Gender Links (Johannesburg)

20 February 2013

Southern Africa: Pushing the Boundaries of Gender Equality

Last week I sat in an air-conditioned room at the Polana Hotel going through a long to-do list, wondering if I had nothing better to do than listen to government officials making wordy statements about gender equality.

Like the head of any gender NGO, my mind drifted between the speeches and so many other preoccupations - evaluations, log frames, funding, twelve summits, staff issues, our annual report, an upcoming Board meeting and so much else. Do meetings like the SADC Gender Ministers meeting in preparation for the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this March make any difference, I asked myself?

As the speeches continued, a sense of dejevu mingled with a realisation of change overcame me. Sixteen years ago, NGOs lobbied for a Southern African Development Community (SADC) Declaration on Gender and Development. Eight years ago, the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance stepped up the pressure, making the case for a legally binding SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.

As I recalled the heated debates and compromises in the seven drafts that finally led to this unique sub-regional instrument that sets 28 targets for gender equality to be achieved by 2015, I realised that over the course of time, gender discourse in our region is becoming bolder, daring to push the no-go boundaries of the past.

At Livingstone in 2007 - the last meeting before the Heads of State summit that adopted the Protocol in August 2008 - officials virtually declared custom, culture and tradition out of bounds. I remember one male official asking with much passion: "Who is SADC to tell me how many wives I can marry?"

Fast forward to the Maputo meeting, that focused on gender violence, the theme of the CSW. We did not quite reopen the topic of polygamy. But when NGOs insisted that the SADC position paper make reference to the root causes of GBV, including harmful religious, customary and traditional practices, the wording sailed through with relative ease.

Earlier, I shared the results of a five-country study on the extent, effects, response, support and prevention of GBV. These results show that anywhere between one quarter and two thirds of women in the region experience some form of GBV during their lifetime. I explained that the highest form of violence does not enter police statistics at all. This is verbal and emotional violence: the corrosive underbelly of GBV that undermines women's agency and is at the core of the gender inequality in our region.

In the past, one might have expected a snide and patronising comment, especially on Valentine's Day, when it is oh so easy to paper over this issue with roses and chocolates. Instead, all present pledged their support for the radical One Billion Rising campaign, started by Eve Ensler of the Vagina Monologues fame. I even managed to say the V word - gasp - in the presence of all assembled!

My most pleasant surprise occurred at the caucus meeting of the NGOs to draft our own statement for the minister's meeting. Let me clarify that in past meetings one of the complete no-go areas concerned sexual orientation.

Governments sniffed this out in any wording suggested by South Africa (the only country in the region that outlaws discrimination based on sexual preference in its Constitution) and certain NGOs. Even the term "marginalised groups" denoted sexual orientation in the eyes of wary officials. Women's NGOs also remained deeply divided on the issue: some for, others against, others cautioning that pushing too hard on this issue would compromise fragile gains.

Yet last week in caucus meetings of NGOs from all fifteen SADC countries, the need to start pushing the boundaries on this issue received widespread support. Emma Kaliya, an NGO activist from Malawi, member of the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance think tank and spokesperson for the NGOs at the summit gave this matter her personal push.

She declared before the Ministers assembled: "Marginalised groups - the poor, rural dwellers, the disabled, sex workers, and sexual minorities among others - must be acknowledged and accorded their rights; rights cannot be given with one hand and taken away with another. Rights must not be confused with morality."

Malawi is an interesting microcosm of the change in gender discourse taking place in Southern Africa. Although one of the most conservative countries in SADC, Malawi now has the region's first woman head of state (Joyce Banda) who has hinted at lifting the laws against homosexuality in her country.

The SADC Gender Ministers meeting registered one other significant gain - commitment to an addendum to the SADC Gender Protocol on Gender and Climate Change. The swirling floods in Mozambique that hit Mauritius at the time of the meeting leave little doubt that climate change is upon us. But there has been considerable bureaucratic inertia to reopening the SADC Gender Protocol now that two thirds of the signatories have ratified the instrument that is officially in force.

NGOs have again led the way, pressurising governments to acknowledge that no instrument on gender equality can ever be totally closed. Like Constitutions, regional protocols must constantly respond to the needs of the day. These reflect in our choice of words, and of emphasis. In the end, as I learned last week, no task is more important than continually pushing the boundaries of the gender discourse in our beloved region.

Colleen Lowe Morna is Chief Executive Officer of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news.

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