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When the parliament of the Democratic Republic of Congo passed a draft constitution last week, it was startling news. Much of the country lies in ruins and a civil war still simmers in parts of the east, so just getting the document written and passed was a Herculean feat.

And the document's 14th clause held something even more remarkable: a commitment to gender parity -- equal representation for women and men in all local, provincial and national institutions. It was very progressive language.

Yet this constitution stands in sharp contrast with the reality for Congolese women. At least half are believed to be illiterate, few are aware of their legal and political rights, and they have suffered through an absolute epidemic of sexual violence through the civil war, which has left hundreds of thousands of women physically and emotionally ravaged.

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This paradox is typical in today's Africa, where legislative and electoral victories for women, often achieved after heavy pressure from Western donor countries, stand starkly against the shocking conditions on the ground.

Zimbabwe has a female vice-president. Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania have reserved parliamentary seats for women, who hold at least 22 per cent of seats in each of these countries. (The number is 20 per cent in Canada.)

In Rwanda, women represent 49 per cent of MPs, the highest rate in the world, and have helped to pass laws that give women crucial inheritance and property rights. In South Africa, half of all cabinet ministers are women and the country's laws against gender discrimination are unparalleled in the world.

Yet Rwandan women still do the vast majority of the brutal labour associated with subsistence farming, and face the third-highest risk of maternal mortality in the world -- a one in 10 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. And in South Africa, women face the planet's highest reported rape and domestic violence rates. One in six South African women will be killed by her partner, according to new statistics from the Medical Research Council.

Meanwhile, women make up two-thirds of those infected with HIV across southern Africa.

"It's really nice that this new clause is in the [DRC]constitution, but I'm not sure it's worth anything," said one European diplomat who worked with female members of parliament and civil-society groups on gender-parity language.

"In the debate in parliament, we would say 'What about women?' and the men would just smile. You had men saying in the debate, ' C 'est dangereux -- if we give these rights to women, who will demand them next?' . . . It's a nice phrase, the equality of women, but it doesn't mean a lot here."

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She predicts the Congolese parliament will never approve a specific quota of seats for women. "And it could never be 50 per cent of seats," she added. "You couldn't find that many rural women who can even read and write."

Rwanda's postgenocide constitution, adopted in 2003, sets aside 24 seats out of 80 for women. (After the 1994 genocide, when so many men were killed or fled, women outnumbered men in Rwanda at least three to one.) But in the first election with the quota, women won not only those seats but 15 more, leaving them just one seat from a majority.

Juliana Kantengwa, a two-term member of the Rwandan parliament, recalled how once the quota was in place, she went out to the villages with female colleagues from all eight parties to persuade women to stand for election.

The new legislature made it legal for women to inherit property, which has dramatically improved people's feelings about female children, she said. And it made rape, a hallmark of the genocide, punishable by life in prison.

"I can't say the situation is drastically changed, but we're making steps," Ms. Kantengwa said. ". . . But we still have a problem with polygamy and that really subtracts from the gains we've made."

Theboho Maitse, who sits on South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality, said she feels her country has also made substantive progress on gender issues in the 11 years of democracy.

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But, she noted, the country is experiencing an epidemic of "family murders" -- seven incidents in the past 10 days in which vengeful men have killed their spouses and children.

Amy Smythe, senior gender adviser for the United Nations mission to the DRC, said it was a battle to get the existing language into the DRC constitution -- "with the parliament, with the senate, with ordinary men and women on the street."

The European diplomat said the clause appears only because the Congolese government is so desperate for money that politicians know they have to accept donor agendas. Ms. Smythe, however, said the language has at least created opportunities for women.

"They have to grab it and use it to edge the situation forward, to guarantee it won't be what it was."

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