It's great to be a woman in southern Africa - and why the rest should be jealous

Women form 28% of South Africa's defence forces, and 26% of Namibia's.

THERE is a confident swag in the way a South Africa woman walks through the office. She is used to being treated as an equal in recent years. Men do not routinely talk over her and her opinion matters. 

For decades the southern African nation has worked towards achieving gender parity and signs of female empowerment can be seen all over the country; August 9th – a national holiday dedicated to South African women, the “ Wonder Women” project to create a life size steel statues of iconic South African women, and the “Top Women” publication celebrating organisations that excel in gender empowerment, are just a few examples. 

The numbers say it

And it’s not all lip service - there are also statistics to support this equity. The  World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap ranked South Africa 17th out of 136 countries, the second best performing country of all upper-middle income countries. But it was not an easy road getting to this position, and there are small reminders as to the way things used to be.  

Every year the month of August commemorates South Africa’s women - this month in 1956 marked a turning point, when thousands of women, regardless of class and race, came together and protested the sexist “pass laws”. The month is thus not only a tribute to the thousands of women who marched, but also a testament to the pioneers of the women’s movement in South Africa.

What is fitting, and by no means a coincidence, is that as the month drew to a close, the 2014 Southern African Development Community (SADC)  Gender Protocol Barometer was launched in the country. South Africa is just one of the 15 SADC countries who are using a Barometer to benchmark progress by towards achieving 28 targets outlined in the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development by 2015. 

In fact SADC is the only region in the world with a legally binding Protocol for achieving gender equality. It came about in 2008 when members states decided that the Millennium Development Goals were too limited, that they fail to address the root causes of poverty - most especially women’s inequality - making it impossible for the goals to be transformative. 

Impressive gains

Since the Protocol was instated, the gains made in areas like political representation and education have been impressive – with an average of 26% of women in parliament and 24% in local government, the  SADC region comes second only to the Nordic countries with regard to women’s political representation. Eleven of the SADC countries have since also undertaken some form of constitutional reform that has a bearing on gender equality. Thus Zimbabwe has now adopted a quota for women in parliament. With 49% women in local government, Lesotho was the key performer in the region and has the highest proportion of women in any area of political decision-making.

In terms of education, seven countries in the region - Botswana, Lesotho, Mauritius, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia - have higher proportions of women than men at tertiary level.  

There has also been a reduction in maternal mortality rate in most countries. The proportion of women in economic decision-making rose by nearly 50% from 18% in 2009 to 26% in 2014 ,and there have been improvements in the number of women in the labour force with women even taking up more positions in the defence forces; women constitute 28% of the defence forces in South Africa and 26% of Namibia’s Defence Forces; 38% of the police in Seychelles and 52% of correctional services staff in Seychelles.

The Barometer uses two measures for progress; the “SADC Gender and Development Index (SGDI)”, that evaluates 23 empirical indicators in six areas - education, political participation, the economy, health, HIV and AIDS, and the media - and the “Citizen Score Card” (CSC) that measures citizen perceptions of their government performance on delivering the 28 targets of the protocol.

The CSC is valuable in that it is based on perceptions, and captures nuances that are not incorporated in the empirical data - such as gender based violence. At 66% the score remained unchanged from last year. 

The good news is that for the first time in six years the SDGI went up in 2014, from 66% to 67% - that bad news is that it was tiny, probably due to the mixed basket of results for the SADC countries. The SGDI for six countries (Angola, Botswana, Swaziland, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mozambique) increased while that of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia went down. Three countries Seychelles, Mauritius and Zimbabwe have been static since 2013.

When looking at the specific indicators, the SGDI dropped by marginally in governance - attributed to a decline in women’s political representation in Swaziland, Malawi and South Africa. HIV and AIDS had a drop, while economy and health picked up by a small percentage each.

This mixed progress is expected considering the vast range of countries that form the SADC - what can’t be knocked however is the extra dedication that these countries are putting toward securing a more equitable future for their women. 

Do you think SADC countries are doing enough? Get in touch at editorial(at) 

-Twitter: @Samooner

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