The power to stop gender-based violence

As multiple feminist scholars have pointed out, women face institutional, economic, social, and cultural factors that inhibit their agency, and access to political power is strongly affected by these.

Every year Zimbabwe and the world celebrate 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (GBV).

This year the theme was Unite! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls and the burning question implied in this must be what investment is needed.

Is it to implore men to change their ways?

To provide more support to the millions of women who suffer GBV?

Or is it to see volence against women and girls (VAWG) and GBV as the tip of the iceberg, and hence to see that investment means an extraordinary complex change in the whole world order?

Ultimately, violence against women (VAW) and GBV are manifestations about power, or actually about lack of power, and are the outcome of hundreds of years in which patriarchy has structured every aspect of human life.

 As multiple feminist scholars have pointed out, women face institutional, economic, social, and cultural factors that inhibit their agency, and access to political power is strongly affected by these.

 In part the solution for women accessing political power is the adoption of a proportional representation electoral system and moving away from first-past the-post systems (FPTP) systems, but this can be addressed through quotas as Zimbabwe amongst other African countries has done.

Most Sadc countries, 12 of them, retain FPTP electoral systems, and of these, only the DRC, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe ameliorate the discrimination against women through having gender quotas. Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, and South Africa have PR systems, and of these countries, Mozambique (38.4%), Namibia (45.3%), and South Africa (45.3%) are countries with the highest number of female parliamentarians.

The point about representation is that it is not the only way, but a very important way in which women can craft policies that empower them, and obviously policies about eliminating VAWG and GBV, but also the power to ensure that policies are implemented vigorously.

Furthermore, to craft policies that address all the factors that enable VAWG and GBV; institutional, economic, social, and cultural, for all these factors are not independent of each other, but interact in a complex, mutually reinforcing fashion.

Now, some countries have addressed all these disabling factors successfully, and this has undoubtedly resulted in minimising VAWG and GBV.

Does representation make a difference?

The world average for women in parliament according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union has grown substantially since 1995, from 11% to 27%, but it is evident that this is uneven across the regions of the world.

The Pacific (excluding Australia and New Zealand), Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa are below the world average, and the last substantially so.

The Americas, Europe, and (surprisingly) sub-Saharan Africa are at or above the average, the Americas and Europe markedly so.

Now the World Health Organisation points out the world average for GBV in 2018 is around 13% of women experiencing GBV, and as can be varies across the regions of the world.

The Americas and Europe have the highest numbers of women in parliament and the lowest rates of GBV.

Sub-Saharan Africa also has high percentages of women in parliament, but the highest rate of GBV. So, other factors apart from representation must be operating.

It is interesting that the same regions that have high numbers of women in parliament are also those that have high GDP and low rates of GBV.

Clearly these are regions in which the institutional, economic, social, and cultural factors that discriminate against women have been reduced, and in which women have power in all areas of life.

Admittedly, this a very crude model for understanding how to eliminate VAWG and GBV, but it does suggest that this can only be done by adopting a holistic approach to the problem.

This is obviously not a simple exercise but would be helped considerably if women wielded serious political power and were able to affect policy making in a substantial way.

Zimbabwe provides an interesting case study and a challenge to the quota system.

There has been a steady decline in the number of women contesting elections.

In 2018, women candidates were 14% of those contesting for the national assembly, but this had dropped to 11% in 2023. Women were 17% of candidates contesting for local authority seats in 2018, but only 14 % in 2023.

 However, 60 women were appointed to parliament through the quota system, but does this convey access to political power?

The quota does not convey real political power as the FPTP system, allied to the “whipping” system that operates generally in FPTP systems, means that those in the quota are subject to the party as their constituency and not to actual constituents.

 Their role in parliament is to support the party only, and this clearly diminishes their voice and participation.

 Now, this is not a trivial problem as was seen in the Brexit process in the UK: Conservative party members who were not supportive of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union were whipped into line, with the consequence that that a “majority” voted in favour of withdrawal, but this was effectively only 37% of the electorate, and worse than this, only represented 26% of the UK population.

This demonstrates the power of the “whipping” system in FPTP systems, as well as the problem that such systems usually end up in two-party systems, and often highly polarised systems.

Thus, for women in such polarised systems, and especially those there due to quotas, the possibility of voicing independent views from the party is minimal. So, what does this have to do with preventing VAWG and GBV?

 Representative power is fundamental for determining policy direction, and to be able to address for women the institutional, economic, social, and cultural factors that affect their lives, including GBV.

Take one example, the effects of “bullying” and “incivility”. RAU raised these undesirable behaviours, very frequently aimed at women, in the 16 Days in 2021.

We pointed out that there is probable extension from the common acceptance of bullying and incivility through to the more deviant behaviours of sexual harassment, rape, and GBV.

We also pointed out that incivility may be culturally acceptable in the patriarchal society that is Zimbabwe.

The point is that both bullying and incivility have been shown to have profound long-term effects on the victims, and if part of a life-long process of discrimination for girls and then women, would have serious implications for agency.

There are many other areas in which progressive policy can minimise the institutional, economic, social, and cultural barriers for full, effective power for women. So, what could be done?

 Let’s start with the xonstitution and the demand for absolute gender equality, and this is not negotiable.

Think about women in Zimbabwe having “real” representative power and the power to create policies and see them implemented to address incivility, for example.

 Start at school, from the earliest days in school and ensure that the whole educational process is scaffolded by gender equality; in the curriculum, in the classroom, and rolled out into the community.

To some extent this has already happened: how else to explain that young men and women equally believe in gender equality.

For example, in 2017, both older and younger Zimbabweans believe strongly in gender equality, and young men are now different to young women, although there are signs from young women in 2020 who believe this contract is weakening.

But the behavioural changes that this kind of policy would have would feed quickly into other aspects of life.

For example, incivility in the workplace would be weakened. Feminist scholars believe that the single most important factor in ensuring women’s representation is a strong, independent women’s movement, and that presumably means standing apart from political parties.

To this might be added that the utility of having women’s wings in political parties might be challenged as well.

 Although there are many issues around policy that are peculiar for women, the major issues about policy developed within political parties are surely little different to the issues needed to be addressed in parliament: hence, why are not women embedded within the main body of political parties?

Why are women siloed out of the main body of the political party? Why have quotas when women can be mainstreamed through changing from FPTP to PR?

VAWG and GBV are not merely a “women’s” issue, but issues for all society, and will quotas be the way forward for addressing the institutional, economic, social, and cultural factors inhibiting women’s full participation and the ability to change the policy direction to address these?

The point at the end is that VAWG and GBV are not siloed issues for women, but are symptoms of a much more complex problem, gender equality, and will need addressing, not merely through equalising representation, but implemented from the national to the home and community, and better if it is driven bottom-up.

Representation may not be the panacea, but if it is the way for women to wield real power and determine effective policies, perhaps Zimbabwe should start thinking seriously about this. Perhaps this is the start of the investment needed to prevent VAWG and GBV.

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