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ZAMBIA: Election Violence Could Mean Fewer Women Participants

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA , Aug 4 2010 (IPS) - There are growing fears that increasing numbers of women candidates and voters may not participate in the 2011 general elections because of an upsurge in election-related violence.

Rights groups fear women will not fully participate in the 2011 electoral process because of current election violence.  Credit: Richard Mulonga/IPS

Rights groups fear women will not fully participate in the 2011 electoral process because of current election violence. Credit: Richard Mulonga/IPS

Campaigning in the Chifubu constituency ahead of the Aug. 5 by-election was marred with violence and intimidation by supporters from the participating parties, the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and the opposition Patriotic Front (PF).

A May by-election in Mufumbwe, in the North-Western province, saw two people die at the hands of political hooligans who were hired to cause confusion.

And in January ruling MMD cadres threatened to ‘gang-rape’ opposition Forum for Democracy and Development president Edith Nawakwi over her statements on various governance issues. But the country’s inspector-general of police Francis Kabonde reacted by saying it is not an offence to threaten a person with violence. And President Rupiah Banda said the youths were merely reacting to insults uttered against him by the opposition.

But these events have concerned women politicians and rights groups who fear women’s participation in the 2011 general elections.

Sylvia Masebo, one of the 22 female members of parliament in the 150-seat National Assembly, is concerned that few women will participate in the 2011 general elections because of the increase in the levels of political violence and the level of apathy from law enforcement.

“I am worried as a female member of parliament that 2011 will be very difficult for women to participate. It seems all of us have become violent,” Masebo, a former local government and housing minister, says.

Racheal Njovu, communications officer at Zambia Women’s Coalition Network, says because women and children bear the brunt of any conflict, she sees a situation where women will fail to fully participate in the electoral process.

“In the Mufumbwe by-election, the MP for Zambezi West, Charles Kakoma, was beaten and stabbed by suspected ruling party cadres. If that is the kind of violence we’re going to have in the run-up to next year’s elections, then I fear for both our women candidates and the voters,” she says.

“I don’t see many women participating in the elections with this kind of violence, which has again reared its ugly head in the on-going Chifubu by-election. And it seems our security personnel are hopeless to stop it. I don’t know who they expect to protect our defenceless women.”

Beverly Nyirenda’s way of protecting herself is by not voting. The resident of Chilenje township in Lusaka, says she has not registered as a voter in the on-going voter registration exercise because she thinks the 2011 general elections will be an exercise in futility because they are unlikely to be free and fair.

“You saw what happened in Mufumbwe where people were being stabbed and beaten including police officers in certain cases. How can elections be fair and free with that kind of violence? You can’t intimidate voters like that and expect to have free and fair elections, should be free to exercise their rights without fear,” she says.

Following the violence in the Mufumbwe by-election, civil society organisations demanded that government hold an inquiry into the loss of life and property because the violence is likely to have a bearing on the 2011 general elections. But it appears as if some politicians are guilty of hiring unemployed youths whom they ferry to election areas to intimidate voters.

Richard Banda, an unemployed youth of Chawama township, is one of those youths who has been hired to do just this. He and his friends also target women stall holders at local markets who agree to vote Banda’s way as they fear losing their stands at the market and hence their means of livelihood.

“They (politicians) hire us through their constituency youth chairmen. We don’t do anything most of us, so we can afford to go to distant places for days doing campaigns as long as they give us transport, money and also buy us alcohol,” he says.

“Our brief is simple. It’s just to intimidate voters and opponents to vote for the party of our choice. We don’t care about the message, ours is to instil fear in them to vote. We find this easy to do especially in rural areas and in townships where the majority are illiterate.”

The Anti-Voter Apathy Project (AVAP) says they fear the Electoral Commission of Zambia lacks technical and logistical capacity to conduct free and fair elections.

“The Electoral Code of Conduct is always observed in breach by you politicians, non-governmental organisations and the media,” said Bonnie Tembo, the executive director at AVAP.

“There is need to have a new constitution before the 2011 elections by amending the Electoral Act to suit the people’s aspirations on the electoral regime. Amend the Electoral Act to accommodate what will facilitate the 2011 elections,” Tembo said.

Zambia is currently holding the National Constitutional Conference, which has been tasked to draw up a new constitution.

Although the PF, the major opposition party, boycotted the sittings, many people are hoping the conference will draft a new constitution which will ensure that future elections are free and fair.

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