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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 8: Decentralizing Government and Centralizing Gender in Southern Africa: Lessons from the South African Experience

25 Oct 2005

  • Author(s): Jo Beall


Decentralization is frequently presented as an important vehicle for increasing women’s representation and political participation. But such benefits are not always obvious. Local government is in an ambiguous position. It is the part of the state that is located closest to the people and to organized civil society. As such it has the potential to engage more effectively with women who are often confined - through their domestic responsibilities - to public engagement close to home. But precisely because of this proximity, the author writes, the local state can become too close to social institutions. In Africa, these can be deeply patriarchal - as illustrated by the role of “traditional” authorities in everyday life at the community level, and in local government. When women are making gains within the formal institutions of the state but local government is not open to such progressive social change, it may be an unreliable site for the pursuit of gender equity. As such, Jo Beall writes, it stands as a litmus test of not only democratic decentralization, but engendered democracy more generally.

The author takes up these arguments in this paper, which explores decentralization and local democracy in Southern Africa. An overview of some of the regional issues is provided through a study of Angola and Mozambique, which are discussed as two countries that have experienced sustained civil war, and Zimbabwe and Zambia that experience greater and lesser degrees of conflict in the context of economic stress and fragile states. The paper then explores in greater depth the case of South Africa, which has undergone a relatively stable transition from apartheid, accompanied by a commitment to gender inclusive politics and policy. Here it is demonstrated that even in a seemingly best-case scenario such as South Africa, it is difficult to integrate gender into the processes of local-level democratization and service delivery.

The author draws two conclusions. First, women’s effective involvement in local governance is predicated both on the approach adopted by political parties and on how women are organized at the local level. And second, even when women are effectively organized and represented locally, the close association between decentralization and neoliberal policies serves to undermine the potential for gender-sensitive service delivery.

Jo Beall is Director of the Development Studies Institute (DESTIN) at the London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom.

Order from UNRISD; 32 pages, 2005, $12 for readers in industrialized countries, $6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.