This month was a significant for the women’s movement across the globe.

Swazi women also joined the world in commemorating International Women’s Day 2023 under the theme, DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality, which underscores the role of technology in promoting gender equality and sustainable development. This theme is very timely if you read it in the context of the time and temporality that we’re currently navigating; the Fourth Industrial Technology.

The admission rates of women in the field of Science, Technology & Engineering (STEM) from the University of Eswatini (2020) suggests that women are still laggards at 35.7 %. Now, as we reflect on where we are in respect of women’s rights, it is important for us to acknowledge the gains that we have achieved over the years. In the same vein, it must be appreciated that true solidarity with women calls for relative malleability for institutions to embrace and respond to women’s calls for transformative change.

The impending fourth Industrial Revolution represents a time in the digital age where innovation is increasingly becoming a catalyst for progress. For example, we cannot deny how major development initiatives in Education, Health, Agriculture, Energy supply, business etc are tapping into artificial intelligence to optimize their efficiency.

Loosely, Artificial Intelligence is a term used to define technologies that mimic human intelligence to perform, automate and optimize tasks. Tech experts across the globe have questioned the gender bias that mediate the technology and innovation space, which in part is fueled by the underrepresentation of women in the field. This years’ theme was a call for the inclusion of women and girls in male dominated field of science, technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The question to be asked is what does inclusion in this context looks like? Does it mean granting scholarships top two women out of 10 applicants and then applauding yourselves as a country that you are progressive in your support and promotion of women in STEM, or does it mean deliberately creating an enabling environment for women & girls to participate in the STEM field and equal innovators and players alongside their male counter parts or perhaps rolling out programs to train more young girls about technology from an early age- including those from rural areas who are frequently lost in the fringes due to obvious barriers of geopolitics.

A progressive approach towards innovation and technology necessitates policy changes in admission requirements across tertiary institutions to align the university by admission protocol with the principles of gender equality and affirmative action that are explicitly provided for in the national constitution. As is, there is an underlying assumption that women and men are equally located within the socio-political spectrum.

This assumption of universal equality is fundamentally flawed because it disregards the gendered barriers that have historically conspired against women’s socio-cultural, economic, political progress. A gender sensitive approach to sustainable development goes a step further from the notion of universal equality “the one size fits all mentality” by taking an equity standpoint or an intersectional feminist approach, which recognizes that intersecting forms of oppression e.g race, gender, class, income, sexuality, geography results in unequal access to opportunities.

It must be noted that the ongoing gender biased distribution of power and privilege has a real and enduring impact on the material conditions of women, girls, the vulnerable poor, the disabled, and rural populations. Thus, the mobilization of women and girls into traditionally male dominated spaces based on a gender-blind, or gender-neutral framework amounts to injustice and inequity. More than anything, it undermines the efforts of women and girls and their potential to claim space on an equal footing with their male counterparts.

It is imperative that we reconsider these gender-neutral framework by animating our expressed commitments to gender equity and affirmative action. Such progressive changes dictate that we should take a deliberate policy stance towards gender inclusivity and diversity in the STEM field. The question of gender sensitive laws also evokes pertinent question on how we understand or approach women’s political representation as a county.

The outlook of our gender neutral and gender-blind laws are reflective of our conservative approach, which is arguably rooted in notions of symbolic representation. To contrast a progressive and a conservative approach to women’s rights and gender equity, we need to differentiate between “our favourite” symbolic representation, and substantive representation.

Efforts towards substantive representation are rooted in the commitment to represent women in a manner that is responsive to their needs, through enacting laws that are centered on women’s realities. Meanwhile, Swaziland’s fervent commitment to symbolic representation represents a tokenistic approach; adding women into an undemocratic context, where they exist, albeit with very limited influence on the hetero-patriarchal policy landscape and parliamentary cultures.

To qualify this approach, it would be plausible to note that the symbolic representation mirrored in our current reality under the Tinkhundla government, represents a commitment to use women as defenders of the status quo, rather than empowering them to autonomously engender the polity. Noting that Swaziland has already positioned itself to have its national elections in 2023, it is important that we ask ourselves about women’s disposition in these past elections.

A local feminist academician by the name of Dr. Sonene Nyawo avers that “women have only had their votes to contribute to the political scene in the post-independence era.” Despite accounting for a majority of the electorate at 52%, women have consistently recorded poor political outcomes, consistently falling below the 30% threshold that marks the critical mass quota. In fact, we have naturalized the reality that only one or two women can win the election via the secret ballot, the International Parliamentary Union estimates the number of elected women in the 2018 elections at 3. 39%.

Meanwhile, the International Democracy Institute for Electoral Assistance (IDEA) notes that 14 out of 74 seats in the House of Assembly are occupied by women, while 40 % of the seats in Senate are held by women. This starkly demonstrates that women representatives in parliament come from elsewhere but from the people. Hence, their views are not representative of ordinary women’s perspectives, but those of their enablers. Within this context, their ability to act on behalf of the represented as per the dictates of substantive equality is extremely questionable.

While the Elections Boundaries Commission accepts that there are real gendered systemic barriers that undermine women’s political agency in the main, commitments to democratic and electoral reform continue to be clouded by state sanctioned violence. It is fair to assume that the ongoing political violence in the country will potentially shun from participating in the projected 2023 elections under the same governance system.

Amid the evidence of patterns of durable and institutionalized patriarchy, government’s instinctive response to the question of women’s chronic underrepresentation in the political scene has been to consistently blame the victim, by arguing that “women fail to express confidence in other women because they hate each other.” It is high time we debunked these propagandist tactics and confronted our reality. Oblivion has only worsened the plight of women over the years.

For example, prevailing gender issues such as gendered landownership, high prevalence of cases of Violence Against Women, and the underrepresentation of women in key leadership positions have structural roots. Similarly, the glass ceiling that has historically truncated women’s political agency, is not a sheer coincidence, but a product of the governance and electoral system. So, is our gender-neutral public policy landscape. Given the occasion of International Women’s Day 2023, I would like to extend a three-fold invitation to fellow countrymen.

First, I would like to invite fellow women to smell the coffee and realize that they are only being mobilized to participate in the upcoming elections as means to an end, and not political agents with the same stake as their male counterparts in the development of their country. My second invitation is to implore the political authorities of the country to embrace the calls for democracy and engender the political transition by putting women’s perspectives at the core of their agenda.

My third invitation goes to political parties, formations, and civil society entities in the country, it is high time they also walked the talk and prioritized the gender agenda in their own institutions. Having watched some acts of civil obedience unfold over the past months since the announcement of the national elections, I find it important that we ponder on the Swaziland we want, and whether we see value in participating and enabling undemocratic processes that claim to enfranchise women while systemically excluding and denying them then opportunity to be truly integrated as pioneers of their futurity.

It would be amiss of us not to take this timely opportunity to call for true solidarity with women, which entails democratization and putting the institutional measures that will prioritize women’s rights, gender equity and by extension, gender sensitive legislation in this country. The women’s vote is not for sale, neither is it there to enable selfish political intentions of the regime.

Swazi women across the board support the call for democratic and electoral reform, more so because it is only under a democratic system of governance that the state institution and its policy outlook could prioritize women’s rights as the human rights that they are.