“If democracy is going to put down strong and healthy roots, it must profit from the full and equitable participation of women in national and local leadership positions…..” Madeleine K. Albright
‘Women hold half the sky’ is not a cliché. It is a fact of life, a demographic reality. It is true of The Gambia too- women hold half of our sky. According to the Preliminary Results of the 2013 Population and Housing Census, 50.5 per cent of our population is female while 49.5 per cent is male (98 male for every 100 female).
And that Local Government Authorities (LGAs) which are predominantly urban (Banjul, Kanifing and Brikama) ‘tend to have more males than females while those that are predominantly rural have more females than males’, attributable ‘to the movement of males from rural to urban areas and even from outside the country in search of better paid jobs’.
How effectively are we harnessing this particular demographic dividend? Where are our women on our political totem tree? Is this numerical strength in any way translated or transformed into ‘voice’, power and presence on the political decision making stage or arena? Can we say, with pride as a nation which claims to put women high on its political agenda, that our women are adequately represented in all spheres of political decision making, from the village to the district to the regional to the national to the international?
It is an incontrovertible fact that this Coalition Government certainly rode on the backs of women. They were its main support and foot soldiers and none took the battle to the court of Jammeh, in grand style, than those women who led the Kalama Revolution. Who suffered more brutality and undignified treatment at the hands of our unconscionable law enforcers than our women? Women empowerment, politically and economically, was a campaign selling agenda. One year on, the time has come to make a clarion appeal for the fulfillment of this promise, especially the political empowerment aspect.
The Government and all the political parties cannot give mere lip service to women’s political participation, especially their presence at the political decision making chambers. The current ‘population’ of women in the National Assembly is grossly disproportionate to their national population- out of a total of 58 Parliamentarians, only 5 are women, representing about 9.4% of the Assembly. Only three are elected while the other two are nominated members. Thus, the current National Assembly is predominantly male.
The Local Government Elections are due in April. The time has come for our political parties to make good on their promise. Women form the majority in the LGAs which are rural. The law of natural justice demands that women populate the political decision making chambers of the Local Authorities. The past should not be repeated; women were inadequately represented: there were only about 18 women councilors out of 137 councilors and only 10 elected from a total of 109 councilors.
Section 15 of the Women’s Act 2007 was, to all intents and purposes, supposed to address the low representation of women in elective positions. The ‘Temporary Special Measures’ provision provides that ‘every organ, body, public institution, authority or private enterprise shall adopt temporary special measures as set out in this Act aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women…..’ This measure shall ‘be discontinued when the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment have been achieved’.
Our politics is patriarchal, with men overwhelmingly dominating the political landscape. They define and formulate the political games and their rules. Atop the echelon of our political parties sit men, while women often are made ‘women mobilisers’ or campaign team leaders only- women form the majority at the base of parties while form the majority at the apex. Naturally then, men decide who become a parliamentarian or councillor.
It is a fact that women who aspire for political positions have greater and more burdensome juggernauts to contend with. Woe betides that aspirant who is single/spinster. The amount of insults and deriding remarks would be indescribable. She would be a victim of character assassination and defamation, harassment, insults and slander, sexual violence, and assault, and the same are likely to be directed at her supporters and relatives. The focus is often not on the woman’s qualifications and expertise but her sex and/or her marital background.
It is therefore apparent that the law is not sufficient, even though a necessary condition, to bring about a cataclysmic change in the lives of our women or ensure their adequate representation in the elected decision making bodies of our polity. While all things being equal women should be at these political decision making platforms on their own merit, evidently patriarchy, cultural beliefs and misinterpretation of religion remain largely insurmountable.
Thus, as a temporary measure, the Government must introduce the quota system to increase the number of women in the National Assembly and at the Local Government Councils. A true democracy is characterized by the full and equal participation of women and men in the formulation and implementation of decisions in all spheres of public life. No country can call itself democratic if half of the population is excluded from the decision-making processes.
Political parties must deliberately introduce policies to ensure women are nominated in their numbers and are able to contest elections under the most non-violent, non-sexist environment. Merely ‘encouraging’ women to vie for political position is not enough. Political parties must promote women to leadership positions, positions with real decision making powers.
Political parties must audit their selection committees and ensure they are not male dominated. Otherwise, there might be no control over gender biasness and deliberate selection of men, patriarchy and gender stereotyping coming to play.
Ours is still a man’s world. A society which is patriarchal, chauvinistic, male dominated, sexist, misogynistic, littered with customary beliefs which demean the woman and take away her self-esteem and dignity, espouses masculinity and machismo and believes a woman cannot be a leader of men even in the temporal world cannot expect women to easily sit at the political decision making table. If the Government must ensure that women do not remain on the menu perpetually, it must take all appropriate measures to advance the cause of its women. It must set the example first.
The talk about women’s empowerment must end. It should be action. Our women must realise that unless they band together, support each other and rise up with one voice, men, we men, will not want to give up or share the powers that easily come with patriarchy and domination. Our women must not be complacent that the laws are there; habits have not changed a bit. They should not buy in the sugary statements that ‘women should wait for their time’. They should refused to be dancers and cooks and voters only.
If ‘Political representation’ means representation of interests, ideas, values, perspectives, collectively mediated experiences, and corporeal experiences, the fundamental question to ask then is: who represents the interests of women? The ball is in the court of our Political Parties. April will be the litmus test.
If we can count the number of women in leadership positions, then our best is not good enough. If we cannot count the number of men at the table, why should we be able to count the number of women? From the Cabinet, regional administration, traditional leadership, private sector, parastatals, civil society, etc., the reality is the same: they are exclusively men’s clubs. Entrance is by favour,