Women lose out as percentage of women in Parliament decreases

Date: January 1, 1970
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While Zimbabwe continues to wait anxiously for the official announcement of the Presidential polls, it is no secret that in the Parliamentary polls, women emerged the biggest losers. Just twenty-eight women, representing 13 % of the contested legislative seats were elected to the House of Assembly on March 29.

Numerically, there are now more women in Parliament simply because of the increase in the number of Parliamentary seats from 120 to 210. However, percentage wise, women’s presence in the August House is down by almost 3 %.  This is a small, but worrying, decline.
The 13 % representation is below half the Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of at least 30 %.  It is disheartening that three years since the target was set and despite the efforts of gender activists, Zimbabwe has failed to make the grade.
The temptation is great to assuage the pain of defeat by making excuses. Yes, the stakes were against the 99 women who contested.  The women candidates had to overcome the age-old gender based challenges of balancing politics with family obligations. 
Additionally, while male contenders concentrated on selling their manifestoes, women candidates had first to convince the electorate that they were serious politicians who deserved their votes.  Some candidates had the added challenge of dispelling whisperings that they were contesting to fulfill the political plots of powerful male politicians.
Still many questions remain. Why did the women candidates perform so dismally given the pro-women initiative various political parties put in place during party primary elections to select candidates?
For instance, the two main political parties ZANU PF and the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, reported they had set aside constituencies for female candidates in attempts to meet the 30 % quota.  The rationale was that women candidates would have easy passage to the nomination courts without facing competition from male colleagues in party primaries.
The criteria used to select constituencies for affirmative action was not publicised.  The pattern that seemed to emerge during nomination was that parties allocated constituencies to women where tough competition was expected from rival political parties.  Essentially, women became cannon fodder expended to save the political reputations of men. 
That women candidates sheepishly agreed to the contest in the allocated constituencies without question brings me to the next issue: Just how politically suave are these sisters? From my interactions with some of the candidates, especially those in Bulawayo, it became apparent that the majority were politically naive.  They assumed that since their parties had reserved constituencies for them, their success at the polls was automatic.
Some of the female candidates did not fully comprehend that campaigning was mostly personal effort and that they had to take the bull by the horns as it were, and reach out to voters without waiting for the party to take the lead.  A few were quite content to put off their campaigns and go to help male colleagues canvass.  In such scenarios, the irony was that women competed against each other to ensure a man a seat in Parliament.
Campaign resources were scarce for all candidates.  Admittedly, the economic meltdown took its toll and the traditional rally-cum-feasts were less, campaign literature was limited and T-shirts were even fewer.  Most candidates resorted to door-to-door campaigns to overcome skyrocketing fuel prices.  Most male candidates managed to get by and put up visible campaigns drawing on donations from businesspeople.
However, for women, the scenario was very different.  Most did not own cars of their own, forcing them to rely on well-wishers for vehicles.  A candidate aptly summed up the situation when she said, "While the men I am running against are busy looking for fuel, I have to start by thinking where to get a vehicle to pour the fuel into.  So I have decided to just buy my campaign teams matommy (cheap canvass shoes) and get on with the campaign."
Another candidate failed to do much because of fear to approach potential donors.  "How do I ask for help from men?  I am used to staying at home. I’m nervous to ask for help from businessmen," she confessed.  She justified her fears by saying she had had little interaction with businesspeople in the past which was limited to worker/employer exchanges.
One plus factor on the side of the women was the genuine desire to lead and represent their constituencies.  Sadly, however most of the candidates had not quite grasped expectations of them. 
You heard candidates making all sorts of promises of how they would uplift the welfare of voters.  It just was never clear why they needed to go to Parliament to help the poor find food and receive medical care.  Many of the candidates men included relied heavily on their political parties to piggyback them to Parliament.
Some of the candidates were women of substance, but they still failed to win.  Women like Priscilla Misihayirambwi-Mushonga and Trudy Stevenson immediately come to mind.  In their case, I guess they were caught on the wrong side of the political whirlwind. Zimbabweans mired in destitution, hunger, and disease wanted wholesale change and as a result, most voters were looking at what political parties offered rather than individual capabilities.
This is not to take anything away from the winning women.  They have what it takes to be politicians.  Their winning the polls is proof enough, but it will definitely be a while before most of them learn the ropes and gather sufficient confidence to articulate issues to advance the cause of Zimbabwean women.
More worrying about the results though is the fact that women failed to vote themselves into power.  Women at 52 % of the population constitute the majority of voters. Yet we failed to translate this majority into tangible representation among lawmakers.
With the losses still fresh on our minds, now is the time for Zimbabwean women to go back to the drawing board and start strategising for 2013.  Otherwise, our voices will get weaker and weaker in Parliament despite singing ourselves hoarse at political rallies. 
Miriam Madziwa is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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