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Womxn and Democracy Initiative (formerly Parliamentary Programme)

The project combines a focus on the realisation of women and children’s rights with promoting citizenship and participation rights. We do this through promoting evidence-based and collective civil society advocacy.


In spite of tremendous law reform to promote children’s rights and improve access to justice for women, the lived reality for both groups has barely changed. While the primary responsibility for delivery lies with the executive, the role envisaged in the Constitution for our legislatures is critical. In addition to their law reform responsibilities, the legislatures must exercise oversight over the executive’s performance and hold the executive accountable. Centrally, elected representatives have a duty to represent the public and engage with the public on a continuous basis. The legislature’s performance on their mandates is generally poor; particularly regarding oversight and representation. It is evident that the performance has been subject to changing political contexts both within the ruling party and in relation to the slowly growing opposition. What is also clear is that the quality of civil society mobilisation impacts on legislature’s performance.

While there are many organisations providing services, undertaking research or promoting policy and budget reforms in the women and children’s sectors, it is usually the better-resourced national organisations or a few locally driven social movements that engage in advocacy. Public engagement in our legislatures is limited to a few better resourced organisations. The majority focus on law reform, with few paying attention to oversight. Participation often results from invitations from the legislatures, whereas most proactive interactions from civil society are limited to marches outside the gates of the legislatures without effectively bringing civil society into the same room as elected representatives. Service oriented and community based organisations often lack capacity for national and provincial advocacy and lack a working knowledge of the range of democratic institutions, specifically the legislatures, their processes and the entry points for engagement. Thus although the commitment to advocacy in many smaller organisations is clear, they don’t have the capacity. The Programme seeks to address this by providing information, supporting capacity development, driving collective advocacy and fulfilling a leadership role in advocacy processes.

What the Women and Democracy Initiative does

The project’s activities to improve the realisation of women or children’s rights, focus particularly on strengthening the performance of the legislatures through increased civil society advocacy targeting these. In spite of our emphasis on the legislatures, we encourage advocacy across the different spheres of government to increase coherence and engage with structures that have the greatest potential for impact.

  • Mobilisation and alliance building are the most effective strategies to increase political influence. This forms our primary methodology and ensures that a plurality of voices and perspectives are incorporated into campaigns. We pay attention to the politics of power and voice within civil society, as these may create barriers to ownership and active participation.
  • Strong leadership is essential to effective coalitions: we currently participate in the leadership structures of nine alliances and act as the lead organisation and secretariat for four of these.
  • Access to information is a right and fundamental for public participation. We provide information that facilitates participation, including information on entry points into the legislatures, opportunities for participation, and specific women or children’s rights issues. We monitor parliamentary committee meetings, and provide regular updates to ensure that advocacy strategies can be effective.
  • We initiate opportunities for civil society and elected representatives to interact – either through getting civil society to the legislatures or by inviting MPs to civil society-led events for dialogue.
  • We create deliberative spaces for actors in civil society to develop collective positions and advocacy strategies on issues. This allows for an exchange of ideas between CBOs, NGOs, and academic institutions; critically, deliberative processes result in shared ownership of campaign activities.
  • Taking an evidence-based approach to advocacy, we research women’s rights or children’s rights issues, as well as questions relating to the performance of the legislatures.
  • The project focusses on ensuring that people or organisations with less access to the legislatures are invited, encouraged and supported (where necessary) to participate. This includes capacity-building to strengthen knowledge and strategies for advocacy.
  • In addition to promoting engagement on law reform, we focus on expanding civil society interactions on oversight and accountability; this, we believe, is where the bulk of evidence-based and collective advocy must focus to see real change in the lives of South Africans.

Some of our achievements

  • The project participates on the leadership structure of the Shukumisa Campaign (a national structure of 47 organisations working towards the implementation of sexual offences legislation) to facilitate engagements with the legislatures. In the past two years we led the drafting of five submissions on the strategic plans and annual reports of the department of Justice and four submissions on amendments to the Act. Our proactive approach regarding oversight has influenced the development of a legislative framework for sexual offences courts and resulted in closer on-going scrutiny of the Department and NPA’s performance. The Committee’s annual Budget Review and Recommendations Reports reflect the content of submissions made.
  • We lead an alliance for advocacy regarding laws dealing with the age of consent to sex and the automatic placement of children’s names on the register for sex offenders. Out capacity building efforts resulted in at least nine organisations, who usually don’t do so, making submissions. Our mobilisation contributed to a large number of submissions from the sector. Recent versions of the bill reflect the changes we argued for regarding the register, and that the hundreds of submissions, calling for consenting sexual activities between teens to remain criminalised were unsuccessful.
  • The project established and led the civil society alliance to interact on the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill. Our widely endorsed submissions, media engagement, communication and mobilisation, as well as the capacity building efforts to expand the range of submissions sent to the committee, prevented the passage of the Bill in spite of government pressure to pass it in 2014.
  • We led the preparation of a civil society shadow report to the African Union Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child on South Africa’s performance in realising child rights. The report was compiled by 29 authors from across the children’s sector, and endorsed by a further 40 organisations. The Committee’s concluding observations reflect most of the issues identified in the shadow report.
  • We helped coordinate the Alliance for Rural Democracy, led by the Centre for Law and Society at UCT. During 2012 we provided secretariat support and contributed to the financial resources to ensure the participation of as wide a range of organisations as possible on the Traditional Courts Bill. The ARD’s collective advocacy resulted in the stalling of this Bill. We have undertaken research on the lessons learnt from this process and we are monitoring the legislatures for the likely return of this Bill in 2015.
  • We recently established a national civil society network of around 25 organisations focussed on the promotion of maternal health, emphasising the issues related to maternal and child mortality.
  • We established the Campaign on the Right to Education of Children with Disabilities in 2010. It seeks to increase the political attention to this issue. The campaign has led to increased oversight on the issue, and collective on-going advocacy to promote inclusive ECD policy and programmes.
  • In 2014, along with three other organisations we established Parliament Watch, an alliance to build the capacity of CBOs and social movements to engage with legislatures. We’ve also established an alliance of women’s rights organisations in the Eastern Cape, and work with membership-based organisations in the Western Cape to build advocacy engagements with the legislatures in those provinces.
  • We coordinated civil society intervention when Parliament planned to cut the number and size of parliamentary committees after the 2014 elections (which would have compromised oversight over the executive). Parliamentary stakeholders report that our intervention influenced Parliament’s decision to include a Committee on Women and a committee to oversee each government department



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