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ZIMBABWE: A Society "Not Ready for Female Leadership"?

Tonderai Kwidini

HARARE, Mar 28 2008 (IPS) - Women make up about half the population in Zimbabwe. But, they're far from accounting for 50 percent of those on the ballot for this month's general elections in the Southern African country – sparking concern amongst gender activists.

None of the four presidential candidates in the Mar. 29 ballot is a woman; during the last poll for head of state, held in 2002, Elizabeth Madangure competed alongside five other, male candidates.

Of the 730 hopefuls for the lower house of parliament, only 99 are women (13.6 percent), while 63 of the 195 candidates running for the Senate are female (just over 32 percent) – this according to figures from the Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU), a non-governmental organisation based in the capital of Harare. Zimbabwe will also hold local government polls at the end of the month; however, IPS could not obtain statistics for the gender of local government candidates at the time of publishing this report.

During the last legislative elections in March 2005, 57 women ran for the lower house of parliament out of a total of 273 aspirants (about 20.9 percent of candidates). Female candidates accounted for 34 percent of those who contested Senate polls in November 2005: 45 women were involved in this race, and 87 men (these figures again provided by WiPSU).

Statistics for the number of women who contested the last local government elections, in 2005, could not be obtained.

This year will mark the first instance in which Zimbabwe holds presidential, National Assembly, Senate and local government polls on the same day, the result of a constitutional amendment passed last year. General elections will now be held every five years.

"From the figures, it shows that there is a huge disparity (between female and male candidates) which needs a lot of attention," said Luta Shaba, executive director of the Women's Trust, a non-governmental organisation in Harare. The trust is heading up 'Women can do it!', a campaign for increasing women's participation in the political life of Zimbabwe.

"The question to ask is what is it that should be done to increase the number of female candidates? Voting women into parliament means that women's issues will become national issues."

For Rutendo Hadebe of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe, an umbrella group for various rights organisations, having more women candidates involves fighting chauvinism among political parties, and encouraging women to believe that they can compete for office successfully.

"The society that we are living in seems not ready for female leadership," she told IPS. "But we are saying as a movement that we will continue pushing."

The electoral race is largely focused on the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the larger faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the Mavambo/Kusile of Simba Makoni – a grouping also referred to as 'New Dawn'. Makoni, an erstwhile ZANU-PF member and former finance minister, broke ranks with the party to challenge President Robert Mugabe. ("Mavambo" is a Shona word meaning "beginning", while "kusile" – from the Ndebele language – means "dawn".)

The MDC, Zimbabwe's main opposition group for several years, split in 2005.

In the case of ZANU-PF, 44 of its 214 aspirants for the lower house of parliament are women (20.6 percent) and 27 of 59 Senate candidates (almost 46 percent).

These figures (the latest available from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, or ZEC, at the time of publication) show the party has some way to go in fulfilling its 2005 pledge to raise the proportion of its female candidates to 30 percent across the board.

"In instances that we have women volunteering to take up political posts they are faced with…having to choose whether to commit family resources to the political cause or feeding the family," said a member of the ZANU-PF Women's League who asked for anonymity. "Political parties do very little to support women candidates financially, and there lies the problem."

A list of National Assembly and Senate candidates from the larger faction of the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, shows this party has 25 women among its 209 National Assembly candidates (just under 12 percent) – along with 18 of the 60 Senate aspirants (30 percent).

"We are not happy with the female figures in this election," said Sekai Holland, the faction's secretary for international relations, herself a senatorial candidate. "Getting the female agenda going…remains a big fight."

The other MDC faction – headed by Arthur Mutambara – is fielding 19 women in the National Assembly poll out of a total of 144 candidates (13.2 percent). Women also account for six of the faction's 34 Senate candidates (17.6 percent) – this according to figures from the ZEC.

Statistics published in the local press by Mavambo/Kusile indicate the grouping will field eight women among its 51 candidates for the lower house of parliament (15.7 percent) – and three women among its nine senatorial hopefuls (about 33 percent).

The polls will see 210 National Assembly seats being contested, compared to 120 in 2005. Previously, an additional 30 seats in the lower house were filled in part by presidential nominees, bringing the total number of parliamentarians to 150.

In the case of the Senate, 59 seats are to be filled (a further 33 will go to traditional chiefs and presidential nominees). Initially, there were 60 Senate seats in play for the election; however, one of these has already been won by a ZANU-PF candidate who was elected unopposed at the nomination court.

Local government candidates will compete for 1,968 posts.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union notes that Zimbabwe presently has 24 women in the lower house of parliament (16 percent of legislators), and 24 in the Senate – which currently has 66 members (giving women control of approximately 36 percent of the upper house).

According to the ZEC, 17 parties are participating in the elections; the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network puts the number of voters at some 5.6 million.

Even if all female candidates running in this month's National Assembly and Senate polls win, the country will still find itself falling short of regional goals concerning women's representation in government. A 1997 declaration by the Southern African Development Community set Zimbabwe and other member states the target of having women in 30 percent of decision-making posts by 2005 – a goal since adjusted to 50 percent.

This month's vote comes amidst political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, where hyper-inflation and unemployment have impoverished most citizens, and where food and fuel shortages are the order of the day.

Human rights abuses that undermined the credibility of previous polls continue, as Amnesty International noted in a Jan. 24 press statement that detailed an assault on persons trying to attend an MDC rally addressed by Tsvangirai.

"Police repeatedly arrest and beat human rights defenders and MDC activists engaging in peaceful protest," said the rights watchdog.

"Amnesty International has corroborated evidence of torture and ill-treatment of activists while in police custody…" the statement added.

Mugabe, running for a sixth term in office (and in power since independence in 1980), accuses Western nations of conspiring with his opponents to undermine Zimbabwe, following a controversial land redistribution campaign that saw farms owned by minority whites confiscated for the resettlement of landless blacks. A number of influential Zimbabweans stand accused of seizing farms in the course of this campaign.

The European Union did introduce sanctions against Zimbabwe in response to the problematic 2002 presidential elections; and, the deteriorating situation in the country prompted the United States to follow suit the next year. However, these measures involve travel restrictions and asset freezes directed at high-ranking officials, rather than steps against ordinary Zimbabweans.

The exclusion of election observer teams from countries critical of the ZANU-PF government has deepened fears that the upcoming polls will not be free and fair – as have claims about manipulation of the voters' roll and inadequate voter education.

(* Please note that the original version of this story incorrectly stated that the Women's Trust is at the forefront of the ཮-50' campaign, an initiative to have more women in political office in Zimbabwe. In fact, the trust is heading 'Women can do it!', a separate campaign for increasing women's participation in the political life of Zimbabwe.)

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