Mahe-Delegates to the first ever Women’s Parliament, which ended in Mahe in the Seychelles last week, have called for sustained engagement over issues dealt with during the parliament.
The SADC Parliamentary Forum, the Regional Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (RWPC) and other cooperation partners, notably ARASA, organised the Women’s Parliament, which sought to rally female members of parliament around Resolution 60/2 on the status of women, children and the girl child.
Resolution 60/2 seeks to end HIV infection among women and girls.
The major outcome of the Women’s Parliament was the Mahe Declaration, which summarises the deliberations that took place during the two-day Women’s Parliament. The Mahe Declaration captures resolutions on specific actions that need to be taken to address the issues discussed.
The resolutions are addressed specifically to the SADC Parliamentary Forum. They are meant also for the SADC Secretariat, SADC national parliaments and relevant ministries of member states for implementation. In that regard, the Mahe Declaration is a commitment by women members of parliament to address issues that predispose the region’s women and girls to HIV infection.
In separate interviews, various MPs hailed the Women’s Parliament and the Mahe Declaration as giant steps forward in addressing HIV infection among women and girls, but warned against complacency.
Zambian lawmaker Prof Nkandu Luo, who is also Zambia’s Minister or Higher Education, said the Women’s Parliament was a brilliant initiative but urged the organisers to allocate more time for discussion should the Women’s Parliament be held again.
“When you are discussing such serious issues as we are discussing, it is important to allocate sufficient time so that people exhaust issues. It is better to reduce the number of panelists during panel discussions and increase their time,” Luo said.
Time constraints notwithstanding, the veteran politician said the Women’s Parliament had been an important attempt at further interrogating the HIV epidemic and its effect on young people.
“Some of us knew as far back as 1989 that HIV was not only a serious problem, but that it (disproportionately) affected women. Disaggregated data shows that HIV affects young people the worst,” he noted.
Further boting that in some instances people had for long been paying lip service to combating HIV, Luo hoped that she would begin to see less “talk and more action”. Her view was also that because of limited time allocated to tis deliberations, the Women’s Parliament had “merely scratched” the surfaces of pertinent issues.
“We did not adequately discuss why HIV affects young girls and young women. We need to move away from symptoms to social determinants. What is it that is so peculiar to our society in the SADC region that is promoting such high infections?”
She had a theory: “We are the region of Africa that is running away very fast from its identity and taking on a lot of influence from outside. While it is appreciated that we have to be in tandem with everybody else, we need to preserve our identity.”
She said the youth in the SADC were exposed to drugs, alcohol abuse and sexual relationships at a very tender age.
“These are not our traditional cultures and norms. In the past, traditional African societies respected women, and young girls were never exposed to boys or men. We were taught as children to fear and avoid boys, so this thing of having boyfriends and girlfriends was not part of our culture,” she said.
Going forward, Luo said SADC member states should come up with practical measures to respond to the issues raised in the Mahe Declaration.
Many at the Women’s Parliament called for it to become an annual event. Luo agrees, but wants member states to work throughout the coming year, so that the next Women’s Parliament becomes an opportunity to report on activities and their impact.
Zimbabwean MP Dr Ruth Labode said the Women’s Parliament was “a landmark” event. “For the women in the SADC region, this is the beginning of recognition of women as a force. We galvanised ourselves. The topics that we discussed are prominent: gender-based violence, access to safe abortions, etc.”
She said in some parts of the SADC Region Civil Society OrganiSations had been left to respond to the HIV epidemic alone, when MPs should be at the forefront. “We should take the lead and only turn to CSOs for technical support,” she said.
She further suggested that the organisers consider inviting more young people to such gatherings, so that they can share their lived experiences. “We must meet often and for longer periods with like-minded people and organisations. We need to follow up on issues raised here in our countries.”
Her wish was to see people from hard-to-reach populations, like sex workers, at similar gatherings to say what drove them to where they are, or who they are. She recalled listening to a sex worker explain how she had undergone five abortions due to attitudinal and other barriers.
“That is what I want to hear. We must have safe abortions.”
She advised SADC PF and its partners to think about building on the first Women’s Parliament. “Hold on to this thing. This will lift the SADC region beyond other regional [platforms].”
Namibian MP Petrina Haingura said the Women’s Parliament had lived up to her expectations. “I came here to gain knowledge, so that I share it with my fellow parliamentarians and especially young rural women and girls on SRHR,” she said.
She said in SADC and in Namibia, teenage pregnancies and gende-based violence present major challenges. “(Teenagers) are dumping babies like nobody’s business and GBV is a problem. I wanted to know what we can do. We have many good laws in place. The problem, it seems to me, is implementation.”
* Moses Magadza is communications and advocacy specialist at SADC-PF.