Election Watch 9-2023 - Women's Political Participation in Zimbabwe

ELECTION WATCH 9/2023

[8th March 2023]

Today we Celebrate International Women’s Day

Women’s Political Participation in Zimbabwe

Fundamental human rights are the birthright of everyone regardless of their sex or gender.  All citizens are entitled to exercise their political rights in Zimbabwe and to participate in the country’s civil and political life equally, without fear of discrimination or repression.

In this bulletin we shall see how far gender equality in the political sphere is encouraged by our Constitution and statute law and by international and regional instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party and we shall then go on to assess how far gender equality really exists in the Zimbabwean political sphere.

The Constitution`

The Constitution places a strong emphasis on women’s rights:

Section 3 states that Zimbabwe is founded on respect for values and principles that include recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of each human being, recognition of the equality of all human beings, and gender equality.  The section also states that principles of good governance, which bind the State and all governmental institutions and agencies at every level, include recognition of the rights of women.

More specifically, section 17 says that the State must promote full gender balance and in particular must promote the full participation of women in all spheres of Zimbabwean society on the basis of equality with men.  Both genders should be equally represented in all institutions and agencies of government at every level.

Section 56(2), part of the Declaration of Rights, stipulates that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres.

Section 80, also part of the Declaration of Rights, states that every woman has full and equal dignity of the person with men and this includes equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities.

Sections 120 and 124 as amended in 2021 give women special representation in the Senate and the National Assembly.  Party lists of candidates for election to the Senate must list men and women alternately, thus ensuring that more or less equal numbers of men and women are elected (section 120), and sixty women are elected to the National Assembly on party lists at each general election (section 124).

Section 268, also amended in 2021, provides for 10 party-list women to be elected to every provincial and metropolitan council.  When the section is implemented in the general election due to be held later this year, it will give women a majority on most councils.

Finally, section 277, another 2021 amendment, states rather incoherently that the Electoral Act may provide for additional women councillors to be elected on a party-list basis to urban and rural district councils;  they will constitute at least 30 per cent of the total membership of the councils.

The Electoral Act

Section 3 of the Electoral Act sets out general principles of democratic elections and stipulates that:

“… every citizen has the right to participate in government directly or through freely chosen representatives, and is entitled, without distinction on the ground of … gender … to stand for office and cast a vote freely”.

The Act provides for the election of the party-list women to the National Assembly and the Senate but does not yet provide for the election of women to provincial and metropolitan councils and local authority councils in terms of sections 268 and 277 of the Constitution.  An Electoral Amendment Bill currently going through Parliament will make provision for women to be elected to these councils.

International Instruments

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Article 1 of the Covenant states that:

“All peoples have the right of self-determination.  By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status”.

Women are included in this statement because article 3 of the Covenant goes on to say:

“States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant”.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

This Convention, often known by its acronym CEDAW, binds its parties (of which Zimbabwe is one) to treat men and women equally.

Article 7 of the Convention provides:

“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right:

(a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies;

(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government;

(c) …”

Regional Instruments

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol)

Article 9.1 of the Maputo Protocol requires States Parties to take “specific positive action”, including affirmative action, to promote participative governance and the equal participation of women in the political life of their countries, and to ensure that:

“(a) women participate without any discrimination in all elections,

(b) women are represented equally at all levels with men in all electoral processes,

(c) women are equal partners with men at all levels of development and implementation of State policies and development programmes.”

Reality of Women’s Political Participation in Zimbabwe

Low levels of participation

Despite the progressive laws that have been enacted, women are not adequately represented in Parliament or local authorities.

Women constitute 52 per cent of the country’s population, but:

Following the 2018 general election, only 48 per cent of Senators were women and only 31,5 per cent of Members of the National Assembly were women – this despite 60 seats being reserved for women elected on a party-list system.  Only 11,9 per cent of the constituency Members of the National Assembly were women.

Following the 2022 by-elections, out of the 28 parliamentary seats contested only five women were elected.  At the local government level only 19 women were elected to councils as opposed to 103 men.

Reasons for low participation

Factors that may hinder women’s participation in politics include:

  • Violence in the political system of Zimbabwe.  Women are particularly vulnerable to violence.
  • Negative perceptions against women politicians.  Women who engage in political activities are labelled loose and immoral and their private lives are put under a spotlight.  Their marital status is of key interest while few people bother about a male politician’s marital or extra-marital affairs.
  • The patriarchal nature of Zimbabwean society discourages women from participating in politics.  Women are viewed as weak and inferior, suitable for homemaking, childbearing and doing household chores.  This attitude is shared by women voters as well as men, so male candidates often get more votes from women than female candidates do.
  • The reservation of special seats for women in Parliament and in local authority councils.  This has the perverse effect of discouraging women’s participation in constituency and ward elections because political parties – which are male dominated – expect their women candidates to contest the reserved seats while constituency and ward seats are kept for men.

How Can Women’s Participation be Increased?

Women will not be able to take a truly equal role in political affairs until the patriarchal nature of society is changed so that women are no longer stereotyped and regarded as inferior to men.  Changing societal attitudes is likely to take many years, though change may be speeded up if women are given greater access to resources so that they become more economically active.

Quicker change may be brought about if political parties are encouraged to put up more women candidates for election to Parliament and local authorities.  This could be done by making State funding for parties conditional on their nominating a specified percentage of women candidates – say 40 per cent – in a general election.

Conclusion

Zimbabwe has done a great deal to enact laws encouraging women’s participation in politics.  Good laws are not enough however.  There is need for the electorate and women themselves to change their perceptions and attitudes before women can take their rightful place in the country’s political life.

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