Women in the executive: Can women’s ministries make a difference?

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South African Parliament. Photo: PhilippN - Some Rights reserverd

In December 2007, at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference, a resolution was accepted to create a Ministry of Women’s Affairs (now called the Ministry of Women, Children, Youth and People with Disabilities). The implication of this decision was that gender equality would receive attention at the executive (cabinet) level of government. While there have been many women in cabinet since the transition to democracy in 1994, this would be the fi rst time that there would be a ministry tasked solely to deal with gender issues. Yet, given the comprehensive set of structures that constitute the National Gender Machinery (NGM), this decision came as a surprise to many gender activists who have been of the opinion all along that a Ministry of Women’s Affairs would be either a dumping ground for women’s issues or redundant.

Since 1994, South Africa has become known for its very integrated set of structures in the state. The NGM is the most comprehensive in Africa, even more so than in most Western countries. Feminist activists and scholars, together with the women’s movement in the guise of the Women’s National Coalition (WNC), fought hard to get the idea of a ‘package’ of structures accepted during the transition process.

Accepting the Beijing Platform of Action (after the 1995 UN Decade of Women Conference in Beijing), meant that the discourse and practice of gender mainstreaming became part of government strategy to include a gender analysis in all policies and legislation. The vision was that the National Gender Policy would be the blueprint for gender mainstreaming in government, driven by the gender desks and committed femocrats.

Feminists were also of the opinion that the representation of women in government should increase so that they could support the work of the NGM. Since the fi rst free and fair election in 1994, the percentage of women in government has been on an upward trajectory due the ANC’s 30% quota up to 2004, and its acceptance of the 50% quota for the 2009 election. At the moment South Africa has a ratio of 45% women in government. It should be evident that there is a close relationship between the structures of the NGM, gender mainstreaming and the advocacy of women in civil society. The question is whether this shift to a Women’s Ministry is necessary, and also what it will entail for the process of gender mainstreaming. Furthermore, will it be integrated into the existing gender machinery or is this the beginning of the dismantling of the NGM in South Africa?

In the institutionalization of gender in the state the NGM, the policy of gender mainstreaming and the inputs by the women’s movement are determining factors in how successful countries are in changing unequal gender relations. The past 15 years have shown that even if a country like South Africa has state of the art structures, there are many factors that may cause their dysfunction.

Their suboptimal functioning has lead to the creation of a Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Persons with Disability. This structure cannot just be added into the existing structures without rethinking the relationship between structures, their mandates and their relationship with civil society. The ministry is supported by the ANC Women’s League and the Progressive Women’s Movement of South Africa. Both of these organisations are closely related to the state, unlike more autonomous women’s organisations.

If South Africa introduces a Ministry of Women’s Affairs there probably is the perception that this ministry can solve some of the intractable problems that currently exist within the NGM – that of overlapping mandates, uncertainty where oversight functions reside, a lack of autonomy to take government to task over non-compliance with the gender agenda, and a lack of implementation of gender policies and legislation (Gouws, 2006). Indeed, if the ministry is supposed to cure all the ills of the gender machinery it may already have started at a disadvantage. It may not be able to live up to the expectations that it should be everything to everybody or that it will do all the mopping up where the other structures have failed. Furthermore, it may meet with resistance from those who were not consulted about its inception.
This article attempts an analysis of Women’s Ministries (structures on the level of the executive) that are normally tasked with the implementation of policy and legislation. It does so by looking at the experience of Women’s Ministries in the north, as well as in Africa. It also reflects on the more recent histories in the north of the dismantling of gender machineries as a consequence of gender mainstreaming.

The Gender Advocacy Programme (GAP) is an independent, non-governmental advocacy and lobbying organization in Cape Town, South Africa. It aims to bridge the gap between women in civil society and structures of governance and to increase the participation of women in policy formulation and decision-making. http://www.gender.co.za/

GAP was for many years project partner of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa.

Read the full GAP Policy brief #2 

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