Zambia: Women Welcome Equality Commission

Source: IPS News

(IPS) – The Zambian National Constitution Conference (NCC) concluded its business recently with the adoption of a clause for the creation of a Gender Equality Commission.

This is exciting news for gender activists who did not think the NCC would accept the clause. The women’s movement, alongside other civil society groups, had refused to participate in the NCC fearing civil society’s voice would not be heard.

Pixie Yangailo, a lawyer who sat on the NCC commission for gender, told IPS that given entrenched cultural beliefs about women’s subservient role in society, it was better to have a commission that will deal exclusively with gender equality and the promotion and protection of women’s rights.

Yangailo, who is also chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, gave the example of her organisation’s struggle to deal with the range of issues.

“We have to deal with children’s rights, social rights and economic and political rights, we are spread thin. The commission on the other hand will deal specifically and exclusively with gender issues, which is better.”

Even the government’s regular critics are impressed. Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) head Matrine Chuulu told IPS that because it will be a constitutionally-sanctioned body, the commission will have an established office with staff and a budget.

“It will have the power to negotiate and engage with parliament and government organs and have clear terms of reference.”

The Gender Equity Commission will operate like other service commissions created under the constitution.

It will monitor all organs of society to ensure that gender equality is safeguarded and promoted. It will have the power to repeal laws that are discriminatory; commission research and make recommendations to Parliament and other authorities.

The Commission will also have the power to investigate complaints on gender-related issues and monitor Zambia’s progress towards domesticating international gender equality instruments to which it has committed, such as the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.

Welcoming the Commission, Gender Deputy Minister Lucy Changwe noted the absence of a gender ministry in the country.

“What exists is only a Gender in Development Division (GIDD), which operates under the office of the president, but we need to create an autonomous body which will support gender equity,” she said.

The GIDD is presently headed by a full cabinet minister, but does not have any authority, or budget. It was created through a policy announcement by former president Frederick Chiluba, viewed more as a move to appease the women’s movement than to promote gender equality.

Cautious optimism

Yet Leah Mitabai, spokesperson for the Non Governmental Organisations’ Coordinating Committee (NGOCC) cautioned that the establishment of the Gender Commission could be yet another cosmetic act. She says it’s possible that the Commission would suffer the same fate of all other commissions – inadequate funding.

“The way they are going to set up the commission suggests that it will be no different from GIDD, which is a toothless organ,” Mitabai said.

Princess Njovu, a gender activist with the Zambia Social Forum, also expressed cautious optimism, saying, “People are behaving like the commission is a panacea and will change everything in one fell swoop. It will face the same difficulties that have beset NGOs and civil society trying to protect and promote gender equality.”

She cited the law of inheritance where authorities have failed to protect widows and their children from property grabbing relatives. “Having a constitutionally-backed entity does not mean cultural beliefs will change or men will suddenly begin to see women in different light. It has taken us years to get to where we are, the Commission will not fast track things,” she said.

Political priorities

Njovu, who is fighting for women’s land rights, said people must remember that the constitutional process is about politics.

“The government is always cash-strapped and the Commission will be the first casualty when government needs money for political offices,” she told IPS.

“I don’t see the Commission taking priority over politics, that’s why I am cautious. We may just have another moribund institution on our hands.”

Zambia has failed to achieve the target of 30 percent female representation in decision-making set in the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development, a non-binding predecessor to the 2008 SADC Protocol that raised the goal to 50/50 representation by 2015.

The country has not domesticated any international instrument that protects or promotes women’s rights; gender-based violence remains a major concern and is fuelling HIV transmission. USAID figures indicate an HIV prevalence rate that among Zambian adult women of 18 percent, significantly higher than the 13 percent prevalence among men, citing sexual violence against women and poverty as among the main risk factors.

There is a national gender policy but it has never been allotted funding for implementation.

But a hopeful Chuulu called on people to give the Commission a chance in order to change the circumstances of women.

She said it was a pity that after forty-five years of independence and three constitutional review processes the position of women in Zambia had not changed.

“Zambian women remain subordinated, with limited access to resources and high levels of illiteracy and are seen as tools of development rather than partners. This is an indictment on our generation,” she told IPS.