Low women and youth representation inexcusable sin of politicians

Women in Zimbabwe face a crisis of representation in all spheres of life but more consequentially in our politics.

THIS week I have no time for my usual opening banter and cynicism, my paradise of escapism like fellow disillusioned idealists.

My conscience cannot escape the obscene blight of our political parties. The most disturbingly pervasive sin of the nomination outcome is the unacceptably low representation of women  and youth in our  candidates list. This is the subject of my rants this week.

Of course, there are other banalities of the nomination court whose shadow refuses to go as several court applications have been lodged to challenge the nomination of this or that candidate.

The Citizens Coalition for Change is challenging double and triple candidacy, which it claims is a result of machinations of their rivals or the mischief of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) or fraud by the said candidates, or whatever sticks.

Zanu PF has prepared a dog’s breakfast challenging the nomination of CCC and other opposition Parliamentary candidates in Bulawayo, alleging that it was done outside of the legal timeframes of the Nomination Court.

But that is a peripheral circus for me this week. Not my monkeys, not my circus!

I am disturbed by our business-as-usual approach to the brazen gender injustice in our politics. Yes, it is a common feature in our society, but it cannot be right that we now accept it as normal.

We must address the elephant in the room. Or, rather more aptly, the testosterone on the ballot. I will not add to the cacophony of voices in the echo chamber so eloquently and intelligently preaching to us about what is wrong.

My intention is to look at what can be done by political parties – or rather, what can be done to political parties to correct this blight on our political conscience.

 The crisis of women’s representation

Women in Zimbabwe face a crisis of representation in all spheres of life but more consequentially in our politics. This is because of devil-may-care acerbic patriarchy and misogyny, pervasive patronage, undemocratic and often violent political culture.

To top this up, politics has become an expensive enterprise out of reach for most women who do not have access to or control of economic resources and assets.

While this is generally the character of our politics, women face a deeper problem of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment within the political arena, which further inhibits their participation.

I am not making a mountain out of a molehill, dear reader. To convince you that this is a problem, the devil is in the numbers, as they say!

Out of the 11 Presidential candidates, there is no single woman. And out of 637 candidates running for National Assembly in the 210 constituencies, only 70 are women.

That is 11% of the candidates, and there is no need to guess which way this percentage will go once Zec announces the duly elected candidates after August 23 2023.

I have heard some shameless commentators howling that this is a drop from 14% in the 2018 election. Really! Is that even a respectable comparative baseline?

Women represent a legitimate voice within the political discourse and such a voice can be brought to the fore if they are adequately represented in political institutions like Parliament. The democratic agenda can never be settled within the theatre of such brazen unfairness and inequality.

Self-styled democrats and students of electoral processes have been harping on about the importance of a free and fair election and the determinants thereof.

 But none of them has ever told us for whom the elections should be fair. Just for political parties? How about for different groups in our society like women for instance?

I submit that elections should be fair for everyone including youth, women, people with disability, minorities etc. How can an election be fair when women, who make up 52% of the population, make up only 11% of the election candidates?

Surely, if elections are an indispensable ritual for democratic entrenchment, inclusion must be part of the normative indicators that benchmark democratic elections.

Some may argue that there is a women’s quota, but social justice is not just about equality of outcome. It is more fundamentally about equality of opportunity.

Clearly, our political culture creates unequal opportunities for women to participate meaningfully. The failure of political parties to field an equal number of men and women as candidates point to problematic structural issues as well as the political culture and attitudes of those parties.

Such blatant disregard for gender justice cannot go unchallenged.

And must be confronted by redefining the normative standards for democratic elections. To pass this test, elections must be free, fair, and inclusive.

Quite frankly, political parties can address the crisis of women representation in a stroke of a pen. The nomination list is a product of political parties.

If the political leaders understood, accepted, and cared about equalising voices of men and women in the political discourse, they would have addressed it already.

It is the responsibility of organised society to hold these political parties accountable in delivering the promise of emancipation and equality. And, there lies the problem!

Political parties are not, in the strict sense, accountable to anyone!

Not even to the government and not even to their constituents! The party is a black box.

The party is a black box

Political parties in Zimbabwe are not regulated, meaning there is no framework for holding them accountable to society. While non-regulation may be a good thing to ensure governments, which are made up of rival parties, do not unduly interfere in the running of a political party, there are some issues, which clearly cannot be left to the whims of political parties. Like equal representation.

Meaningful women representation cannot be left at the mercy of parochial party interests and whims. It is a matter of national interest and if parties cannot guarantee it, they must be coerced to.

There is need to open the black box and shine a light on the plight of women in politics.

We must, as society use big stick diplomacy on political parties to quote, Theodore Roosevelt; "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far".

We have been speaking softly to political parties, but the big stick has been missing!

The big stick!

You may be wondering dear reader, what kind of mischief I am up to. I have not one, but two big sticks that we can carry as we have our conversation with political parties.

My line of thought is quite simple, we must introduce minimal yet effective political party regulation and electoral reform on gender equality with a particular intention to make gains in women representation.

The first such stick is to reform the Political Parties Finance Act and introduce conditionalities, which define irreducible minimums on women representation in political parties, as well as, in elections.

This stick can also be paired with a carrot. Political parties that surpass the minimum requirements can then be incentivised with  bonus funding per successfully elected woman candidate with a pro-rata basis from councillors to MPs, and President.

This will go a long way towards address the economic and financial disadvantages of female candidates emanating from economic inequalities skewed against women. You are probably thinking what I am already thinking would be the pitfall of this suggestion.

Political parties will just reduce this framework to a money making gimmick by window dressing and turning women to fundraising tokens.

But the money will just end up in pockets of potbellied men who occupy the powerful positions that distribute and control finances.

Women would still languish at the margins while the party enjoys a windfall in their name. To avert this very real inevitability, the internal governance of parties must be regulated.

This will ensure that adequate funding goes to female candidates, parties who benefit from the Political Parties Finance Act must deliver financial audits, be transparent.

Above that, they must hold congress regularly and adhere to their constitution, which must reflect be reformed to reflect gender representation regulations of the act.

Reform the women’s quota

The current women’s quota has been abused by political parties as a tokenistic and clientellistic mechanism for peripheralising and ‘othering’ women.

There is a babel of voices about what is wrong or right about the women’s quota. But the key takeaway is that currently, the world over, it is the only mechanism that has truly accorded more women a seat at the table. And now, there is no better alternative. Tell me of an intervention to increase women’s representation and I will tell you how it is either lip service, is explicitly opposed or tacitly ignored – undermined even, or all of these. Our society and especially political parties are  masters of indicating left and then turning right. Both literally and ideologically!

While the quota system is not adequately delivering the expected results, we must desist from throwing the baby away with the bath water.

Of course, the women’s quota MPs are unfairly held to a hypocritically, if not schizophrenically different - higher expectation than constituency MPs.

But that is a conversation for another day. The reality is that currently the quota system is the best hope for meaningful women representation in our political institutions.

However, as already conceded, it is not delivering as expected partly because it is abused by political parties.

To cure this, my second big stick would be to reform it from Proportional Representation to constituency representation. This would mean that each party would be expected, in each province, to field a certain mandatory minimum percentage of women candidates in constituencies.

The matrix of how they would do this will be up to the internal

nomination processes of political parties. They have proven over time to be creative in getting outcomes that they seek. This should not be an exception.

The sober view

The crisis of women representation is pervasive in all facets of society and must be tackled in robust ways for meaningful gains to be achieved. While it is a vestige of societal ills like patriarchy and capitalism supported by various institutions of socialisation, it can be easily addressed at political level if a firmer approach is employed.

For our political parties, I propose we speak to them softly and try to convince them that women exclusion in political institutions of the state is an injustice and a travesty of colossal proportions.

 To try and make them understand that the role of women in political parties cannot be reduced to singing and dancing and preparing meals for the male leadership.

Neither can it be reduced to sexual exploitation and abuse or for window dressing and tokenism. We must softly convince them of the immense benefits of inclusion of 52% of the population in the leadership of their political parties and in nomination lists for elections.

And we must carry a big stick. Infact, I propose we carry two!

This is my sober view; I take no prisoners!

  • Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter - @NtandoDumani


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