Political parties and the elusive 50/50 gender parity
Nduduzo Tshuma, Political Editor
POLITICAL parties in Zimbabwe, the Sadc region and the continent have clauses on the need for a 50/50 gender balance but that has largely remained elusive as there is less women representation in all levels of their structures, including the fielding of candidates.
This has led to a focus on the domestic processes of the parties and how they have posed as stumbling blocks to the attainment of 50/50 gender representation. According to the United Nations published handbook titled, “Women & Elections: Guide to promote the participation of women in elections,” political parties play a critical role in the promotion of women political participation.
“Political parties are among the most important institutions affecting women’s political participation. In most countries, parties determine which candidates are nominated and elected and which issues achieve national prominence,” reads the handbook.
“The role of women in political parties is therefore a key determinant of their prospects for political empowerment, particularly at the national level. Because political parties are so influential in shaping women’s political prospects, Governments and international organisations seeking to advance the participation of women in elections justifiably tend to focus on the role of political parties.”
The handbook further holds that the most common route to elected office is through political parties.
“Most candidates depend on parties for their nomination, their base of electoral support, help during the election campaign, financial resources, and continued assistance after their election,” reads the handbook.
“While some candidates run for office independently of political parties, it is far more difficult to win an election without the backing of a political organisation, especially at the national level. Hence, women seeking an entrée into politics must usually turn to political parties.”
The handbook further notes that “since political parties often tend to be more open to nominating women as candidates for local elections, women may find it easier to start at this level and use it as a stepping stone to national office.”
According to the Inter Parliamentary Union report on women in politics for 2020, Spain has the highest number of women in ministerial positions at 66,7 percent while Rwanda is ranked number 8 in the world and one in Africa with 53,6 percent followed by South Africa at 48,3 percent while Zimbabwe is at 20,8 percent.
In the same report, Rwanda leads in terms of women representation in parliament with 61,3 percent while South Africa is number two in Africa with 46,3 percent and Zimbabwe is at 31,9 percent.
An article published in the African Portal titled, “Rethinking women’s political participation in Zimbabwe’s elections,” provides the following statistics on the Zimbabwean 2018 elections: “Out of the 47 political parties that fielded candidates in the National Assembly, only 27 fielded at least one-woman candidate.
Approximately 15 percent (243) of 1 652 candidates contesting in the National Assembly are female and 146 women out of 290 candidates are contesting for senate. For local authority positions, 40 political parties fielded candidates, 12 of which fielded men only. 17 percent are women and 83 percent are men out of the total 6 796 candidates.”
Article 17 (1) of the Constitution stipulates that the State must ensure that women should participate in all spheres of society on the basis of equality to men.
The country is also party to international protocols like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPA).
On a regional level, the country is signatory to the Sadc Gender and Development Declaration.
As a member of the United Nations, Zimbabwe is guided by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted to run up to 2030 and in particular SDG 5, which seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Political parties in their respective constitutions have also made provisions to promote equal representation but the situation on the ground does not reflect that the parties follow those particular clauses in letter and spirit.
The UN handbook notes that despite provisions guaranteeing the equal representation in political parties, women still face a number of hurdles.
“In many countries the rights of women are enshrined in law, and there are no formal legal barriers to women’s political participation in election processes. In practice, however, there are often formidable obstacles to women’s active participation in politics. The hurdles to be overcome can be particularly daunting for women considering running for office. . . ,” it reads.
“Politics has traditionally been a male domain that many women have found unwelcoming or even hostile. Societies in which traditional or patriarchal values remain strong may frown on women entering politics.
“In addition to dealing with unfavourable cultural predilections, women are often more likely than men to face practical barriers to entering politics, including a paucity of financial resources, lower levels of education, less access to information, greater family responsibilities, and a deprivation of rights that has left them with fewer opportunities to acquire political experience.
With the exception of the close relatives of male politicians, women generally lack the political networks necessary for electoral success.”
Bulawayo lawyer Mrs Nikiwe Ncube-Tshabalala said the onus is on political parties as institutions to promote women political participation towards the 50-50 gender parity.
“Political parties are voluntary organisations so no one can force them directly to have a 50:50 representation in structures,” said Mrs Ncube-Tshabalala.
“You can only do this indirectly by stipulating in legislation a 50:50 representation of women into elected office thus force political parties to ensure that they have enough women leaders in their structures.”
Gender Activist, Ms Patience Phiri noted that achieving 50:50 representation requires empowering women at the grassroots level.
“When it comes to getting to a pure and honest 50/50 representation, we need to start right at the bottom, at the grassroots where we need to teach everyone that we are all equal and everyone deserves a seat at the table. Start from there, take it through and show that women too can be leaders just as men,” she said.
She said the same should be replicated in all facets of societies and burst the myth that only men can be leaders.
“We need to smash that patriarchy that has made women think that they are not capable,” said Ms Phiri.
“Political parties are at the tail end, we need to go back to the bottom and start there and say to people, understand that there cannot be any decision making without women.”
Ms Phiri said parties must not window dress but follow their constitutions towards achieving 50/50 gender parity or even push women to occupy the majority of positions as they are the majority.
She said women also need to stand up and demand what is provided for in the constitution to achieve the 50-50 parity.
“We need to demand from political parties what is constitutionally ours, 2023 is coming, we need to say we are the ones living in these communities and these are the women we think will do for us, don’t bring your own people who will stop representing us but represent you. We need to have a generation of women who stand up to this patriarchy,” she said.
Zanu-PF youth league national secretary for external affairs Cde Sibongile Sibanda said women need to aspire more for political office.
“As for my party, there is no rule that prevents women from taking up leadership positions, I think it goes to the issue of initiative. We need a change of mindset where more women aspire for positions and take action because politics is competitive in nature and no one will give you a position as you sit,” she said.
Cde Sibanda said women need to promote fellow women politicians.
“At times women are their own worst enemies, one would say I will support that man because I don’t want to support Sibongile but opt for that man. Women need to learn to support each other so that they build each other and inspire each other,” she said.
“Even outside politics, women need to aspire for positions, I will give you an example of residents’ associations in Bulawayo, women are co-opted in less influential positions yet there are many women who can actually lead. In my area, the resident’s association has actually engaged me many times to help them on issues that they feel are beyond their control.
The ball is in the women’s court, we need to stand up and be counted,” she said.
MDC-T proportional representative legislator and former Minister, Mrs Priscilla Misihairabwi Mushonga said the elusive 50-50 gender parity was a global phenomenon.
“Look at what happened in the US, for example, here was a very experienced woman Hillary Clinton running against, really a mad man, they refused to vote for her. Then you have a male (Joe) Biden, old, not as experienced as Hillary but contested against the same individual and was voted in.
“It just tells you that the issue around power and patriarchy is not just an African issue, it’s not a Zimbabwean issue, it’s a global issue. It’s about power structures that have existed over the years and it would take political will to begin to dismantle that, which is why if you go back to the story of the US, a country that has had experiences in democratic processes can only have a female deputy president (Kamala Harris) now but if there was a vote, she would not have been voted in.
“The votes came in because a male decided that they would use their political power to change the power dynamics. Having said that, it means changes around women are dependent on the males that hold political power at the moment.
They are the ones that will have to open the spaces for women. If you leave it to voting and all sorts of things, it is going to take us another one thousand years for it to change,” she said.
Mrs Misihairabwi Mushonga noted that leaders of political parties must use what is within their power to open up the spaces because when they do open up the spaces, women, the young women and young men will be able to see that there is capacity that rests in women.
“This is not about women themselves but these are about those ones that are the duty bearers of today that hold political office.
“They have to say, I hold the power right now and because I hold the power, I am going to make certain choices that are directed at opening up spaces for women otherwise it would not happen. We would continue talking about the same thing over and over again and it will not happen,” she noted.
MDC-Alliance Bulawayo provincial spokesperson Mr Swithern Chirowodza said his party in a number of clauses in its constitution commits to work for the equal representation of women in public office and within the party but acknowledged that they were yet to reach the goal.
“Instead of taking the comparatively lower numbers of women in leadership positions as failure, we posit that ours is work in progress. The numbers of women representatives continue to rise,” said Mr Chirowodza.
“For example, in 2000, we had one female parliamentarian. In 2021, despite the Khupe and Mwonzora-inspired recalls the MDC-Alliance has more women legislators in Bulawayo. We have a huge membership of women in the structures of the party, which makes it impossible to fathom that patriarchy may ever dominate MDC-Alliance politics,” he said.