Women’s Representation in Electoral Processes: Challenges and Prospects

This activity highlight briefly presents highpoints from a discussion on the participation of women in electoral processes that was moderated by ZESN on the Electoral Reform Advocacy Cluster and the ZESN Electoral Dialogue WhatApp groups from 20 to 24 April 2020.

Introduction

In the week 20-24 April 2020, ZESN moderated a discussion on the participation of women in electoral processes on two WhatsApp platforms, The Electoral Reform Advocacy Cluster and the ZESN Electoral Dialogue groups. Issues discussed included the 50/50 provision of women representation in the Constitution, the Women’s quota for National Assembly and Local Government. Participants in this discussion hailed from different Civil Society organizations, including the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCOZ), The Centre for Applied Legal Research (CALR), Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE), Southern Africa Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST), National Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH), the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and the Female Prisoners Support Trust (FEMPRIST).

It was noted that Section 3 of the ZESN Electoral Amendment Bill contains provisions requiring Parliament and Council to reflect gender parity at all times, contrary to the current status quo. It was agreed that there is a need to address issues of gender parity more comprehensively.

The debate on the quota system saw many participants in agreement that it has been more like a notion of tokenism and has not achieved much since its inception. The quota system seems to be just adding numbers that do not translate to value. Many of the women under this system behave like passengers who hardly contribute to driving national agenda issues. It was also observed that those who fill in the quota are mostly chosen on token and not on merit. According to some participants, the quota system is not of any value as it addresses symptoms and not the cause of the problem, hence, the system has not improved the quality of debate in Parliament or advanced women’s interests, instead it has created internal party conflicts and the abuse of women.

Furthermore, the quota members do not represent any constituency therefore they are not accountable to anyone and this has led to a bloated Parliament. One member suggested that it may be prudent to cut the size of Parliament and Senate to 150 people in total, that is, 100 people in the Lower House, 40 in the Upper House and 10 representing special interests.

The general consensus on the quota system was that it should be done away with as it limits the potential of women, rather, the focus should be on implementing the 50/50 provision as stipulated in Section 56 of the Constitution.

Causes of limited representation of women in decision making bodies

Participants noted that prescribing equal representation in elections is easy but how to achieve the 50/50 is a big challenge. Discussants also questioned why there are less elected women? Culturally, women are treated as “second class” citizens, which is an inheritance from the colonial era. There are so many social and cultural structures that hinder the full realization of women as leaders. In Zimbabwe men have been known to instill fear in women through name calling, intimidation, using money to sway women to vote for them and spreading misinformation. Political violence is rampant during primary and general elections, and the playing field is also not level, with less financial support for female candidates. The 50/50 notion seeks to counter such barriers.

Misogyny was also blamed for causing less women to participate in politics as some male politicians have been known to denigrate women’s efforts through spewing sexist comments which qualify as verbal violence. Female candidates face intense psychological violence, attacks on their moral probity and occasional physical violence as well as structural violence in political spaces. This has made politics unattractive to many women who would have made good leaders.

Another argument advanced was that the women themselves have not shown enough capability and interest in politics. It was said that in Zimbabwe very few women have demonstrated the zeal to lead, most have only been praise-singers, supporting men for leadership instead. Women were also blamed for not supporting their fellow women when they aspire to take up leadership. It was noted that sometimes women are used by men to smear campaign other women.

What needs to be done?

A number of proposals were put in place to find remedies of ensuring improved representation of women in decision making bodies. Many of these recommendations centered on the need to give the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) powers to regulate political parties and other bodies to ensure compliance with the Constitution’s 50/50 requirement. It was noted that it may be difficult for ZEC to enforce compliance as we do not have a law for the registration and regulation of political parties in place. However, ZEC can take the role of:

  • Stipulating the need for clarity on the penalties for non-compliance in law, for example by listing non-compliance with 50/50 requirements as an illegal practice.
  • Using the nomination process to penalize those parties that don’t comply with the 50/50 requirement on their nomination lists.
  • Enforcing the need for party lists should represent both genders. It should be mandatory for ZEC to reject party lists that do not include women.
  • Ensuring gender equality in the composition of election officials.
  • Using public funding as an incentive or penalty for non-compliance to gender parity. Examples of countries that use this approach include Burkina Faso, Albania, Ireland, Panama and Portugal. However, it was noted that this approach can only work where there is allocation before each party gets into Parliament. The current laws in Zimbabwe reward parties in Parliament after they reach a particular threshold.
  • Adding enforcement mechanisms to the Code of Conduct. Reforms should include sanctions and measures to whip into line those parties that go against these measures.
  • More effort should be put in place using existing civil society space, tertiary institutions, legal framework and influencing the political parties to accommodate more women in their structures.
  • Using Civic Education and Leadership Development programmers to empower women to take up leadership positions.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it was agreed that there is a need to do away with the quota system as it has failed to improve women participation in electoral processes. It was suggested that the best way forward would be to adopt ways and means of ensuring equal participation of men and women (50/50) in electoral processes.

Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)

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