‘More women for more development’ is one of the inspiring mottos used by women’s organizations in São Tomé and Príncipe in their battle for more space in country politics.
The dream of many women came true on 28 July when the National Assembly of São Tomé and Príncipe approved a long debated Political Parity Law that provides for a minimum of 40% of seats in elected bodies reserved for women, as well as in the cabinet positions reserved for women. Currently, women occupy 12% of seats in the National Assembly and 20% in the Cabinet positions but thanks to a strong advocacy campaign by women Parliamentarians, civil society, women lawyers and former women politicians, this will soon change. An alliance across party lines to advance equal rights for women has been successful and is making the country join a few other countries in Africa which are on the vanguard of women’s equality.
The UN has played an instrumental role in empowering women’s groups and in forming a coalition of change agents including from Government, Parliamentarians, political parties, civil society leaders and media. The advocacy has been successful at putting into practice the strong adherence of the country to the values of gender equality and equity.
As Resident Coordinator, I brought in expertise from our Senegal-based UN Women colleagues, in addition to the UN Development Programme and the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. I believe I have connected the UN’s expertise at global, regional and country level with the highest political level in-country for this big step towards gender equality.
It was inspiring to meet with the women leaders of the country to encourage them and to reiterate our support. Recently, in a meeting with them, I said ‘faremos o caminho caminhando’ which translates to ‘we will walk the path.’ Indeed, the approval of the Parity Law is an important step forward on the path to making gender equality a reality in practice.
2022 promises to be the year of change for women in São Tomé and Príncipe. During a recent course on women in politics — organized by the UN with the support of UNOCA and in partnership with a local university — one of the 30 women participants, a grassroots member of one of the political parties, told me:
Now we cannot go backwards. Within my party I will say loud and clear that I am a candidate, because I lost my biggest fear…the glass ceiling, as I learned here.
In my meetings with all the political parties’ leadership, I always see to it that women are present, and I inquire about political parties’ actions to put women in eligible positions on candidates lists. The upcoming Parliamentary elections to be held in September will see a large increase in the number of women candidates.
With the help of the UN, the handbook on ‘Women’s Political Participation’ was launched on 8 July and a first copy was offered to the President of the National Assembly and all political party leaders. The handbook has been drafted by former Prime Minister Maria das Neves and former Minister of Justice Ilza Amado Vaz, with personal insights and anecdotes. I enjoyed the lively discussion in the forum organized in advance of the vote in Parliament, and I agreed with the authors who said that “women’s political representation is not just a question of demographic justice; it is a requirement for the country’s development.”
The women’s campaign had already started in December last year, with a joint declaration that was the starting point for the advocacy campaign, with all sovereign bodies, media and political parties, articles, media talk shows and a series of visible events and trainings to enhance women’s capacities and create the momentum for the Parity Law.
The website mulheresstp.com shows that women are ready and motivated to have a say in the political arena of the country, contradicting the often-heard critique that there are not enough suitable women to get involved in politics.
The battle for gender equality is not only fought by women. Alongside women, important male voices have expressed their support, such as the President of the Republic and the President of the National Assembly.
The journey of gender equality does not end here, but with the adoption of the Parity Law — by a unanimous vote of the 55 deputies — a strong political signal has been given to put women’s political participation and gender equality into practice.
Eric Overvest is UN Resident Coordinator for São Tomé and Príncipe.