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Governance structures hinder women’s ‘participation’

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Women delegates at a Men’s Conference on Positive Masculinity in Leadership to End Violence Against Women and Girls, co-hosted by South Africa and the Comoros, in Pretoria in November, 2023. Women’s ability to contribute to addressing regional insecurities is impeded by the deepening neoliberal structures and ideology within which they operate, both outside and within the SADC, says the writer. – Picture: GCIS

As we end the 2024 International Women’s Month, a deeper reflection on the status of women in the Southern African region points us to the impact of their invisibility and a lack of meaningful participation in key governance structures.

The slow pace at which political decisions are reached on how to meaningfully include neglected, discriminated against or marginalised groups of our society, particularly women, as a way of minimising regional (gendered) insecurities, requires further research and particular policy attention.

The insecurities women and gender-based organisations address within Southern Africa’s social-political spaces include gender-based violence, women’s rights, deepening patriarchy, HIV/Aids, femicide, women and land, and women and climate change. Women’s participation in addressing (gendered) insecurities can be traced throughout pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence times.

While the history of women’s organisations in Southern Africa documents their active political participation and involvement in colonial and anti-colonial struggles, together with acknowledgements from their male counterparts on their critical roles towards liberation, the post-independence governance structures to present day depict their continued invisibility and a lack of meaningful political participation.

Instead, processes of norm development and implementation, in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) context, for example, reveal persistent challenges faced by women’s movements in their efforts at addressing collective regional gendered insecurities.

In his speech of March 8, 1987, Burkina Faso’s Revolutionary President, Thomas Sankara pointed out that “We (should) not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph”.

Drawing on insights reflected in Sankara’s speech, which recognises the key political role of women in the success of the revolution, the idea that women’s participation within inter-governmental political structures should be left at the discretion of the regional heads of government needs to be interrogated. Further, an examination of how exclusionary policies or approaches view women’s political participation as acts of charity may provide insights into their impact on Southern Africa’s region-building efforts broadly and on those that seek to address gendered insecurities.

While there are evidentiary contexts on the political roles played by women’s organisations in Southern Africa’s international relations, whether outside, alongside or within the SADC, dating back to the development of the region’s first gender declaration of 1997 and its addendum of 1998, to the first legally binding gender protocol of 2008 and the revised post-2015 gender protocol, gaps remain in their invisibility and a lack of meaningful participation in the region’s development process. For example, the process towards the development of SADC’s first legally binding gender protocol of 2008 exposes power plays that point to questions around regional citizenship, its gendered nature, the state and how these have been used to stall women’s political efforts and participation.

The regional heads of government have significant influence on gender norm development processes, including a final say on the language of the gender protocols. In cases where the language used in the protocols has been seen as unacceptable to male constituents, changes are made that in turn have frustrated women’s efforts to expressively contribute to norms that seek to address their common regional insecurities.

Similarly, the process of revising SADC post-2015, during which women’s groups under the umbrella of the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance mobilised to provide input to the revised protocol, was not without challenges.

Despite the Gender Alliance’s greater involvement in revising the Post-2015 protocol to align it with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the key members of the Gender Alliance were excluded from participating in the SADC Summit that adopted the revised protocol.

The power of the region’s women to drive the protocol process was instead viewed as a threat, resulting in their exclusion. In response, the women’s movement staged a protest alongside the summit as a way of resisting SADC’s exclusionary tendencies.

Further, there have been calls from the broader regional non-state movement for the need to develop a legal framework that guarantees their representation and participation in SADC’s governance structures.

For example, such calls have been echoed in non-governmental organisation (NGO) policy briefs and academic discourse since the early 2000s, and it was only in September 2023 that SADC approved the development of a mechanism to formally engage with non-state actors.

While the Windhoek Treaty of 1992 that establishes SADC acknowledges the key role of non-state actors and considers them as critical partners in driving the region’s development as articulated in the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan 2020-2030, the slow pace of putting in place a legal framework for meaningful non-state actor participation is cause for concern regarding the region’s governments’ genuine commitment.

The intention here is not to essentialise or to paint a pure narrative of Southern Africa’s women’s movements and their processes. Rather, it is to reflect on the impact of their invisibility and a lack of meaningful participation in addressing regional (gendered) insecurities. Their exclusion in what are key regional political and development processes that affect them or decisions to involve them on charity-based terms inhibit the potential progressive role that they can play towards addressing regional insecurities.

Further, while there is evidence that points to the historical, social, economic and political roles played by women to address societal ills, the post-independence governance structures have not meaningfully integrated them in terms of providing a conducive space within inter-governmental structures to contribute to the region’s development.

Also, whereas evidence points us to the multiple roles that women play in organising outside the state, alongside and within intergovernmental spaces around common regional gendered insecurities, their meaningful representation and participation continue to be hindered by the very structures that should promote their efforts.

Similarly, women’s ability to contribute to addressing regional insecurities, and to Southern Africa’s international relations, is impeded by the deepening neoliberal structures and ideology within which they operate, both outside and within the SADC.

The change in funding dynamics since the global financial crisis of 2008 has additionally resulted in a growing competition for the limited funding for women and gender-related insecurities.

The introduction of national and regional funding baskets through donor mechanisms has also been characterised by exclusionary outcomes in which NGOs with more expertise and capacity to write funding proposals have had an advantage over those that do not. Additionally, the changing funding pattern, which prioritises certain issues, has weakened the autonomy of the women’s movement in setting its own regional agenda. The growing global geo-political dynamics characterised by shifting priorities have further impacted women’s efforts towards addressing common gendered insecurities given that they are largely donor-dependent.

Therefore, there is a need for the women’s movement in the region to redefine its character and ideology, grounded in solidarity networks of its local communities, and to ensure sustainability efforts that guarantee its autonomy and continuity in addressing the actual gendered insecurities that affect the Southern African region.

Dr Nedziwe is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, Makhanda.

This article was originally published on ACCORD