Brigitte Rasamoelina and Yvette Sylla are women with two different approaches to politics in Madagascar. One formed a political party, while the other decided to legalise her organisation as an association. But both women are considering running in Madagascar's November elections.
But they know that it will not be an easy road. "We'll have to be assertive and prove ourselves," they each confided separately to IPS.
"There are very few women in decision-making bodies" in the Indian Ocean's big island, said Sylla. "Men are not ready to share power," adds Rasamoelina.
In Madagascar, the political world is still dominated by men. Of the 32 cabinet members, only five are women. The transition's High Authority, the advisory body set up following Andry Rajoelina's takeover in March 2009, has only three women out of 41 members. Of the 22 regions in the country, none is headed by a woman, while out of more than 1,560 municipalities, only 67 are led by women mayors.
The situation was hardly better under the regime of former President Marc Ravalomanana. Before forming her own party, Rasamoelina was a member of the Tiako i Madagasikara party and had been the elected mayor of a rural community from 2002 to 2007. But during her membership Rasamoelina claims to have always been "rejected in favour of men despite excellent management results in her district."
"There were few women in the leadership of the party," she said, adding that "it was not for lack of skills, or will or values." As president of the Association of Women Mayors for four years, Rasamoelina said she met "women... who had many assets." She said "the only problem is that rejection by the political world leaves them wary and hesitant to get involved."
"Many women have the skills, but are not entrusted with appropriate positions or those requiring high levels of responsibility," lamented Marie Zenaïde Ramampy, chairwoman of the Malagasy chapter of the Réseau des femmes africaines ministres et parlementaires (REFAMP - Network of African Women Ministers and Parliamentarians).
But Madeleine Ramaholimiaso, coordinator of the Observatoire de la vie publique (Sefafi - Public Life Observatory), does not share this view, arguing that women are the ones reluctant to get involved in politics. "Women do not seek power, because politics is seen as an activity reserved for people of ill repute," she told IPS.
Given this bias, Sylla decided not to register her political movement Madagasikara Mandroso (which means Mother - Madagascar Development) as a political party, preferring to legalise as an association. "We do not want to be in the same camp as the parties because people are tired of those who use politics for personal gain," she said.
Rasamoelina, however, called her party Ampela mpanao politika (AMP - Women in Politics). "Women will be more reassured if they feel that with us, they will be accounted for fairly," she says, hinting that this strategy has paid off. "In only six months, we have already issued 5,000 membership cards," she said.
This membership figure is one that Sylla cannot compete with right now. She hesitates to reveal the number of members that her association has recruited since its creation in March 2010. "There are fewer women than men," she says, adding: "Their domestic responsibilities may prevent them from getting involved."
However, Sylla and Rasamoelina support the women's rights organisations campaigning for gender parity in Madagascar to increase the participation of women in politics.
"If we wait for mentalities to change, women will be excluded from power for a long time yet. We must legislate," said Sylla. "I follow the work being done by advocacy groups and actively support petitions," she said.
Rasamoelina's party has submitted a draft law on parity to the Comité consultatif constitutionnel (CCC - Consultative Constitutional Committee), the body established to gather input from citizens in the development of a new Malagasy constitution.
"The former president has already signed the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which requires that 30 percent of senior positions be filled by women by 2012 and 50 percent by 2015, but since parliament has not yet ratified the Protocol, and since we have had no legislative bodies since March 2009, it must become a constitutional requirement," she told IPS. Even if the parity becomes a legal obligation, Sylla and Rasamoelina do not plan on stopping there.
"There will be a legal framework, but women will still have to prove they're worthy of the responsibilities entrusted to them," said Rasamoelina. "They should never stop proving their abilities," said Sylla.
In the meantime, while waiting for the elections, Sylla, as a longstanding and active member of several charities and service clubs, continues to pursue her social activities under the banner of her political association. For example, by selling staples at a third of their market price to vulnerable families, she "provides concrete assistance to others," but most importantly she's establishing her name amongst a subset of her future constituents.
She aims to, among other things, "fight against the terrible lack of vision within Madagascar's political elite." One of her priorities is to "develop the association's activists and supporters' sense of political culture, and introduce them to broad political orientations."
Educating activists also constitutes a large part of Rasamoelina's pre-election strategy. To prepare her members for future elections, she wants to instil them with better understandings of political culture and also public relations skills. She also urges them to get involved in the fokontany (the first level administrative structures of the country). "Governing is best learned at the smaller level," says Rasamoelina - who began her political career as mayor of a rural town of 14,000 inhabitants. "You learn to know the needs of voters and you have the opportunity to prove yourself."