Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Botswana has been lauded as a true ‘shining example of democracy in Africa’, but when it comes to empowering women in politics the country is like most other African states. In fact it’s even worse – with little improvement since independence in 1965.
While the number of women holding key positions in the private sector and government parastatals has increased over the years, the same cannot be said of the number of women holding positions in politics.
It is no surprise – although still shocking – that in the 2009 general elections, the country’s two largest political parties, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF), each fielded just three female candidates even though there are 57 constituencies. The third largest party, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), was slightly more progressive, putting up four female candidates!
And how did they fare? All seven female opposition candidates lost, while two of the ruling party’s women candidates won. The president later nominated two more women to parliament, raising the number of female legislators to four – or just 6.6 percent of the seats in parliament.
This is pathetic to say the least.
At least there are more women representatives in local government. But even there, according to the Botswana Association of Local Authorities, women only account for 19 percent of positions.
And yet, more women participate in the elections than men. In 2009, 403,000 women registered to vote compared to just 320,000 men. It is also common for women in Botswana to be at the forefront of grassroots campaigns, singing and drumming up support and conducting door-to-door campaigns. So why do we have so few women in parliament and local government?
Lack of funding and resources
Despite Botswana’s economic success and enviable developmental record, the country’s riches have not trickled down to everyone, particularly women. Most women are still manacled by poverty, while income disparities between men and women make it difficult for women to even dream of running for public office.
The lack of income means that women would rather channel funds to raising kids, and supporting family members than ‘wasting’ the little they have on politics. In a country where political parties are not funded, the thought of going into politics without resources is not attractive. And the result of insufficient funds is plain for all to see – not a single female opposition candidate has one a seat in parliament since independence.
Botswana is still a fairly conservative society – and the general perception among Batswana is that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and looking after the children. There is a lack of appreciation of the capacity of women to run for public office and ultimately lead. Tswana sayings – such as ‘Ga di nke di e etelelwa pele ke manamagadi pele’ (loosely translated, ‘women would never lead’) – do not make the situation any better.
Interestingly, most women voters subscribe to these cultural values and find it difficult to vote their fellow women into positions of power. Most female votes go to men not women. According to gender activists, most women candidates, who are married or staying with partners, are not allowed by their partners to campaign at night. The women, in most cases, are treated like children and rely heavily on their husbands for survival.
Botswana is full of examples of capable women who handled political offices exceptionally well. Some of these women have contributed greatly to the success of the country. The country’s first female MP and cabinet minister, Dr Gaositwe Chiepe, was instrumental in shaping the country’s foreign policy. Chiepe first became an MP in 1974 and resigned from active politics a quarter of a century later in 1999.
When Botswana really began to fight back against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Joy Phumaphi was the Minister of Health and was at the forefront of the battle. She showed amazing leadership. It was during her term as minister that the country – with the help of donor organisations – rolled out life-saving antiretroviral drugs. Phumaphi later joined the World Health Organization and then the World Bank as one of its vice presidents.
Botswana’s first woman speaker of the national assembly, Dr Margaret Nasha, also demonstrated that women are more than capable of holding key political positions – and holding their own with their male colleagues.
And yet – they remain the very few exceptions to the male-dominated system.
Since 1965, the country’s electoral system has always been first-past-the-post – a winner-takes-all system that has disadvantaged women and other marginalised groups. In a conservative country like Botswana it will always be difficult for a woman to win both the party primary and later the actual election.
Many commentators have called for electoral reforms, with the opposition and women activists calling for the introduction of a proportional representation (PR) system. PR means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received – and those seats are filled from a party list, which would include a larger number of women.
Many people argue that this system would ensure that marginalised groups are better represented in parliament – but the ruling party’s position on electoral reform is clear, there won’t be any changes in a near future.
SADC Gender Protocol
Botswana and Mauritius are the only two SADC countries that have not signed or ratified the SADC Gender protocol.
The protocol advances the cause of women in SADC. It covers constitutional and legal rights; governance; education and training; productive resources and employment; gender based violence; health and HIV/AIDS; peace building; and media, information and communication. Furthermore, the protocol calls on SADC states to adopt and implement legislative and other measures to eliminate all practices that negatively affect the fundamental rights of women and girls.
Botswana is touted around the world as a beacon of democracy and good governance but its failure to ratify the protocol exposes the country’s dismal record in relation to women’s rights. The country’s refusal to sign really is scandalous.
And shows that the Botswana government is not genuinely committed to promoting and protecting the rights of half the population.
By Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, Botswana GuardianShareThis