Gender activists remember Mwanawasa

Date: January 1, 1970
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The death of Zambian President and former Southern African Development Community (SADC) chair Levy Patrick Mwanawasa is a gloomy moment for Zambia. Among his many other achievements, gender activists and women in the country will fondly remember him for his strides forward to encourage gender equality and improve the status of women in the country.

Although Zambia still has along way to go, Mwanawasa’s recognition of women’s capabilities in decision-making roles and steps to recognise the importance of addressing gender issues should be an inspiration to continue along the path he began. 
Under Mwanawasa’s leadership, the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (November 25-December 10) took on a whole new meaning in the nation.  With his encouragement, the Gender in Development Division (GIDD), the government gender machinery under the President’s office, spearheaded strategies to respond to gender based violence. Even now, the GIID is already busy preparing for this year’s 16 Days campaign.
Zambian women warmly welcomed Mwanawasa’s declaration of 8 March, International Women’s Day, as a national holiday with effect from 2007. Women’s organisations had had been pushing for the holiday for a long time, arguing that commemorating this day would signal government commitment to women’s issues in the country. The declaration elated women who saw it as another opportunity to highlight often-neglected gender issues.
To enhance gender equality Dr. Mwanawasa also created the Ministry of Gender and Women in Development in 2006, considered a milestone to further enhancing how government addresses women’s issues. In recent years, the country has seen increasing participation of both government ministries and the private sector in efforts to address the inequalities that both contribute to and result from gender violence.
On Zambia’s political front, Mwanawasa recounted in one of his speeches that his government had registered some success promoting gender equality, doubling the number of women parliamentarians from 6.3% in 1991 to 12.6% in the current Parliament; and out of 21 Cabinet ministers, five are women. These include Sylvia Masebo (Local Government), Catherine Namugala (Community Development), Sarah Sayifwanda (Agriculture), Dora Siliya (Communication and Transport) and Patricia Mulasikwanda (Gender).
Dr Mwanawasa also appointed several women to positions of power. His last appointment was Florence Mumba as Electoral Commission of Zambia chairperson. Justice Mumba took over from yet another woman, Ireen Mambilima who is the new deputy chief justice.  
Other positions of note given to women are at the level of permanent secretary. Line ministries also have a host of female directors.  The Auditor General Anna Chifungula is a woman. Her deputy, Regina Chilupula is also a woman.
A woman, Mable Mungomba, heads the Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission. Beatrice Nkanza runs the Lusaka Stock Exchange.  Women run several parastatal companies including the Zambia State Insurance Corporation and the Zambia National Building Society.
Although these figures are still far from the 30% representation that SADC has committed to, and the 50% outlined in the just signed Protocol on Gender and Development, they still represent initial moves towards creating an environment conducive to gender equality and encouraging women in decision-making. 
These moves forward are very important in a country that currently experiences very low levels of women in decision-making. In the mainstream civil service, female representation at permanent secretary level is reportedly 25%, directors 23%, deputy directors, 18%, diplomatic staff, 22 % cent and assistant directors, 25%. Women face many cultural and social stereotypes when it comes to participating in decision-making.
Following his death on 19 August, Zambians were accorded an opportunity to pay their last respect to the president. His body was taken to all the nine provincial centres for viewing, attracting a host of mourners including senior government official, diplomats, church leaders, and civil society.
Though Mwanawasa was put to rest on 3 September, the nation’s mourning will likely continue for some time. Hopefully, as an honour to the work that he started, the government will continue, and build on, efforts to strengthen gender equality in the country.
Violet Nakamba Mengo and Arthur Mwnasa write from Zambia.  This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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