Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
A year before elections in Zimbabwe and probably elsewhere, is a very interesting period. This is the period when political parties, civic organisations and other supporting institutions suddenly wake up from a deep slumber, dust their party manifestos and go back to the people for courtship in anticipation for yet another vote.
At grassroots level, wards and villages become a hive of activity when day-and-night meetings are held to restructure and spruce up party structures. Four-wheel drive vehicles laden with trinkets and regalia emblazoned with party colours criss-cross the rugged country terrain to rekindle relations between the electorate and aspiring candidates.
The same hype is created by the top leadership as they rush from one panel to the other, duck in and out of meetings to strategise and vet candidates for elections. In each of the panel, debates and discussions are held on what went wrong in the previous elections, while mapping the way forward.
The same actions are repeated over the years and have almost become an election template. Suffice to say, the same repeated events will see women across political parties share grief and rejection, when they are elbowed out of powerful positions within party structures as the election mood hits feverish pitch. And certainly the 2018 harmonised elections will not be an exception if events on the ground are anything to go on.
It will be more of the same unless women decide to form a united front to push their counterparts through moral, financial support and capacity building. Angling for positions in preparation for 2018 elections has already started across political parties and it is pointing to the same narrative, where women will represent a minuscule number of powerful positions within their political parties despite their numerical significance across.
It is known that women constitute a huge percentage of grassroots support and registered voters across the country. Statistics show that women make the bulk of registered voters with 52,48 percent of those having registered to vote in the 2013 elections, thus constituting a formidable constituency that could have determined the outcome of that election.
Women constituted a large percentage of voters in 2013 and yet all major political parties, MDC-T and the ruling zanu-pf, did not ensure that a higher number of female candidates registered with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to contest during the sitting of the Nomination Court.
The numerical size of registered women has not translated into significant positions in the party structures.
Some of the challenges include physical and sexual violence, use of money in vote buying and disenfranchisement of women at primary level when parties focus more on competing for powerful posts rather than gender equality. Social stigma and reinforcement of gender stereotypes, where women are not considered to be competitive in politics — have worked against the ascendancy of women.
Political parties are primarily male- dominated and women are socially discriminated in social processes, making it difficult to for them to penetrate party systems, which for long have been treated as “boys clubs”.
The “boys club” mentality is clearly shown in the decision by MDC-T party leader Morgan Tsvangirai to appoint two male vice-presidents, Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri, at a time when other stakeholders felt Thokozani Khupe was sufficient to play the role.
Even during the so called grand coalition signing ceremony, Khupe was nowhere near the high table, which was largely dominated by men. As it stands, it is not clear if she still possesses the same powers vested in her two colleagues — Chamisa and Mudzuri — because she has literally disappeared from political limelight.
The systematic lack of women representation has extended to the newly formed opposition parties. In the then Joice Mujuru led Zimbabwe People First, only a small percentage of women, including Margaret Dongo, had top positions, while the majority were mere cardholders and “morale boosters” who would gyrate and sing at party gatherings.
Following Mujuru’s decision to co-form another party, Zimbabwe National People First, after she was booted from ZimPF, many thought that a significant proportion of women would eventually find a home to further their political aspirations, but alas, that was not to be.
She even chose a male spokesperson, which I presume was because all women in her circle were not competitive to hold such a powerful position!
Now at the helm of the Zimbabwe National People First, it remains to be seen if Mujuru will walk with the sisters to fulfil their political aspirations.
Until there is a paradigm shift on how women measure their worth and their counterparts on the political scale, they will remain cannon fodders for politicians. They will continue to swell the numbers at rallies, to constitute the biggest number of voters, but with no significant positions to talk of.
Save for a few, the majority have failed to get recognition for the vital role they play in strengthening political part structures, through mobilising supporters, religious attendance at meetings, sustaining and boosting the morale when the chips are down.
Rather than applaud their political parties for ensuring gender equality, the majority of women who are in political wilderness are now looking up to the Constitution so that they can be equally represented under the proportional representation quota.
Section 17 of the Constitution states that: “The State must promote full gender balance in Zimbabwean society and in particular . . . must take all measures including legislative measures needed to ensure women constitute at least half of the membership of all commissions and all elective and appointed governmental bodies established by or under this Constitution or any Act of Parliament.”
It was a legislative requirement that saw women’s figures rise in the august House, which currently has 124 of the 350 legislators.
However, despite a 17 percent increase in female legislators from the 2008 elections to 35 percent in 2013, the number is still low given that women constitute 52 percent of the total Zimbabwe’s population, according to Zimstats 2012.
It is sad that women do not seem to realize the power they possess in shaping political parties.
They still do not have faith in their counterparts in taking up powerful positions in political parties, when history shows that women have been competitive since the famed Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world’s first female prime minister in 1960.
It is said the British press had to coin a new description, “Stateswoman” instead of the usual statesman, when she assumed office, after charming both men and women into voting her into power.
Years later India was to follow Sri Lanka’s footsteps when Indira Gandhi was elected India’s third prime minister and the first stateswoman to hold such a powerful posts.
All this happened at a time when gender equality was hardly debated passionately, as it is now.
The two women pulled some shocker and stamped their authority in political arena when the majority of feminists were preoccupied with more philosophical and emotional issues rather than focus on heavy stuff such as politics.
With a few outspoken feminists and gender activists to rally behind them, the two stateswomen made significant contributions in their time and can best be described as the doyens of modern political leadership to this day.
If anything it should be a lot easier for women to mobilise themselves and conquer the political space, what with supportive legislation calling for the political empowerment of women.