Women in Zimbabwe are hoping for a political breakthrough in the forthcoming elections, despite a “hostile atmosphere” and “resistance” from male politicians.
The election next month will be the first since the fall of Robert Mugabe, the 94-year-old who ruled for almost four decades, and is one of the most important in the country’s turbulent history.
The contest pits Zanu PF, the ruling party since 1980, against the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance. Both are led by men, the former by 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power when his sacking by Mugabe in November led to a military takeover, and the latter by Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and preacher.
So far, any major increase in the representation of women in Parliament looks unlikely. Only one in 10 Zanu PF candidates and around one in seven opposition candidates are female. Women are also notably absent from the top ranks of both parties.
Sibongile Sibanda, a 35-year-old businesswoman and the Zanu PF youth secretary for external affairs, has been selected as a party candidate and is confident Zanu PF will retain power, despite widespread dissatisfaction over its failure to markedly improve conditions in Zimbabwe since Mugabe’s fall.
“I am really confident that we are going to win. People are really happy with the new dispensation,” she says.
An internal Zanu PF regulation ensures a minimum of one female candidate from each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces.
“We have a lot of work to do in women’s quotas,” Sibanda says.
“We need to work with the party to assist all the [female] MPs so their clearances are better and we are all equal.”
Just over a third of the 350 outgoing MPs and senators in Zimbabwe are women. But the majority of these were elected through a quota system created by the 2013 constitution, which will not be continued beyond 2023 without a new vote in Parliament.
Linda Masarira, a veteran activist and first-time MDC candidate in Harare, says political parties in Zimbabwe are “still suffering patriarchal dominance”.
“Women like me who are outspoken are labelled and attacked for demanding our space,” she says.
“Women are always relegated to the periphery of decision-making, or if they are there it is just tokenism. If we do not stand our ground we will be at our lowest level [in parliament and executive office] for many years.”
Many female politicians complain of a hostile and prejudiced environment in which abuse is common.
Thokozani Khupe, a senior opposition leader, was called a “prostitute” by demonstrators during a leadership battle earlier this year, local media reported.
Chamisa caused outrage in May when he promised to “give” his sister — “who just turned 18 and [is] looking for a husband” — to Mnangagwa if the president won 5% of the vote in a “free and fair election”. Chamisa later said his statement was a joke.
The election is being closely scrutinised by the international community, which insists it must be “free, fair and credible” for Zimbabwe to receive the huge financial bailout needed to reboot the economy.
Previous polls have been subject to systematic violence and rigging. But there has been no pressure for greater representation of women, nor support for female politicians.
Though there are few female heads of State, women are well represented in parliaments elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Rwanda has one of the highest levels of female representation in the world — women make up 61% of its MPs. In South Africa the proportion is 42%. In the UK it is 35%, less than Senegal, Tanzania, Angola and Burundi.
Many African countries already have parity legislation in place, with Uganda and Kenya leading the way in reserving seats in parliament for women and young people’s representatives.
In April, Bineta Diop, the African Union’s special envoy for women, peace and security, called for further efforts to “make sure that women are part and parcel of the political decision-makers”.
Diop told reporters in Addis Ababa: “We are not there yet. The glass is half full.”
Sthabile Milo, 36, a businesswoman from the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo, is campaigning for the MDC and hopes to win a seat among the 60 guaranteed by the constitution.
She is the MDC’s national secretary for gender parity and started her political career aged 18.
“Young women are challenging the status quo that only older women could be effective politicians,” she says.
“We can’t sit back and say men should just give us these posts. We have to fight and win it through our own hard work — and we will.”