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ZIMBABWE: Rural Women Voting With Their Feet

BULAWAYO, May 26 2011 (IPS) - At independence in 1980, Loyce Tshuma (55), a villager in rural Tsholotsho in Matebeleland North, was a loyal believer in politics as a powerful vehicle to change and better lives. Since then she never missed an opportunity to cast her vote.

But now, with the upcoming national elections, Tshuma has lost all trust in the process. “So much has changed about what I used to believe in about politics,” Tshuma says.

“There has not been any commitment to better our lives and some now think things could be better if we had promoted our own women to lead us,” she said expressing a common frustration that emerged during IPS interviews with some rural women.

As the country heads for national elections that President Robert Mugabe insists must be held in 2011, the general feeling among rural women who spoke to IPS is that there has not been much improvement of their lives since independence.

Early in 2011, an audit by the Zimbabwe Election Network (ZESN) found that very few women (48 percent) were registered by 2010 to vote in 2011 as many – alongside youths – had lost interest in participating in national elections.

There also remains a palpable absence of female political leaders in rural parts of the country. Activists say there are no signs that women will challenge positions and seats currently held by their male counterparts despite commitments by political parties to ensure gender parity within their structures

While political parties have made commitments to elect women to positions of influence in line with SADC protocols and other multilateral policy frameworks that seek gender parity in parliament and government, the coming elections offer a test for those commitments.

The main political parties themselves are struggling to meet gender parity commitments they set for themselves as seen by the recent Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) congress. Here top posts were dominated by men. Out of thirteen senior posts, only one was won by a female, Thokozani Khuphe, who was re-elected party deputy president.

Gender activists say the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) (ZANU-PF), the former ruling party that now forms part of the government of national unity, has also not faired well in gender equity. There are only seven female cabinet ministers in Zimbabwe.

“Women are still not taken seriously even by male politicians themselves,” said Tabitha Khumalo, a senior MDC official.

“We still need to change attitudes among ourselves before we take on men in elections and only then will other women whom we want to vote for us take us seriously,” she said.

The Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU) says statistics about women’s representation in parliament “reached nine percent at its lowest and 22 percent in 2009 at its highest – a far cry from the 30 percent minimum set by the 1997 SADC Declaration on Gender and Development and even further from the achievement of the 50 percent benchmark set by the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and the Millennium Development Goal three.”

It has become an accepted feature of local politics for women to don party regalia bearing the image of the party president, and that is where their active participation ends as reflected in the numbers that are voted into office.

“Rural women are easy to forget for politicians as soon as the election is over as they have all forms of communicating with the world blocked because of being in rural areas,” says Josephine Ngulube, a Bulawayo gender activist.

“If the politician cannot go to them, they too cannot go to him. The disenchantment with the electoral processes is understandable because it can be proven that they remain the poorest in the country affected by years of economic hardships,” said Ngulube.

However, it is the disgruntlement of rural women such as Tshuma that could be telling about the state of women’s participation with voting and leadership.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has announced it will be targeting the registration of women ahead of the coming polls as the party claims its support is in the rural areas.

Rural women have traditionally been looked upon as a huge constituency for political parties who have nevertheless continued to field men for parliamentary and senatorial seats. But changing attitudes and perceptions about voting itself by rural women, at least according to IPS interviews and the ZESN report, could mean the drive for gender parity in government and parliament could have a setback.

“We have seen in the past that women would generally not support another woman, but women are beginning to be politically literate and are voicing that they would rather vote for one of them based on the kind of leadership they have received from men,” said Samukeliso Mthunzi, a Zimbabwean gender relations researcher based in South Africa.

“Attitudes must change if women are to assert themselves in the market place of political ideas, otherwise we will see women voters simply boycott polls without any long-term solutions to why they stayed away in the first place,” Mthunzi said.

According to agencies such as the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, rural women in sub-Sahara Africa are some of the poorest in the world as they survive as smallholder farmers. It is this lamented poverty that persists despite their being able to vote for change that could see them shying away from the polls, Mthunzi believes.

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