Rethinking women's political participation in Zimbabwe's elections
he doctrines of democratic governance and human rights are premised on the notion of equal participation by all citizens in any country. This is why it is important for women to have equal and meaningful representation and participation in all facets of governance.
Women constitute more than half the world’s population, yet their participation in electoral and governance processes – where decisions regarding their lives are made – remains peripheral in many countries. And Zimbabwe is no different in this global trend.
In addition to having a legal framework that values gender equality and equity in politics, Zimbabwe is a signatory to many declarations aimed at increasing women’s leadership and decision-making. Zimbabwe’s new Constitution came into effect in 2013, and provides a quota of 60 seats set aside for women for proportional representation in Parliament, increasing the number of women in Parliament from 16% to 34%. This is a positive development which counterbalances the constituency-based electoral system viewed by some as highly competitive and not friendly to women who have ambitions to become parliamentarians.
However, the quota system does not have clear provisions on how to include young women, does not extend to local government, and expires in 2023. It is therefore clear that the adoption of this quota system does not necessarily represent a mind shift on the part of the country’s political elite in as far as gender equality and empowerment of women are concerned. Still, there is hope that the proportional representation can be reclaimed if revisited in order to increase its lifespan and make it a permanent provision before the next elections in 2023.
50-50 representation still a dream
Despite the fact that Zimbabwe is signatory to several normative frameworks that seek the inclusion of women in major decision-making organs, the reality is still dire.
Zimbabwe currently has just 33.2 % female representation in the National Assembly. And with harmonised elections (presidential, parliamentary, senate and local government) due in in the next few days, it is important to reflect on the intersection of political participation and gender inequality in the country.
Although the Constitution requires all political parties to meet the constitutional provisions on gender parity and equal political opportunities, patriarchy remains widespread, and there seems to be a deliberate reluctance by political parties to appreciate the need for affirmative measures towards gender parity.
The very low percentage of women successfully nominated, or directly elected, is evident that political parties seem to have favoured male candidates over females for constituency seats. Furthermore, the political landscape in Zimbabwe remains a man’s world as a number of obstacles perpetually work against women’s participation in public institutions or politics. This election season alone, women's private lives were publicly scrutinised and demeaned, as misogyny and sexism took centre stage. For instance, young unmarried women such as independent candidate Fadzayi Mahere and aspirant MP under the MDC-T Linda Masarira, experienced sexist critique (largely from men) about their eligibility to be politicians, given their lack of husbands.
"It goes without saying that when the electoral environment is patriarchal and prejudiced, women are automatically marginalised."
In order to achieve significant representation of women in Parliament, the country requires not just a gender sensitive legislative framework, but the political will of those in power. The composition of candidates for the 2018 elections indicates that political parties have largely ignored a commitment to gender balance. Despite coming up with good policies, Zimbabwean political parties have failed to implement them, as they continue to allow other ‘political’ considerations to take precedence in the fielding of candidates. Out of the 47 political parties that fielded candidates in the National Assembly, only 27 fielded at least one woman candidate. Approximately 15% (243) of 1 652 candidates contesting in the National Assembly are female and 146 women out of 290 candidates are contesting for senate. For local authority positions, 40 political parties fielded candidates, 12 of which fielded men only. 17% are women and 83% are men out of the total 6796 candidates.
Deeply rooted patriarchal practices
The manner and process in which the party primaries were approached by different political parties revealed some irregularities and manipulation of set procedures and criteria. Acts of violence against women, aimed at intimidating and silencing women's voices in politics, as well as non-compliance with the Constitution by political parties during appointments and candidate selection criteria in terms of gender balance, were reported. Many female politicians complained of the hostile and prejudiced environment where abuse, gender-based invectives and campaigns of slurs were common. Thokozani Khupe, a senior political leader, was reportedly labeled a “prostitute” by demonstrators during a leadership wrangle earlier this year. It goes without saying that when the electoral environment is patriarchal and prejudiced, women are automatically marginalised.
It is for this and other reasons that it is argued that while the quota system and other measures can increase the number of women in Parliament, they might not be a panacea to the deep rooted socio-economic and political factors leading to the marginalisation of women in electoral politics.
Ensuring gender equality in political and electoral spheres in Zimbabwe requires not only a comprehensive legal framework, but also the collaborative efforts of relevant state and non-state actors. These include not only Parliament, but government ministries, statutory commissions responsible for gender issues, the judiciary, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), as well as civil society. Some of these, particularly civil society, have played key roles in advocating for fair political representation, violent-free elections and institutional and legal support that would guarantee the meaningful participation of women.
(Main image: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)