afrol News, 12 January - he Djiboutian voters have spoken, that is, less than half of them, and given an absolute majority to the ruling party and prevailing policies. Even before that, new legislation had assured that parties put women candidates on their list, thus assuring that women's representation rose from 0 to 11 percent in the National Assembly.
The Djiboutian Ministry of the Interior and Decentralisation today announced the official results of Friday's legislative polls. The Union for Presidential Majority (UMP), headed by PM Dileita Mohamed Dileita, had won more than 50 percent of the votes in all the five constituencies and a total of 62.73 percent of the valid votes nationwide.
The opposition alliance, Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD), headed by ex-PM and ex-rebel leader Ahmed Dini Ahmed, did not even win a majority in its believed stronghold, the Obock district at the northern coast. Surprisingly, it came closest to a majority in the capital district (Djibouti city), obtaining 21,900 votes compared to 26,839 votes for the ruling party.
Even if Ahmed's opposition alliance gained over 37 percent of all votes given in Djibouti, it will have no parliamentary representation during the next six years. The Djiboutian electoral system gives the party that wins the majority in one district all the parliamentary seats of that constituency. For the opposition, the poll therefore was a repetition of the 1997 elections, although the UAD this time came closer to a victory. Opposition leader Dini already has protested the results, telling the AFP new agency they had been a "result of fraud." He was to appeal to the courts.
Except for the opposition's allegation of fraud, the poll was only negatively marked by the low turnout, estimated at 47.2 percent. A nationwide drought had made Djiboutians more occupied with day-to-day survival than party politics. Except for different views on the stationing of foreign troops (the opposition is against letting the US use Djibouti as a base in operations against Iraq) the two blocks showed few distinctions in their programmes.
PM Dileita, whose ruling party coalition has promised to "carry out the policies" of President Ismaël Omar Guelleh, on the other hand told the Djiboutian news agency ADI he was very satisfied with the results. The UDM now would "engage on the political programme presented to the Djiboutians during the election campaign," he stated. This principally included the "fight against tribalism" and against poverty and unemployment. The UMP has also promised to support "vulnerable groups, such as the youth and women."
And it was in particular a historical day for Djibouti's women. For the first time in its history, the small country in Africa's Horn will have female representatives in its National Assembly. Seven women will be represented in Parliament during the next years, out of a total of 65 MPs.
As the first in the Arab world, Djiboutian women gained the right to vote already in 1947, during the French colonial administration - long before most African countries and before several European countries. When it comes to women's right to stand for elections, Djibouti however has been one of the world's last countries to reform, granting this right only in 1986.
The last years have however seen a push towards equal rights in Djibouti, both in legislation and in practical terms. In May 1999, President Guelleh announced the creation of the new Ministry of Women's, Family and Social Affairs, which has since been headed by the country's first female Minister, Hawa Ahmed Youssouf. The Minister was the UMP's top woman candidate in Djibouti city.
Ms Hawa has been a blessing to women affairs in Djibouti, judging by the positive reporting on her in the international press (Russia's 'Pravda' named her "a heroine" during a visit to Moscow). Under her guidance, health and education services for women and children are intensified; a bitter necessity in a country where the illiteracy rate among the 15-24 years old is 62 percent among women and 38 percent among men.
The internationally most noted gains made under Ms Hawa's leadership have however been within the fight against the dangerous practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Close to 100 percent of Djiboutian girls still undergo FGM, but last year, several important steps were taken towards enforcing the 6-year-old legislation prohibiting the practice - in humble cooperation with Muslim and traditional leaders. A government-sponsored campaign against FGM was launched, and, according to UN estimates, the rate of girls undergoing FGM has already been slightly dropping lately.
Together with President Guelleh, Minister Hawa has been working to increase women's political influence in the traditionally paternalistic Djiboutian society. Until now, women are holding relatively few senior positions in the government and business. The honourable exceptions have been Ms Hawa and Khadija Abeba, the President of the Supreme Court, who also acts as the Interim President in cases of a vacancy. The Djiboutian parliament never had had female delegates.
Last year, legislation was introduced to slowly change this imbalance. Political parties were obliged to include a given minimum of female candidates on their lists. The UMP included seven women and the oppositional UAD even more. From the Djibouti capital constituency, five women were elected, including Minister Hawa and Miss Kadidja Mohamed Ali, a young politician who only finished her education in 2001.
The nomination of female candidates was given much - and positive - publicity in the Djiboutian press and was given importance in the political campaigns of both party alliances. The country's First Lady, Mrs Kadra Mahamoud Haïd, who is also president of the National Union of Djiboutian Women, organised a televised ceremony on 3 January in support of the UMP's female candidates.
At several occasions during the electoral campaigns, the UMP emphasised the importance of its 7 women candidates. Minister and candidate Hawa, who followed PM Dileita on his campaign to Douda and Damerjog, asked "women to vote massively for the UMP," recalling the party's work for women's liberation. PM Dileita, during his TV speech to the nation, emphasised on the government's "avant-garde" struggle to "integrate woman in the political life" and assure their "full participation" in all parts of society. "They are equal to, if not in front of us," Mr Dileita said.
With seven women in the Djiboutian parliament, Ms Hawa will have a somewhat broader basis to promote women's rights in Djibouti. There is however a long road forward to achieve the equality women are guaranteed under Djiboutian law. Deep-rooted traditions still prevent real changes in the status of women. Still, the FGM practice is almost universal among Djiboutian girls and the use of traditional laws discriminates against women in such areas as inheritance, domestic violence and divorce. The agenda for change is however set.
Sources: Based on Djibouti govt, UMP, press reports, UN sources and afrol archives