With Namibia's National Assembly and Presidential elections around the corner the issue of equitable women's representation at the highest levels of political decision-making has been placed at the centre of the election agenda.
Most political parties only really kicked off their campaigns in earnest towards the middle of September and observers were looking to see whether these elections would mark a watershed for Namibian women’s inclusion on party lists, as well as how issues mostly affecting women were being addressed in election manifestos.
The issue of women's representation, which has always been at its most sensitive around major election times, really burst into the open again recently when the Women's Leadership Centre (WLC), a women's empowerment organisation, launched an advertising campaign, boldly demanding: “Women of Namibia! Don't give your vote away in the November elections.”
The campaign, run by the WLC's Women Claiming Citizenship Campaign, indicates that gender activists have largely lost faith in senior politicians, and especially women MPs, when it comes to addressing issues affecting women and are pushing for women to support candidates who will effect real change on these issues.
Gender activists have long complained that the ratification and implementation of policies and protocols aimed at mainstreaming womens' issues, has lacked political will at national level.
Recently, at a Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) election reporting seminar, Executive Director of the Women's Action for Development, Veronica de Klerk, criticised members of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus.
De Klerk accused the body, set up by female Members of Parliament to primarily address women's issues, of not being active enough in pushing for a more gender sensitive agenda in both Houses of Parliament and for generally being non-committal on most issues.
“It would be extremely selfish and not promoting the cause of women if those who made it up the ladder do not send the elevator back down for others,” De Klerk was quoted saying, suggesting that female MPs had gotten too “comfortable” and had bowed to the dominant patriarchal power structure.
Present but silent
De Klerk's sentiments on the inactivity of senior female politicians are borne out by the findings of a study released in early September by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which tried to measure the performance of MPs in parliamentary activities, such as contributions to debates and delivering speeches.
The findings, for the period from September 2005 to October 2007, indicate that in terms of parliamentary contributions, women MPs have generally tended to be low performers, with the bulk of female MPs ranked in the bottom half of performers over the two-year period. Of the ten worst performers in parliament over the period, four were women, while only one woman featured amongst the ten most active MPs, namely Nora Schimming-Chase of the Congress of Democrats (CoD), who earlier this year was forced out of the party after a leadership split.
Notably, the chairperson of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus, Lucia Basson, of the ruling Swapo Party, featured amongst the parliamentary low performers, coming in at 63 out of the 78 MPs.
This is indicative of the fact that the Women's Parliamentary Caucus, for all intents and purposes, has largely been dormant from its beginning in the late 1990s.
Missing the target?
Notwithstanding the performance of female MPs in the current parliament, Namibia has made reasonable strides in terms of ensuring women's representation at decision-making levels.
With the 2004 National Assembly elections Namibia crossed the 30 per cent threshold of women in the National Assembly, while women make up 27 per cent of National Council members.
Besides this, over 40 per cent of local authority councillors are women, largely because of the zebra system used in naming alternate men and women on party lists.
However, despite these achievements in increasing women's representation at all levels, Namibia is set to miss the 2008 SADC Gender and Development protocol target of 50 per cent women's representation in parliament by 2015.
While political parties can be commended for an increased representation of women on party lists for the upcoming elections, most women are unfortunately to be found in the bottom half of these lists. This is especially the case with opposition and minority parties which hold very few seats in parliament.
The Congress of Democrats (CoD), currently the official opposition in the outgoing parliament, has fielded 36 women for the parliamentary elections. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) has included 30 women on its list of 72 National Assembly candidates, but has one in the top five candidates. But in recent elections these parties have scored under eight seats, meaning that a high proportion women lower down on the list may be meaningless. And with the next parliament's term technically only ending in March 2015, Namibia will probably still be hovering around the 30 per cent mark.