x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Zimbabwe's women feel left out of power deal

Zimbabwean women are feeling excluded from the new, male-dominated unity government.

Women constitute 52 per cent of Zimbabwe's population yet only 30 were elected to the 210-seat House of Assembly in 2008.
Women constitute 52 per cent of Zimbabwe's population yet only 30 were elected to the 210-seat House of Assembly in 2008.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // Zimbabwean women are feeling excluded from the new, male-dominated unity government. The country's biggest political parties, Zanu-PF and two factions of the divided Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), formed an inclusive government on Feb 13 but only seven of the 40 members of the federal cabinet are women. Of the 69 cabinet ministers, ministers of state, deputy ministers and provincial resident ministers, 12 are women. Netsai Mushonga, national co-ordinator of the Women's Coalition, described the gender configuration of the new government as scandalous. "There is a scandalously low representation of women in the new set-up. Being a product of negotiations between political parties, I do not know why it was difficult for them to establish a government that reflects gender equity. Perhaps, as we saw during their negotiations, they wanted to play hard ball, so they felt women, being naturally accommodative and sensitive, might not be combative enough to be in this government. I do not know." In the new unity government, Robert Mugabe, the long-time president, retained his position. His rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, became prime minister. Women constitute 52 per cent of the population, but few hold influential positions in Zimbabwe's patriarchal society; most hold inferior jobs or stay at home. This, further highlighted by the new political power structure, puts in doubt Zimbabwe's hopes of meeting a Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocol on gender and development, which stipulates that women should hold equal positions to men in both public and private sectors by 2015, Ms Mushonga said. Although Zimbabwe has in recent years sought to enhance the status of women by placing them in key posts in politics and business and enacting laws that punish violence against women, they still feel marginalised, she added. In Dec 2004, Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party elevated Joice Mujuru to the vice-presidency of the party and government, making her the first woman to attain the position in Zimbabwe and one of the few in Africa. One year later, Zimbabwe introduced a ministry of women's affairs. Jenni Williams, the head of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a civic body, said the presence of so few women in the unity government - formed after SADC-led dialogue - does not surprise her. "This government is not a product of the will of the people, but SADC's," she said. "If they can subvert the will of the people, what about gender equality?" Nonetheless, Mrs Williams said that women in Zimbabwe would soon campaign to ensure that a new national constitution - to be written in the next 18 months - provided for the enhancement of their status. "We will be involved in the process so that gender equality is clearly spelt out in the constitution. However, it must not only be gender equity, but also social justice." Thirty women were elected into the 210-seat House of Assembly in elections last March, while 20 of the 60 seats that are chosen by election sit in the Senate. The Zimbabwe Senate has 93 members, the other 33 are appointed. Of the 710 candidates who ran for House of Assembly seats, 118 were women. Out of the 196 who vied for seats in the Senate, 61 were women. Mrs Mujuru, who at 25 years of age in 1980 was the youngest minister ever elected in Zimbabwe, said at the inauguration of the new government recently that women must take the initiative. "A shortage of resources and confidence has forced most women not to seek political office," she said. "Women should start supporting fellow women as this has played directly in the hands of some cultural and religious beliefs that have aided the trampling of women in the country." EISA, a South African political think tank, said Zimbabwe's constitution is masculine in its language. "'He' and 'him' are used throughout in a way that assumes that the masculine embraces the feminine, while the words 'she' and 'her' appear nowhere," EISA said on its website. "The article that prohibits discrimination in law or in the activities of public officials is qualified so as to exclude the prevention of discrimination against women in customary law and specifically permits discrimination that 'takes due account of physiological differences between persons of different sex or gender' [Constitution 1980, Article 23]." Luta Shaba, director of the Women's Trust, said that although women's attitudes towards seeking political office have changed for the better in recent years, they face structural barriers. The constitution, she said, is ambivalent on gender parity, allowing patriarchal machinations to persist. "Women want a new constitution that abolishes the first-past-the-post electoral system to enshrine proportional representation," Ms Shaba said. "Only through proportional representation can women, together with other previously marginalised groups, rise. "The present electoral system encourages viciousness, and when you have a dog-eat-dog scenario to attaining political office, even political parties feel constrained in accommodating women."