SENIOR government officials and delegates from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) agencies responsible for gender and women's affairs are meeting in Windhoek to consider successes and progress made during 2010/11 in the achievement of gender equity and women empowerment.
A 10-year review done in 2005 on the status of gender equity and women's empowerment showed that there is a disparaging representation of 'paper rights' and 'substantive rights' to women.
This, the review found, holds implications for economic growth, development and poverty eradication in the region.
In fact, there is evidence pointing to the 'feminine face' of poverty while women's status remain relatively low compared to that of their male counterparts.
Women and girls are still considered to be more vulnerable to HIV infections than men and boys, while laws, services and resources to address gender-based violence are still "patchy".
So far, member States have ratified legal instruments designed to promote gender equity and women empowerment variously.
All countries have adopted the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, but there is a gap in the implementation and monitoring of the programmes set out under this declaration.
All governments have similarly ratified the Convention on all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but most have not domesticated the convention.
In 2005, the region had committed to achieve 50 per cent of women participation in leadership and decision making at all structures. The previous target was a minimum of 30 per cent, a target which SADC admitted few countries have met.
By 2008, women parliamentarians in SADC averaged 20 per cent representation, which, at the time, was above the world average of 17,2 per cent.
At ministerial level, the average was 21 per cent, and countries that have held elections or reshuffles, did not show much improvement.
After the 2008 election in Zimbabwe, only 13 per cent of women were elected in the House of Assembly. South Africa showed the highest figure of women in Cabinet (43 per cent), and Lesotho had 58 per cent at local government level, largely due to a legislated quota. Namibia's representation currently stands at 23 per cent in cabinet and 31 per cent for parliamentarians.
In Namibia, the Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare, Doreen Sioka, said the country is doing its best to ensure that the country makes significant progress in line with the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development by 2015.
The protocol was adopted by SADC in 2003 to provide for the empowerment of women, to eliminate discrimination and to achieve gender equality and equity through the development and implementation of gender responsive legislation, policies, programmes, and projects.
So far, only eight SADC countries have ratified the protocol. Those that have not yet done so are South Africa, Zambia, Madagascar, and Malawi.
The SADC Secretariat has now initiated a SADC plan of action for 2012 to 2016 to provide for a clear implementation framework to operationalise the gender protocol at both regional and national levels. It will include a resource mobilisation plan and a stakeholder enrolment strategy.
The meeting in Windhoek will also consider informal cross-border trading, which is said to provide a safety net for the unemployed in the region. Three-quarters of informal cross-border trading also contribute to government revenues in southern Africa.
The average value of informal cross-border trade in southern Africa is estimated at US$17,6 billion per year, 70 per cent of the cross-border traders being women.
From a survey done by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) involving 2000 women from Cameroon, Liberia, Mali, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe during 2007 to 2009, the majority said the proceeds from their trading is the main source of income for their families.
In SADC - specifically traders from Swaziland and Zimbabwe trading in Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique - cross-border trading has become a key to the survival of many.
A SADC study also found that this form of trading by women have cushioned the effects of the world financial and food crisis.
Yet, SADC noted, women are neglected by mainstream policies and institutions, which undermines the profitability and visibility of their activities.
The regional body said it intends to work with line ministries in countries, the private sector and traders to alleviate the bottlenecks of cross-border business, to harmonise trade policies with gender policies.
SADC further views the promotion of women entrepreneurs as a central economic concern.
Women form the majority of labourers in the agricultural sector for both cash crop and food production. Still, the majority of women lack access to and ownership of land, where most land laws do not explicitly state women's right to land. Those in business also face challenges to access financing.
It was for this reason that the SADC Women in Business Association was formed to advance the interests of women in business.