ON 9 August 1956, more than 20 000 women from all walks of life united in a mass demonstration to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa; protesting against the unjust pass laws enforced on women in that country.
The women were led by Lilian Ngoyi – a trade unionist and political activist, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.
In remembrance of what these women achieved on that day, August was declared Women’s Month not only in South Africa but across the continent. The month is seen as an opportunity to celebrate women, reflect on their achievements and to interrogate social ills like gender-based violence (GBV).
In this wide-ranging interview, Gender Links Lesotho Country Manager ‘Manteboheleng Mabetha talks to Lesotho Times (LT) Reporter Pascalinah Kabi on why it is important for Lesotho to celebrate this month by empowering women.
LT: Briefly tells us what Gender Links is all about and its role in advancing women’s interests in Lesotho?
Mabetha: Gender Links is a non-governmental organisation which advocates for gender equality issues, especially in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. We operate in all the SADC countries with physical offices established in 10 countries.
Most of the work promoted by Gender Links is around the regional instrument on gender equality – the SADC Gender Protocol. The protocol was introduced in 2008, and since then Gender Links has always been following-up this issue to see its implementation by individual member states.
We do the follow-ups through Gender Protocol Barometers – which are launched annually. From 2009, Gender Links has been working tirelessly in collecting data to see how much the Gender Protocol has been reached by all SADC countries.
The barometers are carried out in individual member states so that each country can use it as a mirror to see how many targets it achieved because it mostly deals around issues of achieving the protocol.
This has been done from 2009 to 2015 which was the final barometer measuring the first SADC Gender Protocol. Gender Links was also involved in reviewing the next SADC Gender Protocol signed last year in Swaziland which is running until 2030 because of its alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This tells you that besides monitoring the implementation of this instrument, we all help the countries to introspect and see how best they can achieve targets set in these protocols. It is not enough to set targets without putting in place measures to achieve them, hence we annually try to show countries how far they have travelled; highlight their shortfalls so that they can make improvements to achieve targets.
Gender Links has since developed programmes meant to help countries achieve targets set out in the protocol. The first programme is that of governance – assisting local councils. Most organisations in Lesotho work at the national level and we have since learnt that the local level is a “coalface” where people are based and people are governed at the local level.
It is not every day central government manages to deliver services at the local level, hence most localised services are met by the local government. So, we work with local councils to help them mainstream gender activities into their programmes even though it is difficult to implement such due to the fact central government has not dispersed money to them.
Other programmes include sensitising journalists on the need to consider the gender element in their reportage while the last programme – Justice – deals with gender-based violence issues.
LT: Looking into the past seven SADC Barometer reports, how has Lesotho been performing in advancing gender issues?
Mabetha: Lesotho has improved a lot in some areas while in others, it has done badly. For example, in the first barometer for 2009 in terms of governance, Lesotho performed really well due to the local government quota which was introduced and put Lesotho on the map in closing gender gaps.
The country performed really well on women representation at the local government level but unfortunately that did not translate into national governance and maybe other positions where women are seemingly left behind as compared to men.
When we talk of representation in decision-making, we are not only talking of the local government level but want that to be translated to the national level.
Generally on education attainment, even on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Lesotho performed really well and outshined other countries on girl-child enrolment. Many other countries are struggling on girl-child education enrolment, something which has never been a challenge in Lesotho.
On media issues, we are also doing relatively well because there are a lot of hard-working female journalists that we can talk about such as the likes of ‘M’e ‘Malichaba Lekhoaba. So generally, Lesotho did well in this sector.
However, I must say that Lesotho is fast-regressing on women representation and this regression is not good for the country. It is even more saddening considering that systems were put in place to address gender disparities, especially in decision-making.
We are now in the era of coalition governments and, as a result, women representation is down-spiralling and this is probably why this year’s Women’s Month interrogates equitable participation of women in decision-making levels.
We cannot talk about issues like education where Lesotho is shining without asking ourselves “where are those girls” because upon reach the corporate level, the same boys who were outperformed are now managers.
The lingering question is where do the girls go or disappear to in between school and decision-making levels?
LT: In your experience as a gender activist, what do you see as the drawback to the economic and political empowerment of women?
Mabetha: I think our patriarchal society, culture and norms make it difficult for women to thrive after finishing education. We still are in a man’s world with males expected to lead.
As much as Basotho women attain high education qualifications, society in general still holds that backward mind-set that women should follow while men have to be at the forefront.
Soon after the recent elections, we discussed a very simple issue while reviewing a gender policy, of whether there were more male parliamentarians because women did not want to venture into politics.
This is a typical example of how we look at the problem at face value, and not going deep to interrogate its source. It is true that women do not want to contest for elections, but the fact of the matter is they are defeated at the primary levels.
I know of a female doctor who contested in the elections at the primary level many times but lost to a man. A female candidate does not vote for herself; she has to solicit votes from the same society which has a patriarchal mind-set and would choose a man with no substance over a doctor.
I think we are still living in a man’s world, not just in Lesotho, but globally. It is no going to take a day to change things. We have to applaud every woman in the decision-making level. Rooting out this problem will not happen overnight. Look at America. We look up at America and now everybody is asking “how can America end up voting for a joke like Trump” but he won simply because he was standing up against a woman.
The woman had better ideas than Donald Trump but because she is a woman. So, this issue is not only happening in Lesotho. As activists, we are saying “meet women half-way” not going to be there.
For example, the All Basotho Convention won 47 parliamentary seats, aside from the one proportional representation seat. Yet, they did not have a gender policy which would guide them ahead of the elections.
If we were serious about closing gender gaps, parties should have ensured women and men contesting for the 80 constituencies were equally represented because winning a constituency is never about an individual but the party.
Those men did not win the elections because it was about them; it was about the ABC or any other party. As much as we can talk about the zebra PR list, it is not enough because there are no 40 seats and it is only by sheer luck that in this parliament there were 19 females and 21 male PR legislators.
LT: We had the likes of (former Basutoland African Congress) Dr Khauhelo Ralitapole who made a name for themselves. What do you think needs to be done to close the widening generational gap in churning out powerful female politicians like her?
Mabetha: I think we need to groom our young women to stand on their feet and come out strong and bold to make a name for themselves. While it is true that challenges these female politicians face might discourage young women to actively participate in politics because politics is a “dog eat dog” world.
We cannot afford to have our women getting discouraged along the way and deciding to give up on their political dreams. We, however, need to take into account the fact that women have to do household chores first before they go and compete in the political arena while men just wake up and go do the campaigning. By the time the man has spent five years on the field, the woman leaves and is the first to come home for household chores.
This goes back to the issue of meeting women half-way. Government must come up with laws that will level the playing field and give women an opportunity and encourage them to actively participate in politics.
Our government is not encouraging women to participate in politics. I am sorry to say this but as we speak I am writing a cabinet representation report. There are women who worked very hard to win constituencies yet they have not been awarded ministerial positions and instead man were sworn-in as senator en route to becoming a minister yet these women who won constituencies are not rewarded with ministerial positions.
It is telling us that women will always come second to men. Nothing explains why the only three ABC women who won constituencies and have a proper education background were not given ministerial positions over men whom we cannot really say anything about. Only ‘M’e ‘Matebatso Doti was appointed a minister while Matsieng Member of Parliament (MP) ‘Matšepo Ramakoae and Thaba-Tseka MP ‘Mamoipone Senauoane were left behind despite both their competence and educational background.
I think these things discourage people and it is about time that we put in structures that accommodate women to fully participate in politics.
LT: As we celebrate Women’s Month, what is Lesotho celebrating?
Mabetha: We celebrate a lot of things. With this year’s theme, we are celebrating because we want to promote equitable participation in decision-making at all levels. Even though it is not enough to have few women in decision-making positions, we should also celebrate the fact that Lesotho is making an effort to close gender disparities. It might be a drop in the ocean, but we have influential women in the likes of Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara and Central Bank of Lesotho Governor Dr Retšelisitsoe Matlanyane.
So we want to celebrate women who immensely contributed in developing this country like former National Assembly Speaker Ntlhoi Motsamai. It is not every day that you witness such developments and as we celebrate them, we want to appeal to governments that we need more of those.
We are asking Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his government to make an effort to uplift women. As we speak, we are waiting the announcement of principal secretaries and one can predict that it is going to be dominated by men, just like the male-bloated cabinet which has 36 members with only eight women making the cut.
As we celebrate, we are making a strong appeal to our government that women need to have more representation.
LT: What your message to the nation?
Mabetha: It is about time we get out of our comfort zones as the nation and realise that women can make a difference in our country. We need to change our mind-set. We are faced with a lot of challenges affecting women, and we have high levels of HIV infections.
In the first place, women are affected the most due to their vaginal make-up, maybe because they do not have make decisions on when and how to have sex.
It is usually a general knowledge that married men do not want to use condoms with their wives simply because they have paid lobola. It is about time we realise that women have a say in their lives.