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Promoting democracy in Namibia

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Reaching 'critical mass'

With women's representation at the top levels of decision-making having become an ever more urgent agenda, the question has to be asked whether women, when making it to the highest levels of national politics, actually make a difference.

Available data suggests that having more women in what are supposedly decision-making positions, such as Members of Parliament, has not translated into women's issues receiving more attention at national level or even to a shift in the general political culture of the country.

While Namibia can be commended for having women occupying some of the more powerful ministerial porfolios, such as Finance and Justice, as well as women occupying more than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats in the current parliament, these high-powered female politicians still have to bow to the male-dominated political agenda and power structures.

That women, as politicians and activists, have become more visible in Namibian, and African, politics over the last two decades is not disputed, however gender activists have been complaining that this has not led to better socio-political conditions for most women.

Recently, local gender activists critised female politicians for not doing enough to advance discussions, policies and laws which deal with issues mostly affecting women. This criticism can be taken across borders, and even in societies where women have long been represented at the highest political levels, such as in Europe of North America, senior female politicians have been accused of reflecting and advancing a largely male perspective or worldview.
Against this backdrop, gender activists have long argued that women need to reach 'critical mass' at all representative levels before women's voices and presence can truly make a difference.

What this 'critical mass' is and whether it will make a difference remain open questions.

Surveys done by gender organisations, such as South Africa based Genderlinks, indicate that while women in especially southern Africa have made great strides and continue to do so in securing more and more political power, these female political leaders are still largely submissive to their male counterparts.
These surveys show that women, who in most if not all cases in southern Africa are socialised to respect male authority, can tend to shy away from being politically outspoken and assertive, rather choosing to be guided, even on women's issues, by what the men say.

In light of this, the glass ceiling on women's substantial inclusion and more equitable representation in national politics remains firmly in place, not just in Namibia, but across most of the SADC region, and achieving that 'critical mass' remains a crucial if so far elusive goal. 

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© 2019 Election Watch

Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research
Institute for Public Policy Research
in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.