Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A women’s best friend?

To what extent will President Festus Mogae be remembered for pursuing a radical drive towards gender equality?

When this question is put to his senior aides, they mention the unprecedented number of women who rose to senior positions in the civil service, as well as legislative efforts to amend laws that were heavily biased against women. It is pointed out that as of last year, female representation in senior decision-making positions in the public sector stood at a record 41 percent. This figure includes notable personalities such as attorney general Athalia Molokomme, director of public prosecutions Leatile Dambe, and Bank of Botswana governor Linah Mohohlo, all of whom were appointed by Mogae. Also included in the list are permanent secretaries, as well as a host of ambassadors, High Commissioners, consulates and the like.

One presidential advisor points out that over the past decade of Mogae’s presidency, advances have been made through the review of laws that discriminated against women in order to ensure that they participate fully in the national economy.

“We have, in particular, sought to strengthen the economic security of women in such areas as land, property, inheritance rights, employment and access to credit and markets,” he says.
Legislative and policy measures that are held up as credentials of Mogae’s gender sensitivity include amending the Affiliation Proceedings Act in 1999 to make it possible for a person other than the mother to institute proceedings under the Act; Public Service Act in 2000 to recognise sexual harassment as misconduct; and enactment of the Abolition of Marital Power Act in 2004, where the common law principle of marital power was replaced with the principle of equality of spouses married in community of property.

There is a story told by those in the know that after the last general elections, Mogae had planned to fill the four seats of nominated MPs exclusively with women. His scheme was aborted by intense lobbying from influential figures who felt that Botsalo Ntuane deserved to be rewarded for his star performance as executive secretary at Tsholetsa House. As a comprise, Ntuane was appointed alongside three women ÔÇô Margaret Nasha, Sheila Tlou, and Moggie Mbaakanyi.

A young woman in the BDP Youth Wing, Esther Norris, was dropped.

It was the first time that the special window for additional MPs was dominated by women. Later, the president would remark at a public event that where it was within his powers, he had gone out of the way to appoint women, and at the same time expressed disappointment with the voters, especially in Gaborone Central, for rejecting two women parliamentary candidates ÔÇô Botswana National Front’s Kathleen Letshabo and Nasha, who represented the Botswana Democratic Party ÔÇô in preference for a man, Dumelang Saleshando of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).

”May be it’s because he is tall and handsome,” Mogae said.

Mogae will go down in history as the Commander-in-Chief under whose watch the military, possibly the last of Botswana’s men-only clubs, opened its ranks to women following last year’s first enrolment of 30 female officer cadets in the Botswana Defence Force.

While maintaining that Mogae had a clear pro-women agenda, one presidential official concedes that political will alone without a qualified pool of candidates to choose from could not have delivered results. To that extent, he points out that progress towards achieving gender equity at the top can in part be attributed to Botswana’s success in ensuring gender balance at all levels of the country’s education system, an achievement recognised even by UNESCO, which has previously cited Botswana for having achieved statistically perfect Gender Parity Index Scores for male/female enrolment. Another United Nations agency, the UNDP, has placed Botswana, alongside Canada, as number 16 in the world in terms of the percentage of women occupying leadership positions in both the public and private sectors, at 35 percent. This placed Botswana above all of the countries in western and northern Europe, including the Scandinavian countries. The UNDP further reported that 52 percent of those employed in Botswana’s professional and technical fields were women.

A point is made that the major beneficiaries of Mogae’s vigorous HIV/AIDS campaign have been women, who bear most of the brunt as victims and caregivers.

While his officials project Mogae as the poster boy of the gender movement, one commentator faults the president for not going beyond oral encouragement to society and women to embrace gender equality. His assessment of Mogae’s performance on this area is that the president’s efforts were not anchored on a transformative approach. At best, Mogae’s agenda is labelled superficial, and driven by political expedience and friendship. One criticism is that even in special nominations to Parliament, he could not break the mould and pick women from outside the BDP. On this point, he was even faulted by BDP veteran and former cabinet minister Archie Mogwe, who, immediately after the elections, expressed disappointment in a newspaper interview that the BDP in Parliament had ganged up to defeat Letshabo’s candidature for special nomination.

While Mogwe did not pass judgment on the caliber of women preferred by his party as Specially Elected MPs, critics of Mogae’s gender credentials posit that the president’s choice always tended to gravitate towards women who would not upset the status quo, to the exclusion of the likes of Letshabo, who would fight to bring about a revolution in gender relations.

That the BDP has not moved to ensure compliance with the 30 percent quota for women in all meaningful positions in the party’s various structures is held up as another indicator of Mogae’s failure of the gender movement.

“He did not convince his party to act on 30 percent quota of positions for women in all positions. Neither did he push for constitutional change to bring in the 30 percent quota at national level. To the extent that there was no attempt to change the country’s constitution to entrench the 30 percent quota, that just goes to show that there was a lot of talk, that was not accompanied by concrete support to achieve true gender-equality,” says one gender activist.

A theory is advanced that if Mogae were really committed to the agenda of gender, he would have cultivated interest in the agenda within his own organisation. As it is, his efforts are dismissed as a one-man show, which renders his programme unsustainable, and easily reversible. What is described as the best approach is that there should have been a deliberate measure to create a state that would ensure that even after Mogae exits the national stage, the drive towards gender equality would remain on the centre-stage.

Goes another assessment: “At best, what we witnessed (during Mogae’s presidency) was cooption of vocal voices by the state, which was meant to weaken the women’s movement. These few women have been incorporated within the structures of patriarchy to perpetuate patriarchy. That co-option led to suspicions within the women’s movement, and its resultant demobilisation. The truth is that Mogae used his power to demobilise the women’s movement. He has not been unlike all other male politicians who only use women as fodder for the election machinery to deliver votes, not to liberate them.”

Mogae’s efforts were noted earlier this month at a farewell dinner the Botswana National Council on Women (BNCW) hosted for the outgoing president. While she commended Mogae for having appointed “capable women” to key positions, Hermetina Mogami, BNCW chairperson, expressed desire for 50 percent representation in all spheres.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper