First woman deputy speaker in Namibia

When Margaret Mensah-Williams walked down the steps after presiding over the Namibian parliament for the first time, male parliamentarians rushed to ask her how she became so good at chairing the house.

“I told them women are born leaders,” says Mensah, Vice Chairperson of the National Council.

A teacher by profession, Mensah was the first woman in the legislature to assume a decision-making role in the Southern African country’s Parliament when she was appointed deputy speaker.

Just a day after she was sworn in, Mensah presided over the male-dominated parliament without a glitch. The preparation was not easy though, and she didn’t get much guidance from her male colleagues.

“I didn’t even know I had to preside the following day because nobody told me,” she told IPS. “But luckily because of my emotional intelligence as a woman, I went to all the staff, greeted them, introduced myself and asked them the rules. That night I internalised the rules.”

Although she had previously only observed a speaker at work, the outspoken parliamentarian surpassed expectations on her first day as a chairperson.

“As I first moved up and went to take my chairwomanship seat, I could see the astonished faces of male parliamentarians,” says the member of the ruling party, SWAPO. “That day, every parliamentarian was asking me where I learned how to preside over parliament like that.”

Namibia’s legislature was almost completely male when Mensah was appointed Deputy Speaker in 1998. There were only two women in the legislature at the time.

The situation has greatly changed as the likes of Mensah have inspired more women to join politics. Today, this African country that only achieved independence in 1990 after a bush war of almost 25 years leads most of the developing and even the developed world in terms of numbers of women in parliament.

At the recent Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) assembly, held during the first week of April in Addis Ababa, Namibia was hailed as one of the seven African countries that has achieved more than 30 percent women representation in parliament.

Analysis carried out by the IPU shows that a record number of women now hold seats in parliaments across the world following elections that took place in 54 countries in 2008. On average, women hold 18.3 percent of the seats across all chambers of parliament.

This represents a significant increase in the number of women parliamentarians since 1995, when women held 11.3 percent of the seats.

In 1998, just six parliaments had reached the target set by the U.N. of a minimum of 30 percent women members; all of which were European. Today, the figure has grown four-fold and the distinction is no longer limited to European parliaments: the line up is diverse and includes post-conflict and developing states from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Africa continued to make strides in 2008. Rwanda reinforced its position at the top of the scoreboard by electing more than 56 percent female members to its lower house, improving on its previous record set in 2003 of nearly 49 percent women members. Angola elected more than 37 percent women in its first election since 1992.

According to the IPU, impressive Gains were also registered across Latin America: women took a 26.5 percent share of the seats in the 12 chambers that were renewed in 2008. Women hold 21.5 percent of all seats in the region, second only to the Nordic countries.

The consistent pace of progress in Europe was largely sustained in the 19 chambers that were re-elected in 2008 with women taking more than 21 percent of the seats on offer. Belarus, Spain and Macedonia elected more than 30 percent women members.

Up on the top of the IPU list next to Rwanda are Sweden (47 percent, Cuba (43.2 percent), Finland (41.5 percent) and the Netherlands (41.3 percent).

“I have been bringing more and more women’s issues up for debate since I joined parliament,” says Chantal D.M. Gill’ard, a lawmaker from the Dutch Labour Party.

“For instance, before I entered parliament, the issue of safe motherhood was not discussed in the Netherlands. It was the least known goal,” Gill’ard told IPS in Addis Ababa. “Today more organisations are focusing on that. And the issue is being discussed even in the Royal house.”

Mensah says women should be stronger in withstanding challenges. “I didn’t get full support of men at first but now they have changed,” observes Mensah. “When I became a deputy speaker, my predecessor was supposed to give me the keys of the office and vehicles. But he simply just kept it for a month.”

“These are challenges posed against women, but they have to be strong enough to move forward,” notes Mensah. “Women should struggle to break down old patterns and create new ones.”


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