The story of former high court judge Unity Dow’s special nomination to parliament initially has the ingredients of a narrative that paves the way for tolerance, hope and a new progressive era in Botswana. Anything, it seems, is possible in this small country. Just the mere reality is indeed a very sobering thought.
“The Unity Dow case against the state in the citizenship matter was the culmination point. In 1992, the Botswana court of Appeal ruled in favour of Mrs. Dow that the citizen Act was discriminatory against women (who married foreign men), as they could not pass their citizenship to their children.
But unlike in South Africa, there is no Unity Dow’s day in Botswana and women in Botswana are not campaigning for it to be declared a public holiday,” reads a Democracy Research Project (DRP) report.
For a long time, women have been subdued when participating in politics. Politics has traditionally been a male domain that many women have found overwhelming or even hostile.
As evident in the past general elections, women representation in elective positions is still at low levels. Societies in which traditional of patriarchal values remain strong may frown on women entering politics.
Batswana women are not known for the staging of massive demonstrations but rather, they played the leading role in organizing party activities and drafted women’s manifestoes for presentation to political parties.
According to a report compiled by Gender Links Botswana, although women do most of grass roots mobilization, at election time they are often overlooked in favour of male candidates.
In addition to dealing with unfavourable cultural predilections, women are more often more likely than men to face practical barriers to entering politics. In many cases women lack political party support and they don’t have access to quality education and training necessary to enter politics.
But why is that so? It’s not that because nowadays women perceive politics as a dirty game as before. In Botswana, it’s the way in which women are portrayed in the local mass media. Women face this big obstacle in their respective quests.
Gender Links Botswana has over the years been working with Local Government Councils to encourage women to represent their respective parties in national elections. In the general elections which were held last month, only 182 females out of the possible 500 plus seats won primary elections for their various parties.
The report further states that in 1996 Botswana had a good track record of adopting gender instruments at regional and international level.
In 1996 Botswana signed the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights. Before 1997 women like Dr Gaositwe Chiepe, Kebathsabile Disele, and Joy Phumaphi graced the halls of parliament and sat on governments highest decision making bodies. They have left their mark in the world of women participation in politics.
In 1997, Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of State signed the Declaration on Gender and Development in Malawi setting a minimum target of 30% women representation in all areas of political decision making by 2015.
Other cardinal instruments to ensure this include the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Botswana National Gender Programme Framework.
Barely two years later, in 1999 Botswana women in politics were belittled and trivialized in the local media, as reflected in the head line, ‘Petticoats’ in the Mud Bath’ from the 1999 general elections. The story concerned the failure to increase women’s representation in politics, despite the various targets set at international and regional level.
Then in June 2007, the Gender and Media in Southern Africa (GEMSA) Botswana Chapter and the Botswana Media Women Association (BOMWA) noted with alarm the cartoon that appeared in a local daily newspaper of May 8, 2007. The cartoon, titled BNF Congress, supposedly depicted the Botswana National Front aspirant for Party Presidency, Kathleen Letshabo, at its congress being castrated with a burdizzo and bleeding heavily. This was after she lost to a male candidate Otsweletse Moupo for the presidential seat in the BNF.
In a combined statement, BOMWA and GEMSA stated that they were “deeply disturbed by the cartoon, which it finds in bad taste, and more importantly displays the insensitivity on the part of the cartoonist and Mmegi newspaper in which it was published. The message implied by the cartoon has the effect of degrading and ridiculing women who aspire for leadership positions in the political arena.”
Ntombi Setshwaelo a board member at Gender Links Botswana commented that, “in simple terms the media portrays us women politicians as women trying to be men,” she said.
The letter to the editor sparked a very heated exchange of strong worded letters in all the local newspapers. These were written by professional, intellectual and career driven, strong women from all across different sectors from civil society. As a follow up BOMWA-GEMSA held a gender workshop with cartoonists such as Tebogo Motswetla of Mabijo fame which was hosted by the University of Botswana.
In 2008, the SADC Declaration was re-looked and then elevated to the SADC protocol on Gender and development, increasing the target to 50% in all areas of decision making in line with African Union (AU) targets and setting a deadline of 2015 for achieving this.
But this is another pie in the sky for Botswana women politicians because Botswana has not yet signed the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Considering its current leaders position as the new deputy chairperson, indications are that the outcome looks negative. It is this purpose that equally qualified women have a lot to offer as leaders as much as do their male colleagues but inherently there seems to be evidence that women, to a far extent, have never been allowed to assume high ranks of power since the very beginning of time.
The key challenges are that there is no clear strategy, neither nationally nor within political parties to increase awareness of the role of women in decision making. There is very limited voter education to mobilize the population to vote for women. This is because of the fundamental reason being few resources available for women than men and lack of support from men. Negative attitudes are also great barriers for women candidates in the campaign process towards Election Day as is evident today.
University of Botswana lecturer in Public Administration, Professor Emmanuel Botlhale mentioned just before the election that Botswana’s first past the post electoral system does not favour women when it comes to their empowerment in politics.
He argued that there is a need for reforms in the current electoral systems to enhance women’s’ political participation.
“Had we been using a hybrid electoral system that’s combined with a Proportional Representation system and a First Past the Post Electoral System then we would see more represented in powerful political positions as evident in Lesotho.”
He added that implementation of adopted policies and laws lacks vigour and the interpretation of some could be influenced by views of implementers; hence the need for clear implementation regulations to promote uniform interpretation and application.
According to the 2014 SADC Gender Protocol Barometer, Botswana together with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), currently have the lowest representation of women in parliament in the Southern African region at a mere 10%. Currently there are only 14% women in cabinet and 19% in local government.
Calculations in Barometer reflect the global reality that women’s political representation is highest in proportional representation (PR) electoral systems (38% in parliament and 37% in local government) and in countries with quotas (38% in parliament and 37% in local government). In Botswana the media and the first past the post electoral system is unfavorable to women political candidates.