Gender activists foresee a drop in female parliamentarians after Namibia's general and presidential elections on November 27 and 28. It's a trend that jeopardises the region's goal of 50 percent female representation in politics by 2015.
"Political parties do not put their money where their mouth is," says Sarry Xoagus-Eises, country organiser for Gender Links, a non-governmental organisation that promotes gender equality throughout the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
"In their manifestos parties enshrine equal opportunities for men and women, but when the candidate list comes out, it's dominated by men."
A recent workshop of Gender Links and the Gender and Media Southern Africa (GEMSA) network revealed a likely drop from 30.8 percent to 25 percent in the female caucus in parliament. This outcome is based on a comparison of election forecasts, and women candidates' ranking on 13 out of 14 lists of participating political parties.
"It looks like the next National Assembly will have below 30 percent representation for women, which will be a backward step for Namibia, and make the achievement of gender parity by 2015 highly unlikely," confirms Graham Hopwood, political analyst and director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in Windhoek, supplier of the data Gender Links used in its forecast.
The prediction most likely means business as usual for Namibia, which scored a participation rate for women of only 26 percent in the 2004 elections. This percentage rose in the years after, as women took the place of male members of parliament (MPs) who left. But business as usual is nowhere near good enough, argue activists. Especially since 52 percent of the voters are female.
The 2008 SADC Protocol on Gender and Development has set an ambitious objective of raising the number of women in decision-making positions to 50 percent by 2015, in line with African Union targets. It's one of 28 goals the SADC heads of state (all men) set to improve gender equality.
But out of the 16 member states of the regional bloc, only South Africa - where female representation in parliament shot up from 33 percent to 43.5 percent after the 2009 elections - seems on track.
Botswana, after elections in mid-October, saw its number of female representatives dwindle from 11 percent to a dismal 6.5 percent, consigning the country to the bottom of the league.
According to Gender Links, Namibia ranks fifth in SADC and 87th worldwide in terms of female representation. Currently 24 out of 72 elected MPs are women. At the local government level Namibia scores much better, with 43 percent of councillors being female, second only to Lesotho where women dominate local politics (58 percent).
"This success is due to a quota for women candidates at this level," clarifies Xoagus-Eises. "Because of this quota we are pretty sure we will hit the 50 percent mark in the 2010 local elections. It's also easier to mobilise women in the communities. Local politics are about the grassroots issues, and that's exactly where women are.
"But we also need women in parliament," she stresses. That's why Namibia needs a voluntary quota like South Africa or Tanzania, Xoagus-Eises says. "Only with a quota system can you ensure enough women get put in the top 15."
But the trend is the reverse. "The ruling SWAPO (South-West African People's Organisation ) Party has only two women in the top 10. Overall women make up only 23.6 percent of the SWAPO list. Civil society has tried to convince the electoral commission of the need for a quota, but we are at a dead end," Xoagus-Eises says.
In Namibia there are no female presidential candidates, and the cabinet of 25 counts only six women. SWAPO holds 55 seats in parliament, a portion that's expected to decrease slightly in the upcoming polls.
"Where does that leave the minister of gender, equality and child welfare, who's placed 63 on the list?" wonders Xoagus-Eises.
Other parties fare little better. A SWAPO breakaway faction, the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), expected to garner a significant share of the votes, has only seven women on its 72-member list, or 9.7 percent.
Apart from the absence of a quota, Xoagus-Eises blames traditional and patriarchal attitudes for the poor showing of women on party lists.
"When the electoral college convenes it's the men who get voted in. It's a socialisation issue, the conviction that politics is best left to the men, and that the role of women is elsewhere."
This sentiment is shared by aspiring female politicians. "Political parties do not see women as their partners. The Namibian context is dominated by male voices," says Maria da Conceiçaó Lourence, candidate for the Namibian Democratic Movement for Change (DMC).
"Parties totally don't care about women's rights. Legislation like the Marital Equality Act or the Maintenance Act is passed, but these things are never really enforced. Every morning dozens of women queue up at the magistrate's court to fight for their payments."
Da Conceiçaó Lourence says: "We, the mothers, sisters and wives, are the ones that are hurt. It's time we get a woman president to change things. The men have proved they can't."
Tradition also determines who women vote for, she says. "You don't vote for yourself, you do as you are told. A woman listens to what her husband says, which means they will vote for men."
Gretchen Boois, number 10 on list of the largest opposition party, the Congress of Democrats (CoD), doesn't believe women do not vote for each other. "That's a story made up by men. Everywhere I go the first thing women want to know is how many ladies there are on the list, and what place they occupy."
CoD is the only party that has adopted a zebra-style representation list by alternating men and women, earning praise from women's groups. Three out of its five MPs are women.
"Women shouldn't just be voted into power, but be given real decision-making positions," feels Boois. "Only then can they wield influence and clear the way for a new generation of female decision-makers. Only they can level the playing field, because they understand what it takes to come from nowhere."
She admits that it's not easy. "Because of our cultural upbringing, women aren't confident speaking in public," she says. "We tend to keep quiet."
Researchers support these observations. "In general, parties pay lip service to gender- equity issues. Very few adopt regulations that would lead to more balanced representation," says Hopwood.
"The only means of achieving a 50-50 situation by 2015 would involve enforcing a zebra-quota system by amending the Electoral Act before the 2014 elections.
"However, it is not only about numbers. IPPR research into MPs' contributions to debates in the National Assembly from 2005 to 2007 found that a high proportion of women MPs rarely spoke in parliament, effectively acting as 'bench warmers'," Hopwood says.
"Quite a few of those MPs were left off party lists because they were perceived to be under-performing. So we should also look at the overall quality of MPs, and the effectiveness of women MPs, particularly in a party list system where they are chosen by parties rather than voters.
Hopwood says parties need to introduce their own gender empowerment programmes and training for prospective MPs.
Boois agrees training is needed. "We need to remove these barriers and train women in public speaking. Because we are actually much better in arguing a point. Unlike men we leave our egos at the door and focus on the issue."