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ZIMBABWE: New Cabinet Ignores Quota for Women

Davison Makanga

HARARE, Feb 25 2009 (IPS) - Women’s rights activists in Zimbabwe are outraged by the low representation of female politicians in the new unity government. Only four women are part of the 35-member cabinet, laughably short of the equal representation of women in decision-making that Zimbabwe signed onto at a regional summit in September 2008.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development, which stipulates that women should hold equal positions to men in both public and private sectors by 2015.

The director of the non-governmental organisation Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU) described the gender-biased selection of cabinet members as "shocking" and "sad".

"Regional and international instruments (for gender equality) that Zimbabwe is a signatory to have spoken to the need to ensure that we have better representation of women in decision-making positions, but at such an important democracy-building stage like this, the three political parties have not committed to what they had promised", lamented WIPSU director Cleopatra Ndlovu.

She challenged the political parties to implement their quota systems by granting women opportunities to exercise real power. At the same time, Ndlovu urged women to claim their rights and shift from being "mere voters" and "campaigners for political parties" to political decision makers.

Prominent Zimbabwean gender activist Thoko Matshe, who heads the Feminist Political Education project in Harare, said the road to gender parity now looks longer following last week’s setback. Matshe took a swipe at the MDC, a party she says she used to believe represented real change for women.

No real change

Between them, the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change, in line with the negotiated agreement on power-sharing, the MDC factions led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara appointed 16 ministers, and chose three women, including Theresa Makone as minister of public works, Paurina Mpariwa as minister of labour and Priscilla Misihairambwi-Mushonga as minister of regional integration and international trade. The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) only contributed one woman to its cabinet complement of 15; Olivia Muchena was allocated the women’s affairs department.

Matshe complained it was "by default" that a woman should head the women’s affairs department, while the three other female politicians also oversaw departments that were not the most vital. Male politicians, in contrast, have been chosen to head all key departments, such as national security, finance or home affairs.

"Morgan Tsvangirai comes from the Movement For Democratic Change. If I take the change, it indicates that we should do things differently. But if among 14 nominees from his party we have just two women, it really means we should take the democracy out of the name of the party", said Matshe.

Apart from the four female cabinet ministers, another four women were appointed as deputy ministers last week, but without cabinet seats, their roles are largely ceremonial. According to the Zimbabwean legislative framework, they cannot be acting ministers in the absence of their superiors, for example.

Misihairambwi-Mushonga said she was disappointed by the low numbers of women in cabinet, but confident that her colleagues and herself would make their marks by championing women’s issues during their tenure: "Whilst we have a few women in cabinet, most of them are women’s activists. I’m sure we will be able to speak out."

"As a feminist, I am very disappointed, but existing political agreements have set a foundation for the feminisation of many issues, including health, food security or HIV and AIDS. So there is hope that this discussion around gender equality will be taking place", she added.

Vice president and ZANU-PF member Joyce Mujuru, in contrast, believes women should fend for themselves instead of rely on quotas to get into power. She told the state-run Herald newspaper the low representation of women in high positions was unfortunate, but blamed women for not fighting hard enough for decision-making positions. Because many women lack confidence, they are their own worst enemies, Mujuru told the newspaper.

Women sidelined

To ensure women’s empowerment and gender equality are not sidelined again, Zimbabwean women’s rights group have now started to prepare inputs for the country’s new constitution, which, according to constitutional amendment number 19, will be promulgated during the next 18 months.

Rutendo Hadebe, deputy chairperson of The Women’s Coalition, a grouping of Zimbabwean women’s rights organisations, says the coalition will take advantage of the constitutional reform process to lobby for progressive provisions that will empower women and "close a past of inequality". The coalition plans to collaborate with the four, female cabinet ministers to spearhead the process.

"We are grateful for the four that are there, it’s better than nothing. We will do whatever we can to support them and work with them," said Hadebe.

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