Saturday, March 05, 2005

[Africa] From the Ashes of Genocide, a True Democracy Rises

By Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Mar 4 (IPS) - In an inspiring victory for African women -- and women everywhere -- Rwanda has surged to first place on an international scorecard for gender equality in political representation. Seven developing countries -- Rwanda, Cuba, Costa Rica, Mozambique, Argentina, South Africa and Guyana -- now rank among the 17 top performers, with more than 30 percent women parliamentarians, according to the World Map of Women in Politics 2005, released Thursday. Sweden dropped to number two after Rwandan voters elected a parliament with 48.8 percent women in the lower house and 34.6 percent in the upper house. Eleven years ago, Rwanda was the scene of a horrific genocide. At least half a million people were killed over a 13-week period in 1994, perhaps as many as three-quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population. Thousands of majority Hutu who opposed the murderous campaign also perished. "If you look at African countries, there are a number that have gone through periods of upheaval, such as the liberation movements in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia," said Anders Johnsson, secretary-general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which publishes the map together with the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women. "In the case of Rwanda, it was something similar in the sense of very severe internal strife. In the reconstruction period afterwards, women played a prominent role as local administrators -- and when women get to play a large public role, they are reluctant to go back," he told IPS in an interview from Geneva. The transition period included the drafting of a new constitution, with leaders bringing in legal experts to look at gender issues, and the creation of a series of seminars to help women prepare for the electoral campaign. Rwanda's new constitution ultimately set a minimum of 30 percent for women in parliament and in the executive. Other countries in a post-conflict transition, like Burundi and Afghanistan, have followed suit, developing mechanisms to ensure that women are guaranteed a quota in decision-making bodies. "If you look at where we are coming from, the proportion of women in government has unfortunately always been dismal," Johnsson said. "For two decades, women's presence hovered between 11 and 13 percent." "Now suddenly, in all regions, we are on an upward curve and for the first time have crossed the 15 percent mark. It's a very significant and very positive sign -- although this is not good enough." Since the last assessment in 2000, the proportion of women parliamentarians grew from 13.4 percent to 15.7 percent. Of the 58 countries that held elections last year for the lower houses of parliament, 49 show an increase in the percentage of women. However, if this pace fails to pick up, Johnsson points out, it would take until 2025 for women's overall representation to reach the critical mass of 30 percent, and until 2040 to achieve gender parity. The report was released at the United Nations in New York to coincide with a two-week meeting on progress achieved in the decade since world leaders made broad gender rights commitments at World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China. The 2005 map also breaks down the data on women parliamentarians by region. It shows little change in terms of regional rankings, with the Nordic countries in the lead, followed by the Americas, the rest of the European continent, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific, and Arab countries. Promisingly, the biggest change was a near doubling of the percentage of women MPs in the Arab world, from 3.5 percent to 6.5 percent. While this number is relatively modest, the report predicts that the trend is likely to continue with the results of elections in Iraq and of political reforms in a number of countries. "If I can look into the crystal ball, the indication we have from quite a few countries in the Arab world and African countries is a commitment to doing affirmative action," Johnsson said. "In developing countries, women are taking on much more public and important roles in economy and administration, and this creates a demand for a public role in politics," he said. "More women are also receiving higher educations than ever. All these things are coming together to motivate and give capacity." However, the count of women heads of state or government declined in the last five years (from 4.7 percent in 2000 to 4.2 percent today). And the list of countries in which women are either presidents or prime ministers is very similar to that of five years ago, with the exception of Philippines and Mozambique. While Rwanda and Sweden top the list in terms of gender equality, some powerful Western-style democracies did not fare so well. "If you look at numbers 49, 60 and 70 (in the ranking) they are the United Kingdom, the United States and France. It's a bit disappointing," Johnsson said. Even within parliaments, it remains disproportionately difficult for women to become presiding officers, the report notes. Interestingly, women in developing countries and transition countries are actually more likely to be speaker of parliament than those in developed countries. "A great example of this is South Africa, where lot of the senior ministers are women, including the deputy minister of defence, the speaker and deputy speaker in parliament," Johnsson said. "Five years ago (women representatives) were a novelty, but it's the most normal thing in the world now."