JOHANNESBURG — Over 200 men and women of all persuasions — from ward councillors, villagers, MPs and the clergy — who packed Kopanong Hotel Conference Hall chant “Yes we can” in between speeches.
They have adopted US President Barack Obama’s crusading campaign theme as their own to achieve a uniting goal –—50 percent female representation in local government, cabinet and parliament in Africa by 2015.
The atmosphere is cheery and every delegate is treated as an equal at this four-star hotel built with an African theme in Johannesburg’s Benoni area.
Colleen Lowe Morna, the executive director of Gender Links, a regional group that campaigns for equality among sexes, says the goal is achievable with enough “concentration”.
She cites the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Protocol on Gender and Development as a source of optimism.
The Sadc gender protocol signed by heads of states in 2008 compels member states to harmonise their policies to ensure gender equality, quality and the empowerment of women and girls.
Indeed, bright spots are sprouting.
“Lesotho has done well with 58 percent representation of women in local government,” she says.
Others are not so bad.
Behind Lesotho is Namibia at 44 percent and South Africa at 40 percent.
Concerted campaigns can make a difference, a Gender Links’ women in politics in Southern Africa policy document, notes.
It states that the experience of the region shows that the only way to achieve rapid increases in women’s representation in the constituency system was through legislated quotas.
“For example in Malawi, which has a constituency system, a well-orchestrated 50/50 campaign resulted in an eight percent increase from 13 to 21 percent representation in central government in the 2009 election,” says the policy document.
“A case in point is local elections in Lesotho, where one third of the seats are reserved for women only,” the document says.
But apart from these countries, the picture is far less rosy.
The sheer variety of participants here at the Benoni meeting underlines how the diversity of problems suffered by women from different backgrounds could affect progress.
Mauritius, Zambia and Madagascar, all in the Sadc region, rank at six percent.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, another Sadc country, there is no female representation of women in local government, according to Gender Links.
In countries like Zimbabwe, women politicians despite their high education suffer violence and lack of funding, women’s groups say.
In contrast, women in Mauritius cite lack of education as their main barrier.
Activists like Morna say they are not blind to the situation.
“So we have to ask ourselves: How do we go from one country where women are over half to others where women representation is seven or eight percent?” Morna queries.
“It tells us the battle we are fighting we can never take our eyes off the ball.”
Yet, even in countries where figures are relatively high, like South Africa, women still fear standing in local government elections because of the prejudice they could suffer.
A violent mob invaded offices occupied by female councillors to complain about service delivery in Ekurhuleni municipality in Johannesburg last year.
Offices occupied by men at the same council were spared, said Pat Khumalo, who represented the Ekurhuleni municipality
“Protesters consciously or unconsciously physically attacked women ward councillors and left male ward councillors unharmed. And that is very awry,” she said.
Despite this, the women councilors have stayed steadfast.
“I salute those women who stood their ground even if they lost their belongings, had their lives threatened, houses burnt, threatened with rape and exposed their families to danger,” Khumalo said.
But, as they look ahead, gender activists and female politicians know that consolidating what they have already achieved could even prove difficult.
“As we speak there is a threat to the quota for women in local government in Lesotho so much so that the elections have been postponed. So it means even the gains we have made we still have to fight,” Morna, who has been campaigning for gender equality for the past two decades, said.
Khumalo sums it up: “It is not easy to be a politician. But it is even harder to be a woman in a political arena.”