in relation to women’s issues.” Ghana, widely recognised as a stable progressive democracy, recently celebrated her 50th year of independence. But, with only 9% of elected officials at national or local level, women still feel left out of the celebrations.

Meanwhile, the Fifty-Fifty Group in Sierra Leone - a country still recovering from civil war - is campaigning hard to get at least 30% representation for women in the July 2007 national elections.

It all comes down to money

Even where (male) political support is not forthcoming, women clearly have the capacity to move forward their own agenda. While cultural and educational restraints are often quoted, my discussions with women activists in Mali reveal a consensus on what is really holding them back from success. “Basically, it all comes down to money,” says Nina Walet, former Vice-President, Haut Conseil des Collectivités, the independent state watch-dog for local government.

Women’s lack of economic empowerment hinders their political participation from the very first step. In order to register as a voter, to join a political party or to stand as a candidate, you need to have a birth certificate and that costs money. So does running an election campaign. In countries with limited infrastructure, travelling round the constituency can be difficult and expensive. The same applies for getting to the voting station, as Nina Walet, who stood for mayor in the desert region of Kidal, describes: “Voters have to travel long distances of up to 60 kms, so you need to give them food and lodging overnight, provide water for their animals. I sent my people out one week beforehand to find two or three tents each and persuade the touaregs to come in and vote.”

And even then… Nina, whose electorate consists of 70% women, was elected mayor in 1999 but her appointment was never endorsed by the state because of pressure from the men of the (wealthy) ruling family of Kidal.

Women’s organisations all emphasise the need for finance to support their lobbying and campaigning work - to mobilise members from different parts of the country, run meetings, produce leaflets, discuss and publish manifestos or get media coverage. “Awareness raising is an essential activity - for both men and women, not only at the grassroots but also among intellectuals and professionals”.

Article 26 of the women’s protocol obliges member states to provide a budget for effective implementation of gender equality. Oumou Traoré, director of the coalition of women’s associations (CAFO) in Mali, is indignant about the lack of state support. “Women are just treated as election fodder. We need leadership training and citizenship education. Women should understand their rights, put up resistance to party politics, learn to vote for the policies not the person, check the party lists to see if women candidates are included. But the government’s afraid of this kind of thinking, maybe that’s why we don’t get any funding from them.”

The right conditions

National women’s organisations often look in vain to the international community to support their cause. In fact the situation has got worse with the introduction of the poverty reduction strategy (PRSP) model. “In 1997-8 we had a lot of encouragement from donors for women candidates and direct support. But now all donor money goes through the government, the donors shrug and say sorry, they can no longer help out,” says Nina Walet.

Rwanda, with her critical mass of women in government, has moved towards institutionalising gender through all areas of planning, legislation and development. This requires a process of gender budgeting– not an increase in funds but an equitable redistribution.

For women in Mali the answer is clear. “Donors should impose conditions on the government for quotas - and proper resources to support women’s political participation.” I’m not generally a proponent of conditionality for aid, but this is one case where G8 countries could, in one simple move, change the face of development, reduce corruption, increase efficiency, promote peace – by themselves endorsing international law on women’s rights rather than enforcing privatisation of basic services which result in the economic disempowerment of women.

At the France-Afrique summit in Bamako in December 2005, the participants celebrated the presence of Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf, first democratically elected woman head of state in Africa – an inspiration for Liberians, Africans and women everywhere. She also addressed the US Congress in March 2006, an honour bestowed sparingly on international dignitaries. She faces the daunting task of bringing peace and prosperity to a society afflicted by years of conflict. However, as soon as she took up position, the European Union laid down conditions for continued funding. She has been back to the US a second time to lobby for debt cancellation - which, along with control of trans-national companies and additional aid for health and education, may have been a more effective way of strengthening female leadership and public confidence in women political leaders, as the Club of Madrid project aims to do.

Why doesn’t the international community turn rhetoric into action? After all, fifty-fifty is a simple concept and it’s been shown to work. “The real problem is that men won’t give up power,” says Nina. “ In fact, they just get greedier.”

A surprising end to the story is that there has been a female candidate for the first time in Mali’s presidential elections: Mme Aminata Sidibé, lecturer at the University of Bamako and well-known environmental activist. She was inspired by the International Women’s Day celebrations in Bamako - which focussed on women’s political emergence as a force for change. She entered the race late and her only support was a group of Malian women employed by various international development agencies who were able to help with networking. While Aminata didn’t really have a chance in the primaries against the incumbent, President Amadou Toumani Touré, her name and face were in the polls and in the newspapers – underlining the fact that there are competent African women willing to come forward, dedicated to building social capital and changing the face of development.

They are held back by north-north, south-south and north-south male economic networking. After all, it’s nice to have the ladies providing a little colour. But, apart from in Rwanda and other notable exceptions, the boys club still rules OK.

Nice quotes

“Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not an anomaly. The African political landscape is being reshaped by women, generating hope for the future of the continent and raising the bar for democracy worldwide.” Pambazuka News

“Female illiteracy is a social mechanism designed to ensure female acquiescence and mute the voice of women.” Roselynn Musa

Further links

Women’s Manifesto for Ghana

Gender Budgeting

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance


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