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‘Violence and intimidation inhibit women in politics’  

Pascalinah Kabi

THE Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Teboho Lehloenya, says that endemic violence and intimidation on the country’s political landscape has deterred most women from running for political office in successive national elections.

Mr Lehloenya said this at the recent official launch of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus of Lesotho in Maseru.

Back in 1997, Lesotho joined other SADC countries in committing to ensuring the equal representation of women and men in the decision making positions of member states and SADC structures at all levels by 2015 and the achievement of at least 30 percent representation of women in political and decision making structures by the year 2005 including parliament.

But 13 years down the line, Lesotho is nowhere near meeting the 30 percent benchmark on women’s representation in parliament.

In fact, as shown by a research by Gender Links Lesotho, women’s representation in Lesotho’s parliament dropped by two-percentage points from 25 percent to 23 percent after the 3 June 2017 snap elections.

And Mr Lehloenya singled out violence and intimidation as the major factors that have hampered the empowerment of women and their elevation to positions of power.

Despite being under-represented, Mr Lehloenya said he felt a keen sense of pride watching female legislators heckle and challenge their male counterparts particularly on gender issues in parliament.

“I applaud the concerted efforts to transform the parliamentary space from being male-dominated and male orientated,” Mr Lehloenya said.

“Although country has made commendable strides in its efforts to empower women and elevate them to positons of power and decision making, the progress is painstakingly sluggish and as a result women are still under represented in parliament.

“Among other factors that deter women from contesting for political power are the intimation and violence they encounter in the race to elections. It is therefore imperative for policymakers to initiate efforts to eliminate these barriers and expedite process to increase female representation in positions of power and decision making.”

He said while other countries have introduced women in parliament, Lesotho only introduced a legal provision for zebra listing on proportional representation. This framework has resulted in 28 female legislators out of 120 legislators in the National Assembly- figure which translated to 23.3 percent.

Although this is a marked improvement from just five percent female legislators in the fourth parliament, this however still falls short of the 50 percent that Lesotho should have had by 2015.

Mr Lehloenya said there were six female senators out of 33 Senators and this translated to only 18 percent female representation.

He said the under-representation of women was a clear indication that as a signatory to regional and international instruments on gender equality, Lesotho has to take urgent action to redress the imbalances.

He further said that Basotho women and the nation in general trusted female legislators and the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus to not only change the political spectrum but also redefine the national priorities.

“It is through structures such as the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus that women can make monumental achievements. The reality is that women are a minority in parliament and it is only they speak with one voice that they can make a significant impact. The caucus is therefore necessary as it will help women to achieve mutual solidarity and unity to strengthen cooperation.”

Mr Lehloenya said the caucus would assist female parliamentarians to promote gender mainstreaming in the work and functioning of parliament as well as increasing the confidence of “female legislators who often have less political experience than their male counterparts”.

“Your fellow women citizens, people with disabilities, vulnerable and marginalised groups look up to the caucus to address serious challenges that they face in their daily lives and funds permitting, it is my hope that the caucus will reach out to women and young girls at grassroots level who need your assistance most. I urge you to hold the government accountable for the implementation and domestication of gender equality commitments.

“I further urge you to challenge your political parties as gatekeepers for women participation to create an environment that is conducive to the political participation and the representation of women on an equal footing with men,” Mr Lehloenya said.

For her part, the United Nations Populations Fund representative, Nuzhat Ehsan, said the establishment of a cross-party women’s caucus which included members of the National Assembly and the Senate was central to the full implementation of International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action which was agreed upon by 179 countries, including Lesotho in 1994.

She said the programme of action recognised that reproductive health and rights (RHR), women’s empowerment and gender equality were cornerstones of development programmes.

“The establishment of a cross-party women’s caucus is therefore central to the full implementation of this programme of action through, among others, the championing of health rights for women and girls and influencing strategic national responses to sexual and reproductive health rights, HIV and Gender Based Violence.

“As UNFPA we are very much concerned about the high maternal mortality rate in Lesotho (1024 per 100 000 live births). Most of the maternal deaths are caused by, among other things, the long distances that women have to travel to access sexual and reproductive health services,” Ms Ehsan said.

She said the UNFPA was also worried about the high rates of child marriages and gender based violence; adding that 86 percent of women in Lesotho are estimated to have experienced some form of gender based violence at least once in their lifetime and this is sometimes perpetrated by their partners.

She said it was their hope that the women’s caucus will play a pivotal role in advancing women’s rights by ensuring adequate budgetary appropriations for sexual and reproductive health rights. She also said the caucus could further advance women’s rights by promoting a legislative and policy agenda to ensure gender equality as well as counter the rampant gender-based violence and child marriages.

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