Adelaide Sosseh Gender and Education Specialist

On Friday June 29th, 2018, President Adama Barrow effected a major cabinet change. The change saw two women lose their cabinet positions while two men joined the new cabinet.  The purpose of this article is not to question the cabinet reshuffle as it is the President’s prerogative to appoint members of his cabinet and to change them as he deems fit.  What I can question however and hold President Barrow to account is his lack of adherence to commitments made by government to the gender agenda.  It is worrying to say the least that instead of going forward The Gambia is back sliding in its commitments to national, regional and global gender agreements.

The Gambia took a bold and progressive step when it enacted the Women’s Act on Tuesday the 12th Day of April 2010.  The Women’s Act domesticated the major conventions and protocols on women including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the African Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa at a time when many African countries were still struggling with signing or ratifying these instruments.  This puts the country in a very favourable position with regards to the Women’s Agenda and was referred to by many Women’s Rights institutions and advocates as something that other countries should emulate.

In the same year (2010), the National Gender and Women Empowerment Policy 2010-2020 was also formulated.  The main focus of the Policy is to level the playing field by ensuring that the Constitutional provisions that guarantee that men and women are accorded full and equal dignity of the person and equality before the law are adhered to.   The Policy also aims at removing all forms of gender discrimination and adherence to gender specific rights and human rights generally.  Under priority area 4 – Gender and Governance – the policy goal is that ‘by 2020 all decision making institutions and bodies would have achieved at least 30 percent women representation at all levels’

This goal is derived from UN Economic and Social Council resolution 1990/15 which calls on governments, political parties, trade unions, and professional and other representative groups to adopt a 30 percent minimum proportion of women in leadership positions, with a view to achieving equal representation.  This benchmark indicator had however been surpassed by the African Union (AU) when it adopted the 50:50 gender parity principle in July 2002 at the Heads of States Summit in Durban.  This decision was immediately put in to practice with the appointment of equal numbers of male and female commissioners.

The 50:50 agenda is also a UN agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers an opportunity for countries to ensure that women have equal access to lead public institutions on the path to transformative change. SDG Target 5.5 calls for women’s full and equal participation in public life and SDG Target 16.7 for responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative institutions. The Global Women’s Leadership Initiative Index measures the effectiveness, accountability and inclusiveness of public institutions.  It tells us where we are today; the pathways women take to leadership, the positions they hold, and the power they have once they get there. The Leadership Index also helps to identify barriers to women’s leadership as well as critical gaps in the data that must be addressed to accelerate global progress toward parity.

Political commitment and policies are pre-requisites for women’s progress in political representation and in decision making.  However, in The Gambia it is not a lack of policies or laws that is impeding women’s participation in leadership.  Rather it is the lack of political will.  The recent cabinet reshuffle, reducing to two the number of women out of seventeen Cabinet Members (11%) is an indicator that the current government of The Gambia is not walking the talk in terms of meeting commitments to the gender parity principle.  Gender justice and the need to put gender equality issues at the centre of the development agenda makes it imperative for women to participate in all levels of the decision making and  policy formulation processes so that their different needs, interests and priorities are adequately addressed.  These issues include the right for them to participate in decision-making at all levels and that the space be provided for them to sit at the table.

While it is evident in law, policy and the international covenants and instruments that have been acceded to and signed that the government of The Gambia is committed to ending gender discrimination, this is still very much in rhetoric and not in practice. The cabinet reshuffle of the 29th June overtly shows a lack of adherence and commitment to the gender parity principles.  With only two women in a cabinet of seventeen, The Gambia has gone down to from a paltry 22% to a dismal 11% female representation in Cabinet.

This recent move is totally unacceptable and inappropriate in meeting our national, regional and global obligations.  The head of state must bear in mind that there are reporting mechanisms that have been institutionalized and that periodic reports must be submitted to UN Treaty Bodies such as the CEDAW Committee, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the Common Core Document (CCD) and the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as well as to the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA) Committee of the AU.

These reporting mechanisms create an avenue for monitoring progress in adherence to the commitments made and provide an opportunity for governments to showcase progress or to be held accountable for any lapses in adhering to these commitments.  Surely it is not the intention of President Barrow to embarrass government officials or put them in the untenable position of defending the unjustifiable when they appear before such bodies to answer to queries emanating from the reports.  In addition the provision for Shadow Reporting by NGOs to all of the human rights treaty bodies as well as the UPR provides a system of checks and balances against any anomalies in the government reports.

With all these accountability systems in place it is important that Government pays attention to and respects and maintains the commitments that it made to paving the way for women to participate in leadership and decision making positions at all levels.  This is not only a Gambian agenda but a global commitment and having made progress in this area it is sad to see the country retrogress.  It is therefore a matter of great urgency and importance for the President to take immediate remedial measures to redress the situation created by the cabinet reshuffle.

The gender parity principle cannot be compromised.  A lot of resources and emotional intelligence has been invested into this agenda.  It is not a lack of competent, qualified women that is causing the lacuna.  It is no longer an excuse.  There are many highly qualified, competent and experienced women in all works of life in The Gambia and the Diaspora who can occupy and effectively run any of the seventeen ministries in The Gambia as well as the departments, directorates, agencies of government and state owned enterprises.

In reshuffling the Cabinet, President Adama Barrow could have seized the opportunity to step up and treat Gambian women more fairly by adding the number of women in Cabinet, raising their presence to the required 30%.  Equal participation of women and men in decision making positions is an important condition for effective democracy and good governance.  The need for women to hold political, administrative, managerial, professional, and technical positions at the local and national levels cannot be over-emphasised.

The need for women to be treated fairly under the transitional justice system can also not be over-emphasised.  It is not fair that women who suffered under the Jammeh regime are also being victimised under this dispensation.  Justice must be done and must seen to be done for both men and women.

To conclude, I add my voice to the demands made by the Women Voices Matter and CSO Gender Platforms.  In addition to their demands I also add that until such a time that we reach the 50:50 parity principle, anytime that a woman is removed from a position she should be replaced by another women.  It does not necessarily have to be in that position but the new appointee can be appointed elsewhere.  This is to maintain the equilibrium and ensure that we do not constantly erode gains made.

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