Securing women's representation in decision-making positions to ensure gender equality in Lesotho is proving difficult, writes Tom Mapesela.
By Tom Mapesela
Published April 28th 2005 in The Mercury
The phrase "too little, too late" is taking on new meaning in the Southern African Development Community region as countries race to meet the 2005 target for women's representation in decision-making.
The example of local government elections in Lesotho, due to take place on Saturday, is revealing. The Minister of Local Government, Matumelo Pontso Susan Sekatle, one of the few women ministers, staked her legacy on a legislated 30% quota for women in the first democratic local elections in the mountain kingdom.
But this provision is being challenged by opposition parties who say that it is unconstitutional for seats to be reserved for women only. A date remains to be set for the hearing. This could even be after the elections themselves have been held, thereby rendering the effort fruitless.
Either way the minister has indicated that she is prepared to defend her position in any court. She cites the country's constitution, which states that the "state shall take appropriate measures in order to promote equality of opportunity for the disadvantaged groups in society to enable them to participate fully in all spheres of public life".
In the meanwhile, the backlash against quotas has had a negative effect on efforts to promote gender equality in a country steeped in tradition and ready to latch on to any excuse for turning back the fragile gains that have been made.
Radio talk shows have been inundated with angry callers arguing that reserving constituencies for women violates the right to free choice. Some of the country's male politicians are adamant that they are being discriminated against.
In the Litjotjela constituency, an aspirant local government councillor has lodged a complaint with the Independent Electoral Commission.
He claims he is being discriminated against as he is being refused the opportunity to stand for elections in this constituency. Litjotjela is one of the constituencies that has been reserved for women candidates.
The candidate argues that this is the constituency in which he has the greatest chance of winning and that the reservation violates his constitutional and human right to contest the elections in a constituency of his choice.
Could things have been different? The dilemmas faced by the minister of local government in Lesotho are classic of those who have tried to bring about rapid increases in the representation of women in countries with constituency-based electoral systems that have never been favourable to women's participation because of the intense individual focus.
One option is to oblige all parties to field a certain proportion of women candidates. But unless they are fielded in seats in which they will win, which is often not the case, that does not guarantee the desired outcome.
The only sure way of securing the one third is - as has happened in Lesotho - to decree that only women can contest certain constituencies and then rotate these around. Legally, as the case of Lesotho shows, this is highly contentious and can backfire badly.
There is one other option, successfully implemented in Tanzania, the only other SADC country with a first- past-the-post system that also has a constitutional 20% quota for women in politics.
Women and men contest the constituency seats as they wish. In addition, 20% of the seats in parliament are reserved for women.
They are distributed among parties on a proportional representation basis. This is perceived as fair, since each party gets extra seats (albeit for women only) based on their performance in the election.
Sekatle, a political scientist by background who conducted a study tour of the region before piloting the legislation, points out that the disadvantage of this approach is that you create two types of women MPs: those who contested the election and those put forward by the party, who are often regarded as "second class".
She defends her method by saying that at least women have to fight the election - albeit only against other women - and are therefore less likely to be regarded as token.
Clearly, there are no simple answers to this conundrum. What has been lacking, however, in the case of Lesotho, is public education on why women are so under-represented in decision-making and why special measures are required to correct the imbalance.
Neither the ministry, the Independent Electoral Commission nor the media made any meaningful effort to sensitise the public on women's participation and its relevance to this sphere of government. As a result, the implementation of the quota reservation for women has been met with resistance, even from the local non-governmental organisation movement.
A position paper on the elections issued by the NGO movement states that the issue of the reservation "has been received with diverse views ranging from fully supportive to outright rejection".
Had candidates and the general public been properly sensitised about local governance, and indeed the necessity of ensuring that there are more women in decision-making positions, I am certain there would not be any such contestations.
The eleventh-hour effort to meet the target, without sufficient thought or groundwork, may well render Lesotho another of the countries in the region that has done too little, too late. Only the elections will tell.
Tom Mapesela is the Secretary of the Gender and Media Southern Africa (Gemsa) Network. This article is part of the Gender Links Gender and Media Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.