Women call for greater political role

A few weeks before municipal polls take place in most of Zimbabwe's major cities and towns, women lobbyists are calling for political parties to increase the number of female election candidates.

With women constituting 54 percent of the population, women's groups are agitating ahead of the local government elections on 30 and 31 August for representation in public office that better reflects the demographic ratio.

At the moment there are only 46 women representatives out of 333 councillors in urban councils, and far less in rural district councils.

Janah Ncube, director of the Women in Parliament Support Unit, a lobby group championing the cause for women's empowerment, says at just over 10 percent, women's representation in urban councils is extremely low.

She blames Zimbabwe's political system. "It is a system which seems to say women can't play roles that have an impact. The system of democracy allows everyone to contribute, but we often ask why women can't be given equal opportunity to play their part in national development."

In a Southern African Development Community (SADC) declaration in 1997, regional leaders agreed to a 30 percent target for female representation in their national political bodies by 2000. The Gender and Development Declaration also called for the repeal of all discriminatory laws, and the amendment of constitutions where necessary, to advance the status of women.

Not much has been done to amend the Zimbabwe constitution and legislate change to meet the 30 percent target, three years past the deadline. The slight improvement in recent years in women's participation in local government politics and civil society, is overwhelmingly concentrated in the lower ranks rather than senior decision-making levels.

"We are not seeing that change being put in place, although at political party level, [the ruling] ZANU-PF and [the opposition Movement for Democratic Change] MDC have pledged their commitment to put in quotas for women representatives," Ncube said.

Her organisation has written to all political parties, reminding them of the need to increase women participation at decision-making levels. The only party that visited the organisation to discuss the issue was the National Alliance for Good Governance (NAGG). "We were surprised, however, when NAGG gave us an excuse, saying while it would want to include women, no women in their party structures were forthcoming and wanting to contest. The MDC responded rather perfunctorily by saying that they will try, while ZANU-PF chose to remain quiet on the matter," Ncube noted.

Dryden Kunaka of the MDC election directorate said that with the current political violence and intimidation aimed at MDC candidates, his party was not encouraging women to stand. "Everyone knows the kind of political atmosphere we are operating in. Unless there is a change that allows candidates to campaign freely, without fear of harassment and intimidation, we will continue to see less women being nominated as candidates for local councils," he explained.

The MDC has filed a High Court petition seeking to compel the Registrar General to reconsider its candidates, barred from lodging nomination papers by pro-ZANU-PF mobs in urban centres such as Kariba, Marondera and Bindura.

Oppah Muchinguri, the only female provincial governor out of a total of eight, who is also a ZANU-PF Women's League executive member and non-constituency MP, says she is satisfied with government efforts to redress disparities in female representation in decision-making bodies.

"The number of women candidates for the council polls is increasing. We even have a female contestant for the mayoral post in Mutare," she said.

President Robert Mugabe recently endorsed university lecturer, Ellen Gwaradzimba, as his party's mayoral candidate for Mutare, Zimbabwe's third largest city, after protracted intra-party wrangles over the selection process threatened to derail ZANU-PF's mayoral campaign.