Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel during the dinner for the participants and partners of the G20 Summit at the Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ BUNDESREGIERUNG/ GUIDO BERMANN
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel during the dinner for the participants and partners of the G20 Summit at the Colon Theatre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ BUNDESREGIERUNG/ GUIDO BERMANN

The G20, which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary, represents two-thirds of the world’s people and 85% of the global economy. It is therefore disappointing that the percentage of women heads of state represented at the summit is still markedly disproportionate: 18 men to only two women, namely the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Clearly the problem lies not in the G20 per se but in its member nations. In the whole of Africa, SADC countries included, there has been no female head of state since Ellen Johnson Sirlief’s presidency of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. There was also Joyce Banda, who had a stint at being a stop-gap head of state until the president of Malawi was elected.

Any expectation of shifting the gender balance in a top structure like the G20 without first addressing the matter within member countries is unrealistic. So, where do we start?

For SADC countries of the obvious place to start is to take the conventions and protocols they have signed and acceded to seriously, in particular Cedaw (the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women); UN Sustainable Development Goals specifically goal 5: gender equality; and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development (specifically articles 12 and 13).

According to Japanese newspaper, Japan Times, at a breakaway event titled “Women’s empowerment”, Merkel and May were joined by Queen Maxina of the Netherlands and US government senior adviser Ivanka Trump, who were both applauded for advocating for the rights of women.

While Trump praised the 20 heads of state for their commitment to women empowerment, her address was without concrete substance. She did not, for example, offer a class breakdown of women benefitting from the “women empowerment” project of world leaders, nor did she allude to specific sub-groups such as poor, illiterate rural and semi-rural women; women from informal settlements; or illiterate women.

In fact, the absence at the summit of any person capable of convincingly representing any grouping of marginalised women was glaringly apparent.

Using a rights-based approach, Trump argued that women empowerment is not only a social justice policy, but also an “economic and defence policy” matter. She said equal participation of women, with no pay gap, would increase the world’s GDP by $20-trillion and $25-trillion by 2025. She did not however mention the “reproductive” work (normally called “care work”) done by women.

A highlight of Trump’s speech was her location of feminised poverty as peace and security issue. If there is a way to lobby heads of state and government to adopt feminised poverty as a security issue, then the two most pertinent sustainable development goals (SDG) that can be harnessed are SDG 1 (end poverty) and SDG 16 (promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions)

In attendance at the summit side event “Women empowerment” were women from a variety of organisations and backgrounds. Asked about the absence of women at the top table, one of the women present said it was an indicator of the road that women still have to travel to be in top leadership, starting from their political parties and at the legislative level. Clearly this points to the difficulties that confront women when they run for parliament, not to mention the “big office”.

The first step to empower women in politics is to ensure that a majority get seats through affirmative action. One option is through “zebra” listing: placing female and male candidates alternately on party lists to prevent a situation where all women are dumped at the tail end.

Another strategy is to amend certain clauses of a country’s constitution to introduce “reserved” seats for women. It is not unusual to state the timeframe for this arrangement (such as three elections), in the belief that gender parity after that period will have been achieved. The danger of a limited timeframe is however that the proportion of women winning seats may start to diminish once the stated period is over.

The Japanese MP Yoko Kamikawi reflected on how well Japan had done in 2012, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe managed to recruit five women to take up cabinet positions. However, Kamikawa attested that the number of women in cabinet posts has since dwindled, affecting Abe’s “womenomics” vision. In Japan’s parliament, of the 463 seats, only 10% are currently held by women. 

On the pay gap between men and women, Deborah Greenfield, deputy director-general of the International Labour Organisation, placed the blame on two things: employment practices where women are routinely placed at the bottom of the organisation; and failure by governments to recognise women’s “reproductive” work.

Failure to factor in reproductive work makes it impossible to get the correct picture of each country’s GDP. Within the G20 countries, Greenfield sites Japan as having the lowest pay gap between men and women: it currently stands at 25%.

In their joint statements G20 leaders acknowledged that “gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential for achieving inclusive and sustainable society and economic growth”.

• Nomkhitha Gysman is a gender specialist working at SADC’s parliamentary forum. She writes in her personal capacity