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ZAMBIA: Scarcely Room for Women in Male-dominated Politics

Zarina Geloo

LUSAKA, Jan 20 2010 (IPS) - Charity Mwansa, a former minister and member of parliament, knows just exactly what being one of the very few female politicians in Zambia means. When she left politics it had nothing to with not being able to do the work and instead had everything to do with the mad world of male-dominated politics.

“It was too hectic, tiring and one needs a lot of stamina to be in the rough and tumble of politics. You do not deal with normality, there is a bit of madness.”

Mwansa, who cites the adage “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”, is just another woman who has declined to participate in the country’s next elections. She says that having to constantly watch her back; putting out fires where other people created problems for her; and just having to be alert of plotting against her 24/7 became a bit too much.

“It’s what politics is about, it’s not for the faint hearted. That’s why I want to rest for now.”

A lawyer, Mwansa says that the political terrain in Zambia is still uneven for women.

While the rest of the SADC region increases the number of women in governance, Zambia, which goes to the polls in 2011, is likely to see a further reduction of the number of females in decision making. This, women in politics say, is because the male dominated political terrain has not changed.

Currently, there are 24 members of parliament (MPs) out of a total 150. In cabinet there are five female ministers out of a total of 21. There are only six female deputy ministers out of a total of 20.

Ironically, women constitute half of the voting population, and yet, they accounted for less than 15 percent as candidates and elected officials in Parliament and Local Government institutions, according to the Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL) analysis of the last elections in 2006.

ZNWL is working to get more women to contest the next elections in 2011. But the party’s board secretary, Tamala Kambikambi, told IPS she would be very surprised if there was an increase in women making it into parliament and local government in the next elections.

“There are fewer and fewer women getting elected and even contesting positions at each election.”

Kambikambi said while patriarchal attitudes, negative traditions and customs that did not recognise women as equal partners with men were responsible for the low participation of women in governance.

Political party structures did not promote women’s participation as leadership positions were usually reserved for men. None of the parties had changed their processes on how candidates got chosen to run for a constituency to make it accessible for women. It was still the male dominated national executive committees that choose candidates.

“Despite their pronouncements about promoting women’s participation at all levels of decision making, none of the political parties come close to achieving the minimum SADC recommendation threshold of 30 percent women in decision making positions,” Kambikambi said.

She recommends the adoption of a clear national policy that would be backed by a legal framework to guide political parties on adoption of candidates to ensure women are not disadvantaged and only used as foot soldiers whenever political parties feel like doing so.

However, Given Lubinda an MP and senior member of the UPND says complaints about how parties adopt candidates are ‘nonsense’. “Everyone, men and women vote for people to serve committees including the adoption committees. The women are there voting with us, so how can someone complain about male domination?”

Zambia has four main political parties, the ruling Movement for Multi Party Democracy (MMD) and three opposition parties, the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) the only party to have an elected female president, the Patriotic Front (PF) and the United Party for National Development (UPND).

Elizabeth Chitika, an MP who has served as a cabinet minister in government, argues that the problems for women begin at the very level Lubinda describes.

“Everything is run by men who hold meetings and caucuses amongst themselves about who gets elected to which committees. It’s not true to say women are not visible, they are just ignored.”

She warns that she will stand as an independent candidate if her party does not adopt her in the 2011 elections.

“Parties say they chose the best candidate, but we see situations where a woman is the better candidate but a man is chosen, sometimes at the last minute, after the woman has done all the ground work for the party to be accepted in that area,” says Chitika.

Edith Nawakwi president of FDD knows all about gender discrimination. She won a hard fight against powerful men to become president of the party.

She agrees that it is difficult for women to get adopted as candidates especially since Zambia still practices the first past the post system of voting. But rather than harp on the challenges, women should knuckle down and get to work.

“Women should go to their parties with something on the table. They must give evidence of their popularity which means they must canvass amongst their constituency and get their buy-in. If they create a name for themselves; no party can afford to ignore them.”

Nawakwi is now weathering criticism from some of her party members who say she cannot win them the presidency and are calling for her to step down. Her critics say she spends more time “being a wife” to her polygamous husband than being a leader of a political party that wants to form the next government.

Nawakwi shrugs this off saying it is the ‘usual nonsense’ of bringing in gender whenever unenlightened men feel threatened by a woman.

“I am accustomed to breaking gender barriers. I was elected by the party at a convention that was dominated by men so my gender cannot be an issue now. It’s a new phenomenon to have a female presidential candidate, so it’s not surprising that there is some nervousness. But I have told them to keep calm and watch me.”

Where the ZNWL has identified low education levels and poor economic status as some of the barriers for women’s election campaigns, Nawakwi told IPS she does not suffer those handicaps.

Of all the presidential candidates, she is the most educated (her Economics and Energy degrees are from the Imperial college of London) she is also the most experienced politician having spent over 15 years in various government portfolios, being the first female finance minister in Zambia and in the SADC region. She is also wealthy in her own right.

“If you want to do a check list, you will find I am the most qualified candidate around.”

But others do not have the same confidence. Business woman Angelica Rumsey has been courted by the ZNWL to stand in her home village in the northern part of Zambia. She has declined saying her experience in politics were disillusioning.

“There were lies being peddled about me. While I was discussing issues of development my opponents were attacking my personal character. I saw so much corruption and dirty games during the campaigns that left me disgusted. I would have had to stoop to the level of my opponents if I wanted to win a seat and I could not do that, Rumsey says of her campaign for a parliamentary seat in the 2006 elections.

Another reason she is reluctant to run for elections is that campaigns are expensive. Men are able to take risks and borrow from banks and other lending institutions, women are reluctant to undertake such risky ventures and in any case, they are not giving that opportunity, Rumsy told IPS.

“For women who have been in parliament before it is a little easier for them to retain their seats because they will have gotten their gratuities and other monies, that they can use, but for us that are trying to get in, we have to find money for campaigns and that is not easy.”

Zambia has signed and ratified a number of agreements that promote women’s rights. However, there has been a lack of political will to implement and adhere to these agreements and have them domesticated into national laws, Mwawnsa says.

Mwansa hopes that the 2011 elections will provide a fresh break from the discriminatory election system, and more women will participate, but like Kambikambi she is not hopeful that this will happen.

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