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Survey Shows Gender Attitudes in Southern Africa Lag Behind Policies

In an annual barometer of the progress toward gender equality in 15 southern African countries, a new measure of gender attitudes shows that, despite moves toward equality for women in the law, general opinion still puts men first.

Written by Rumbi Chakamba Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A woman sits in front of the Supreme Court building in the Seychelles capital, Victoria. A recent survey of gender attitudes in southern Africa revealed that while policies on gender equality might be moving forward, opinions on gender are stuck in the past. AFP/ Alberto Pizzoli

Every year since 2011, the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance, a group of women’s NGOs from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has taken a measure of how much progress the SADC’s 15 member states are making in various gender issues. Adopted in 2008 and updated in 2015, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development sets out 28 targets for gender equality, including equal representation for women in decision-making positions in the public and private sector and the adoption of integrated approaches to reduce gender-based violence.

This year, the Gender Protocol Alliance added a new layer to its picture of gender issues in the region: the SADC Gender Attitude Survey. Along with statistical measures of progress, the new survey looks at the less quantifiable, but equally important, factors that influence a country’s work toward equality between men and women – factors such as how much authority people think husbands have over their wives or whether general consensus says the way a woman dresses could be provocation for rape.

What the survey revealed was that, even in countries moving forward with increasingly progressive policies, attitudes toward gender among the general public are still stuck in the past.

Using the SADC Gender and Development Index (SGDI) to weight how member states are performing against the Community’s gender targets, the Alliance collects data on three areas: human development (education, sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS), political participation, and access to productive resources and the economy.

While the SADC member states might not have met all the targets this year, the latest barometer shows they made significant progress toward improving the status of women. As a region, the Community’s SGDI jumped from 64 percent to 69 percent between 2011 and 2016, with its best scores in the areas of education, thanks to an increase in the number of girls in school, and representation of women in parliament.

For the new gender attitudes survey, the Alliance came up with 25 questions designed to gauge how respondents feel about the rights and roles of men and women. Questions like whether polygamy should be abolished and whether a woman can refuse to have sex with her husband are scored on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being least progressive and 4 equaling most progressive, to come up with a total Gender Progress Score (GPS).

Overall, the region scored an average GPS of 53 percent, with Lesotho at the bottom with 45 percent and Mauritius in the lead with 65 percent. Women scored as slightly more progressive than men, with a regional GPS of 55 percent compared to the men’s 51 percent. In individual countries, women scored higher than men in most – only in Seychelles did women survey as less progressive than men, getting a score of 50 percent as compared to 51 percent.

But along with South Africa and Angola, Seychelles is considered a gender progressive country, having earned the region’s top SGDI score since 2011. Last year, it hit 82 percent, mainly due to the country’s national gender policy and gender action plan. And, yet, the country scored a GPS of only 51 percent, tying with five other southern African countries for eighth place. It is the only country where more than 50 percent of female survey participants agreed with the statement: “If a man beats a woman it shows that he loves her.”

The case of Seychelles illustrates the disconnect between policy and public opinion that shows up again and again in the gender survey. Lesotho has also done well in terms of policy changes, including the passing of a local government act that ensures at least one third of seats in community councils be reserved for women. But the country has the lowest GPS in the region. An overwhelming number of respondents in the country (98 percent of men; 97 percent of women) agreed that a woman should obey her husband, while 65 percent of men and 63 percent of women agreed with the statement: “If a man has paid lobola (bride price) for his wife, he owns her.” In addition, 84 percent of women and 87 percent of men in Lesotho agreed that if a woman works, she should give her money to her husband.

Teboho Monaheng, 25, who lives in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, says she is not surprised by the results. “The country is still very traditional, and I think it will take time for things to change,” she says.

According to Lucia Makamure, spokeswoman for the Gender Protocol Alliance, the results from the survey show that regional attitudes towards gender equality are still lagging behind despite progressive policies. “All the 15 countries scored much lower [in the GPS] than their SGDI scores,” she says. “This is evidence that laws and policies are not enough.”

Makamure says that instances in which attitudes don’t match up to policy cause setbacks in the quest to achieve gender equality. “Case in point is this statement, ‘If a woman wears a short skirt, she is asking to be raped.’ Over 50 percent of citizens in Tanzania, Lesotho, Seychelles and Mozambique strongly agreed with that statement,” says Makamure. “Such ill-informed attitudes are then used to perpetuate gender-based violence.”

To reach gender equality, a country needs to do more than change the law, says Makamure. It needs to change people’s minds. “Our theory of change is based on the view that change starts at the individual level, hence the need to change attitudes one person at a time,” she says.

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