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Do women represent women? Nexus between numbers and impact in South Africa

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Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA/Taken Tuesday, February 17, 2015 – A joint sitting of Parliament’s two Houses in Cape Town. While South Africa has the second highest number of women in Parliament in Africa at 46.5 percent, second only to Rwanda at 61.3 percent, it also ranks high in gender-based violence and femicide index, the writer says.

By Zainab Monisola Olaitan

Does the election of more and more women into political offices mean that women will be better represented? When issues that uniquely affect women gain public attention, often the first thing we hear is, we need more women in politics or what are female politicians doing?

These statements raise a fundamental question: Does women’s increased political participation translate to protecting women’s interests? Thus, creating an unanswered link between the number of women in politics and the qualitative representation of women. This is the relationship between descriptive women’s representation (numbers) and substantive women’s representation (impact).

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union 2022, South Africa has the second highest number of women in Parliament in Africa at 46.5 percent, second only to Rwanda at 61.3 percent; however, it also ranks high in gender-based violence and femicide index.

Without care, this contradiction provides ground to argue that numbers do not translate to impact regarding women’s political representation. However, arriving at such a conclusion ignores the nuance between numbers and impact on women’s presentation and, importantly, the complexity of GBVF.

The understanding of the nexus between numbers and impact stems from the need to ensure adequate protection of women’s interests, notable of which is gender-based violence and femicide. In South Africa, the menace of GBVF is at an all-time high, with numbers showing that 10,818 rape cases were reported in the first quarter of 2022.

This endemic problem plagues South African society such that women are primarily affected by it more than their male counterparts. The horrors of GBVF continue to bedevil South African society while different measures are sought to address it.

Descriptive women’s representation deals with an increase in the number of women participating in politics. The Beijing Platform for Action in 1994 suggested 30 percent as the needed percentage for women’s political representation. However, more recently, the need for a critical mass of women has been replaced by a more ambitious demand for gender balance or gender parity, 50/50 or 40 percent of women.

On the other hand, substantive representation transcends numbers. It entails the quality of women’s participation in politics by focusing on the outcomes of their participation and the factors that impact their performance rather than on descriptive aspects of women’s representation.

This representation goes beyond debuting women in the political space to ensure numerical parity; it entails the qualitative representation of women on issues that affect their quality of life, such as financial inclusion, reproductive health, and freedom from GBVF.

Findings from my doctoral research demonstrate that gender quotas have effectively ensured women’s increased participation in politics, thereby fostering descriptive women’s representation, particularly in South Africa.

The use of voluntary quotas by the governing party in South Africa, the African National Congress, largely accounts for the increased presence of women in Parliament. Other parties, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Inkatha Freedom Party, further solidified this increased presence.

Although the official opposition party does not use quotas, it factors in gender representation in its party list. And because of their increased number in the South African Parliament, female MPs formed a caucus to represent women’s issues better. The findings further showed that not only did the female MPs use their numbers to form a force, but they also used their position to initiate legislation and policies on GBVF.

They could use their presence to create awareness for GBVF, advocate for GBVF issues in Parliament, demand better resources towards GBVF, and most importantly, influence policy making and pass new GBVF legislations. The existence of GBVF legislations and policies between 2010–2022 confirms this assertion, demonstrating that there is indeed a relationship between numbers and impact, that women’s political participation benefits women, and that gender quotas can ensure the substantive representation of women.

Having women participate in Parliament can lead to more policies and laws to address GBVF, and these women often supervise the implementation of these laws to ensure their effectiveness. Unfortunately, the problem of GBVF goes beyond laws and policies because systemic cultural and societal factors are also responsible.

Therefore, the impact of female MPs on the rate of GBVF is limited as their effort is not significant enough to uproot the system that perpetuates GBVF because they are also victims of this system. To ensure the effectiveness of the efforts of these female MPs, there must be a more holistic intervention to address GBVF.

This raises calls for collaboration among all sectors of society because socialisation starts in the family, and hence, GBVF must first be addressed there. Also, to better draw a nexus between women’s participation in politics and the protection of women’s interests, we must always grasp the interest we are trying to protect to enable us to hold female politicians accountable.

Zainab Olaitan is a Doctoral Candidate, Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.