Women in Parliament: What does that really mean?

This is a summary of a dialogue hosted on 14 September 2011 by Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre about women in parliament and their role in promoting gender equality. Various insights were shared about the realities of being a female Member of Parliament (MP), gender quotas for political parties, the state of South Africa’s National Gender Machinery (NGM) and civil society’s role in promoting women’s access to parliament.

Photo of Lindiwe Makhunga

TLAC’s Lindiwe Makhunga chaired the discussions

While 44.5% of South African parliamentarians are women this has not resulted in increased attention being paid to policy or legislation addressing gender equality. The reality is that many women are in parliament because they are sent by their parties to fulfil a quota – not because they have a strong commitment to women’s issues. Our system of proportional representation also encourages politicians to be more accountable to their political party rather than the public. Women may also be too focused on their own personal political survival to take a stand on gender issues – especially if these issues do not enjoy broader support within the party or contradict the party line.

As a male-dominated political institution parliament can be hostile to women MPs’ needs. Long working hours often put women in conflict with their roles as wives and mothers. Women are also not linked to the same power networks as men, which can diminish their political effectiveness. Their attempts at leadership are also sometimes treated dismissively, with male MPs often not turning up when women speak, or simply not bothering to listen and chatting amongst themselves instead. There also seems to be fatigue within parliament when it comes to discussion of women’s issues with the sense that ‘enough’ has been done for women.

Women parliamentarians are sometimes inadequately prepared for careers in parliament and don’t receive much training around the complexities of parliamentary systems and procedures. Many women often leave when their terms expire as the effort of trying to juggle family and political life becomes too overwhelming, especially when spouses and family are unsupportive. When they leave Parliament, their experience and networks go with them which has led to a lack of institutional memory around the strategies previously used to pursue women’s gains.

All participants agreed that parliament is relatively inaccessible to most South Africans. Civil society is unfortunately viewed with suspicion and mistrust by both parliamentarians and government officials. As a consequence, too few civil society groups currently participate in parliamentary processes, making it essential to strengthen a wide range of organisations’ ability to confidently engage with South Africa’s political institutions. Organisations also need to be equipped with the know-how to work with parliament.

But it is not only access to parliament and the space to participate in parliamentary processes that is required; women’s organisations also need to have more influence with politicians. They need to identify and work closely with those MPs who are sympathetic to the goals of gender equality.

In theory, the other two components of the NGM, the Ministry for Women, Children and People with Disabilities and the CGE, should also be working with civil society to put women’s issues on the political agenda and to exercise oversight over the implementation of laws and policies affecting women. However there is a lack of clarity over the role of the Ministry – particularly in relation to its cooperation with the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). In two years the Ministry has been unable to resolve with the CGE questions around collective mandates or cooperation. For its part the CGE is hoping to hold a crucial summit before March 2012 to discuss and clarify the role of the NGM, their role as a Chapter Nine institution and their relationship with the Ministry.

The challenges facing the NGM are formidable. Rather than focusing exclusively on quotas, organizations need to critically focus on what female and male MPs do once in parliament to advance gender equality. And where such action is wanting, pressure needs to be brought to bear on all the components of the NGM. For if the NGM does not work effectively, we will continue to have equality on paper but violence and discrimination towards women in practice.

The list of Parliamentary Roundtable panelists include:

Dr. Teboho Maitse: Former Convenor of the Parliamentary Women’s Empowerment Unit and Commissioner: Commission for Gender Equality
Janet Semple: Democratic Alliance MPL for Gauteng and former DA MP
Amanda Gouws: Professor of Political Science at the University of Stellenbosch
Kenosi Meruti: Commissioner: Commission for Gender Equality
Joy Watson: Senior Researcher at the Parliament of South Africa
Samantha Waterhouse: Parliamentary Liaison at University of the Western Cape
Lisa Vetten: Executive Director of Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre
Shireen Hassim: Professor of Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand

Posted in The Law Tagged with: ,