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RIGHTS-ZIMBABWE: Towards Parity For Women In Politics

Kudzai Makombe

HARARE, Aug 22 2008 (IPS) - In a highly contested election marred by violence and held under very difficult economic conditions, Zimbabwean women politicians defied the odds to participate as candidates in the March 29th elections.

In terms of seats actually won, results fell far short of the 50 percent female representation in political decision-making set out in the African Union (AU) Protocol on Gender and Women’s Human Rights or the recently signed Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development. Women got just 14 percent of seats in parliamentary elections, down from 16 percent female representation in the previous parliament.

However, at a national conference held on 14th and 15th August in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, women celebrated the fact that they had participated as candidates in their highest numbers ever.

“We managed to mobilise each other to increase women’s contestation by almost 50 percent,” said Luta Shaba, executive director of the Women’s Trust, the organisation that has spearheaded the ‘Women Can Do It’ campaign to get more women in politics.

Shaba explained that while the parliamentary seats were highly contested by male candidates, they showed less interest in the council seats. This opened space for 740 women to participate at the local level. The experience elected women councilors will gain will serve them well should they decide to run for parliament or senate in future.

The Women’s Trust and other campaigners are already looking to the future. With negotiations taking place between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the two Movement for Democratic Change factions, hopes are high that the 2013 elections will be more conducive for women candidates.

Civil society and other actors are pushing for a negotiated settlement that will ultimately lead to a new and more gender-sensitive constitution. In a communiqué, participants in this month’s ‘Women Can Do It’ conference called for a change in the electoral system to a more gender-sensitive one based on proportional representation.

They also demanded a constitution that takes into account various regional and international instruments promoting women’s participation in decision-making.

“I didn’t know this election would be so difficult but I won’t go backwards. I will definitely do it again and I know I will win next time,” said Rosemary White, MDC candidate for Chitungwiza –- a satellite city of Harare.

White campaigned using her own money and with support from the ‘Women Can Do It Campaign’. After she was threatened with violence, she was forced to flee her home, leaving behind her husband and children, and seek refuge at the rural homestead of her grandmother.

Sceptics remain doubtful that Zimbabwe will meet the targets set out by SADC, but the protocol does spell out some measures that member states should take to increase women’s participation, including “…public awareness campaigns which demonstrate the vital link between the equal representation and participation of women and men in decision-making positions, democracy, good governance and citizen participation…”

Precedents for achieving the SADC and AU goals have been set by South Africa and Mozambique. Both countries surpassed the 30 percent goal set out in the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender, the predecessor to the Protocol on Gender. Political will at party level has been the primary factor in their success, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, and the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) setting party quotas for women’s participation.

But the real example has been set by Rwanda, which has the world’s highest proportion of women in parliament, at 48.8 percent. Rwanda has a constitutional quota for national elections, as well as election law and legislative quotas guaranteeing a women’s agenda for all elected bodies.

What is clear from these examples is that quotas, especially when combined with an electoral system based on proportional representation, provide an opportunity for women to play a role in politics.

The outcome of the ongoing talks between Zimbabwe’s three main political parties will have a crucial impact on the immediate future for Zimbabwean women in politics.

What women expect from the talks in the immediate term is for the economy to improve and the violence to end. Women have been hardest hit by the country’s economic crisis. They bear the burden of ensuring the survival of their families where basic social services and goods are limited or entirely unavailable and where incomes are consistently eroded by spiraling inflation. According to Zimbabwe’s Central Statistical Office, annual inflation came in at 11.2 million percent at the end of July.

Women were worst affected by the politically-motivated violence that escalated ahead of the June 27th presidential run-off election. As political activists, mothers, daughters and wives, they were targeted for retribution. Unlike most men who were able to flee their homes, women faced with the responsibility of caring for their families and property were forced to stay behind and face the perpetrators, some of who were also women.

For the medium- to long-term, the challenges are broader.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of structure comes up, what we are interested in are the principles that will better serve us as women, including an open democracy and non-violence,” said Netsai Mushonga, Coordinator of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe at a press conference on women’s participation in the talks, held on 30th July. The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe is a coordinating group of women’s rights groups made up of 44 members.

The coalition is calling on negotiating parties to adhere to UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which urges UN member states to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.

They are also demanding the inclusion of gender experts on the negotiating team and an open process and role in the implementation plan.

Shaba reiterated a statement made to weekly newspaper, the Sunday Mail, in which she urged the negotiators to “seriously consider changing the electoral laws for a system of proportional representation as the only electoral process that can safeguard the interests of women.”

For those women who have made it into decision-making, the pressure is now on to make a difference to the lives of other women.

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