Ruth Butaumocho African Agenda
“For me, a better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect, but to be elected.”
The above words from former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, in an interview with the New York Times a few years ago highlight the importance of gender equality for the economic, social and political development of humanity.
Bachelet made the remarks in 2012 while serving as the executive director of UN Women, where she worked to achieve female empowerment in 75 countries.
Eight years after Bachelet’s statement, women’s rights as well as their economic and political standing have been on a positive trajectory in some countries, whilst in others, gender inequality still persists.
In countries that attained palpable achievements towards gender equality, individuals and communities took a deliberate stance to change their circumstances either through the use of existing structures or created an enabling environment.
Those, who failed to achieve could have been let down by structural deficiencies or they just lacked the zeal, temerity and the urge to change their own narrative.
For locals, the ongoing public consultations on the Constitutional Amendment Bill Number 2, presents gender equality advocates with an opportunity to further push for robust equal representation of women in politics by making their representations known and the changes they would want to be implemented.
Public consultations which started on Monday and end tomorrow on the Constitutional Amendment Bill seek to extend for another 10 years the addition of 60 seats in the National Assembly to be reserved for women, among other issues.
The decision to extend the female proportional representation for another 10 years is premised on the growing concern that women in Zimbabwe continue to be under-represented in political governance with figures hovering way below the stipulated 50 percent representation under SADC Declaration on Gender and Development.
Explained in layman’s terms, proportional representation is a term used to describe a range of electoral systems where the distribution of seats corresponds closely with the proportion of the total votes cast for each party or individual candidate.
Having realised that anomaly, the Government introduced a female quota system to ensure more representation of women by reserving 60 seats for them, through a proportional representation system.
Through this, the country was able to record a significant jump in terms of representation where 31.5 percent of members of the National Assembly were women, 48 percent in the Senate and 13.3 percent of positions in council were now being held by women.
However, good as the system might sound, it would be folly to ignore some of the weaknesses that both the ruling party, ZANU PF and MDC-Alliance exhibited when they brought same old faces, missing an opportunity to sell some of their new and vibrant female representatives.
It was probably because of this diabolically opposite aspirations between the needs of the people and “politricks” within structures of political parties that resulted in such a noble concept receiving a backlash from voters, arguing that women on quota system were not adding much value to the august House.
They became victims of serious trolling, throwing serious doubts on the effectiveness of the quota system as an empowerment tool for women.
Political parties could have used the increase in numbers and their significance as basis for promoting female roles in governance.
But for all we know, female quota systems have been among some of the strongest vehicles used in promoting gender equality and ensuring female participation in politics.
The adoption of affirmative action policies has brought about significant increases for women on the political terrain globally. In Africa alone, women’s representation in parliament has in the last 10 years risen 30 percent in some Eastern and Southern countries of Africa, followed by countries in West and Central Africa, and then North Africa.
To date several African countries among them Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda and Mauritius have the world’s highest rates of representation in parliament as a result of the adoption of affirmative action policies.
In our case, several women were able to take up leadership positions which groomed them to graduate into directly elected constituencies as they had gained confidence and political experience.
Even some of the appointments of provincial and current crop of ministers serving in Government were due to the quota system introduced in the last two Parliaments.
However, there have also been discerning voices on the eminent extension, where some sections of society are instead calling for the amendment of the Electoral Act to ensure that some constituencies would be reserved for aspiring female candidates in the 2023 general elections.
Good as it may sound, the call may remain aspirational.
Electoral amendment might not happen overnight, but what stands on the horizon is the extension of the female proportional representation which if used effectively and strategically will promote women’s visibility and relevance on the political ladder.
It remains aspirational to think that women will occupy big offices en masse, because of structural barriers and lack of support within their political parties remains a challenge.
Historical structural barriers, such as recruitment and internal party selection criteria on who should be fielded in a politically volatile constituency against a rival party, lack of financial resources, violence, institutional, cultural and social barriers, make it practically impossible for women to participate in politics.
Some of the said structural barriers are heavily embedded in political and social structures, and may take years to unbundle, hence the need to rally behind already existing structures like the female proportional representation.
What probably needs to be done is to insulate the system from abuse and ensure that women are selected on merit and capable of taking their peers aspirations to another level.