Interview with head of UN Women in Southern Africa
In South Africa and Mozambique, women have reached the benchmark of 30 per cent
women’s representation in parliament. What’s the picture across Southern Africa?
As a sub-region we certainly have a long way to go. A few countries have been doing
well, but there are others that have regressed. In terms of women in political leadership
positions, the average is only 18 per cent. It is way below the 30 per cent we have
been calling for, and far below the 50 per cent that the heads of state and government
agreed to in signing the Gender and Development Protocol [of the Southern African
Development Community, SADC]. Most countries seem to be doing much better in
terms of representation in local governments. This might be because women work in
the community and are better known at that level. Women’s political representation is
absolutely important because participation is a basic human right.
Beyond getting into office, how can women better engage with broader governance
issues, including political conflicts?
One of the things that UN Women is doing is building capacities for women to
participate in leadership, but transformative leadership, so that they can engage
from a perspective of basic human rights and understand broader governance issues
and democracy in general. Some countries are in deep conflict. Our position is to
support women to participate in negotiations, in mediation, but also in prevention. In
Comoros, for instance, we are working within the context of the UN country team on a
peacebuilding project. Our contribution is to build the skills of women to understand the
issues of gender relations in peace, in peacebuilding, even in conflicts and how conflicts
happen. Even if they understand that, they need to build allies within the traditional
leaderships, amongst men, with their partners, etc.
There has been real progress in narrowing the gap between boys and girls entering
primary school. But do the girls stay in school?
That is a fundamental point. Looking at many countries, we find that there is parity
in terms of entry. In some countries girls are even surpassing boys in entering basic
education. But as you move further into the school years and you get into grade seven
and eight there are fewer girls continuing in school. Parents are more likely to withdraw
the girls from school if they are cash-strapped — or the girls are going to get married.
The other problem is that pregnancy in schools is very high and girls will drop to have
the babies. Girls also tend to have more work to do in the home, so they have less time
to study and therefore tend to have a lower passing rate than the boys.
Southern Africa has the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. How are women
So much money has come through for programmes against HIV and AIDS. But the
work has not taken into account the clear connection between gender inequality and the
spread of HIV/AIDS. In some Southern African countries there are 5 per cent of men
with HIV, but you find 20 to 22 per cent of young women of the same age group with
When you do the research, it is very much: “I didn’t want to sleep with him, but he
forced me.” And then there is the whole issue of “survival sex” in Southern Africa, where
young girls will sleep with older men so that they are able to go to school.
And women are also more likely than men to be in poverty…
It seems as though even our governments have now acknowledged that development
is not going to happen without the full involvement and participation of women in the
economy. But they have not just all of a sudden become benevolent. It is because of the
advocacy that has been coming from the women’s movements and from the ministries
responsible for women and gender.
At UN Women we are working with five governments in the sub-region in a pilot
programme to see exactly what women are doing to get out of poverty. Most of these
women are in what is called the informal sector, and their work is not recognized. The
women who kept the Zimbabwe economy going at the lowest point in its history are not
recognized even today. Yet they ensured the survival of their families and the economy.
Does UN Women work with rural women?
We have a $33 million project that we are currently fund-raising for as UN Women to do
exactly that, to work with rural women, particularly rural women farmers. It is a major
challenge. At least 70 per cent of the labour in agriculture is women. When we seek $33
million, that’s a drop in the ocean really, it’s nothing in terms of the need. And what
happens when the $33 million is finished? We need to be able to define programmes that
governments include in their own national development plans. And governments must
be able to desist from corruption. It is not that the national resources are not there, but
they are misused.
UN Women has just been created, merging four different UN entities that dealt with
women. For women here in Southern Africa, what difference can UN Women make?
What I see already is just an amazing amount of renewed energy for women’s
empowerment in the various areas of work, since the creation of UN Women.
Renewed hope indeed that UN Women will do things better and faster in promoting
women’s rights globally. It is a very tough call for us in UN Women to deliver on that.
Contributed by Africa Renewal www.un.org/africarenewal