Women's organizations in Namibia have now joined voices to advocate gender balance in politics and decision-making bodies. In a country where 51 per cent of the over 2.2 million people are women (according to current government estimates), there are only seven women in the 27-member Cabinet.
When Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, 9 per cent of parliamentarians were women. Sixteen years later, women account for 27 per cent of the 78-member Parliament; 23 per cent of the permanent secretaries in government ministries; 25 per cent of all deputy ministers; and 32 per cent of directors and heads of departments in the civil service.
As the country and the ruling party South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) - in power since Independence - prepares for its congress in December 2006 and the next general elections in 2009, the time is ripe for a call for equality. Women's groups - political, NGOs, activists - are calling on all political parties to field an equal number of women candidates.
In September 2006, SWAPO's Women Council resolved at a central committee meeting that there should be a 50 per cent representation in the party hierarchy and in Parliament. "We need the same opportunities as men," said Linea Shaetonhodi, Deputy Secretary of the Council. "We are hoping that, come the next elections, our presence will be felt."
Women's Manifesto Network, an organization representing nine women's rights groups, says nominating women as candidates in all elections ensures more priority to women's interests in policy development and implementation. "In order to achieve gender balance in politics and decision-making, we advocate that political parties include 50 per cent women candidates on their party lists in all elections, including those of the National Assembly. The government should also legislate an affirmative action provision to ensure that in future elections, at least half the candidates at all levels of government are women," demands the Network's manifesto.
Namibia uses proportional representation at the parliamentary level, and winning parties select members from a hierarchical list - that is, according to the positions that members occupy in the party. This allows scope for a deliberate infusion of women into Parliament. The country, however, uses the British first-past-the-post system for the presidential elections.
"There can be no true and substantive democracy without the equal participation of women...Political parties tend to blame women for not coming forward as candidates, rather than analyze and remove the many barriers and constraints facing women who enter the male-dominated area of politics," says the manifesto.
Ngohauvi Kavetu is the opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance's representative for Opuwo, an impoverished region north of the capital, Windhoek. The lack of a level playing field, she believes, is the crux of the issue. "You need to prove that you know what is happening in your region and stand your ground in discussions or you will be shot down in the male-dominated Parliament."
This point is underlined by Liz Frank from the Windhoek-based Women Action for Development, a group that works for women's empowerment. She says women are not just asking for the quota system. "We're asking for a piece of legislation that would make a permanent amendment to the electoral law," she says.
However, a statement released by the Cabinet in September 2006 - in response to the call for greater representation of women in decision-making positions - appears to stress that the reforms demanded might not be viable in the short term. "Namibia has not yet achieved the previous target of 30 per cent, and much needs to be done to attain the new target of 50 per cent of women in politics and decision-making positions."
The country's private sector has also fallen far short on gender parity issues and female executives remain a rarity. According to the 2006 annual report of the Employment Equity Commission, only 48 women held executive positions at the 345 companies and State-owned enterprises surveyed.
Namibia is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) declaration on Gender and Development. In effect, the government has committed itself to promoting women's issues at all levels.
The country's National Gender Policy and Plan of Action spells out 10 areas of concern in which gender imbalances need to be addressed. These include the areas of gender balance in politics and decision-making, poverty and rural development, education and training, reproductive health and rights, gender and legal affairs, as well as the situation of the girl child.
In 1997, at the SADC's Heads of State meeting in Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital, the 14-member regional body resolved that there should be equal representation of women and men in the decision-making of all member States at all levels, and set a 30 per cent target to be achieved by 2005. The 50 per cent gender-parity goal, in line with the African Union's recommendations, has no set timeframe.
The June 2006 edition of the SADC Gender Monitor says that, in the rest of southern Africa, the average representation of women in parliaments currently stands at 20 per cent, with only Mozambique and South Africa having reached 30 per cent or above.
Nevertheless, Namibia has excelled in other areas of gender equality. In 2002, its Parliament amended the Local Authorities Act to include a clause that stipulates that 30 per cent of all candidates fielded by each political party should be women. This resulted in women garnering 43 per cent of the 283 available seats in the 2004 municipal elections.
The country's main opposition party, Congress of Democrats, is the only political party with a constitution that stipulates 50 per cent representation for women. "We have set an example and the ruling party should follow," says its president, Ben Ulenga.