Gender equality is firmly rooted in the regional integration agenda and SADC Member States support the fundamental principle that both women and men must be engaged in decision-making at all levels and in all areas.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has recognised that the equal and meaningful participation of women, who constitute more than half of the populations of member states, is an important democratic advancement for the region.
Heads of State and Government have committed to reaching a "critical mass" of 50 percent representation of women in political decision-making structures, as reflected in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.
This target was first agreed at continental level by leaders of the African Union in 2008 and then included in the gender protocol signed and adopted by SADC at the 28th Summit held on 17 August 2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where a commitment was made to reach 50 percent participation by women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors by 2015.
This advances an earlier non-binding target of 30 percent agreed by SADC leaders in their Declaration on Gender and Development in 1997.
The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development has been signed by 13 Member States and ratified by 10, which was more than the required two-thirds for the protocol to enter into force in 2013.
This was a significant milestone, and has increased the momentum towards effective implementation of SADC gender commitments.
Botswana and Mauritius have not signed the protocol, while DRC and Madagascar have not yet lodged instruments of ratification with the SADC Secretariat.
Southern Africa has experienced mixed performance in terms of facilitating gender parity in political decision-making positions, and more action is needed if the region is to attain the target of 50:50 representation.
SADC Member States have made progress towards ensuring equal representation by women and men in political and decision-making positions at various levels of government and the three institutions of state, which are the Legislature (Parliament), the Executive (Cabinet) and the Judiciary (Courts), but there is much to be done to reach 50:50 by 2015.
Progress towards the equal participation of women has been slow in some cases, but significant, and this progress will be reviewed at the 34th SADC Summit to be held in August in Victoria Falls, hosted by Zimbabwe and chaired by President Mugabe who will lead the organisation for the coming year.
Most SADC Member States have constitutional clauses on equality and non-discrimination, and some have put in place legislation, policies and programmes aimed at increasing the level of participation of women in political and decision-making positions in the public sector.
All SADC Member States are party to international, continental and regional gender instruments, but many have not yet incorporated the relevant clauses into their national laws.
The region has generally fared better in terms of representation by women in Parliament compared to women in Cabinet and local government, as shown in the case of Zimbabwe, although the elections held in the SADC region since the beginning of this year have shown a retrogressive trend.
Elections to choose members of the National Assembly in South Africa held on 7 May saw 165 women elected, which is a respectable 41.3 percent of the 400-member Assembly, but down from 42.3 percent representation of women in parliament recorded in the previous elections in 2009.
The picture emerging from the Malawi general elections held on 20 May is of concern in this regard as only 30 of the 192 Members of Parliament are women, which is 15.6 percent of the total, significantly lower than the 26 percent achieved during the last elections in 2009.
According to the SADC Gender Monitor 2013 released last year during the 33rd SADC Summit held in Malawi, performance in promoting participation of women in decision-making structures has been mixed across the region.
The publication shows that representation of women in the Lower House of Parliament ranges from more than 40 percent in Seychelles and South Africa to around 10 percent in Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Average SADC representation by women in parliament was 25.8 percent as of mid-2013, marginally up from 20.6 percent in 2005 and 23 percent in 2011, but still short of the 50 percent target.
With the 2015 deadline approaching for gender parity in decision-making structures, only five SADC countries are significantly close to the target of parity in parliament, having gone above the 30 percent threshold set previously by regional leaders for representation of women.
These are Seychelles at 43.8 percent representation of women as of 2012, South Africa (41.3 percent), Mozambique (39.2 percent), Tanzania (36 percent) and Angola (34.1 percent). Zimbabwe, since the July 2013 elections, has 31.5 percent representation in the National Assembly.
The achievement of 50:50 by 2015 remains a major challenge in all SADC Member States. According to the report, women are under-represented at all levels of decision-making in the public and private sectors - in cabinets, parliaments, local government leadership, central government, central committees of political parties, private sector boards and management, and non-government sectors, special public service committees and other institutions in SADC Member States.
The challenges range from cultural and social to economic and political factors that make it difficult for women to climb to the top echelons of government and related institutions, private sector and non-governmental organisations.
Access to decision-making by women is hindered by gender-insensitive electoral policies, lack of resources, and prevailing gender stereotypes based on customs and traditions are among the factors that impede progress for equal representation by women and men.
However, there have been positive developments over the past few years, not only in terms of the number of women legislators or cabinet ministers, but also in changing perceptions about the ability of women to administer all positions of leadership at political and other decision-making levels.
The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development is expected 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 and programmes.
The protocol contains 28 substantive and measurable targets to strengthen monitoring and accountability, and is expected to harmonise the implementation at national level with regional, continental and international instruments on gender equality and equity. sardc.net
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