Zimbabwe main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance supporters lead by Nelson Chamisa march for electoral reforms to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) in the streets of the capital Harare. (Photo by Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)
Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections in 18 months’ time, but women are reluctant to have their faces appear on ballot papers.
Women here know only too well that in politics, sticks and stones literally break bones, and name-calling is part of the gladiatorial politics in a country where each election cycle is greeted with violence. From party primaries to national elections, the violent nature of the contests is the history of Zimbabwe, with little being done to provide safe spaces for women candidates.
A 2017 study by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) provided a grim summary: “Seventy-four percent of women said they were not interested in participating in elections for fear of violence.”
Because running a political campaign demands resources, women, who earn less than men in Zimbabwe, find it difficult to compete. The ZEC study lamented that the Political Parties Finance Act does not provide for campaign financing, effectively shutting the door to public office on women.
“Politics is capital-intensive and many women cannot afford to run for public office. Women just don’t have the resources even as we head for the 2023 elections,” said Tabitha Khumalo, a legislator and national chairperson of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance.
“Though political parties may have 50:50 gender policies, there are still other issues such as stereotypes that have to be overcome that include views from male members of the same political party that women cannot be leaders,” Khumalo said.
Gender activists contend that the country has systematically failed to ensure that gender parity is achieved in electoral processes.
“The nature of politics in Zimbabwe is too toxic towards women,” said Gillian Chinzete, programmes coordinator at the Centre for Community and Economics and Development, a grassroots organisation pushing for women’s participation in public office.
“For women to openly participate without fear of victimisation, the media is critical [because] women are often depicted in unfavourable terms.”
That toxicity is made evident in the 2018 International Foundation for Electoral Systems report, Violence Against Women in Elections: A Framework for Assessment, Monitoring and Response, which carries testimonies from women.
“A woman still cannot question a [male] MP in parliament without being told her thighs are too big,” one respondent said.
“If a woman candidate is unmarried, she is accused of entering politics to find a husband and it is said, ‘If she can’t run a household, how can she run a constituency?’” the report’s authors were told by another respondent.
Lobbyists say more needs to be done by both state and non-state actors if women are to claim their place in politics.
“The inclusion of women in elections should be a process to address cultural and structural norms that are hindering effective participation of women in elections,” said Abigail Siziba, the gender officer at the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association.
“Gender activists should especially mobilise because having female leaders is the root of achieving what they are fighting for. Violence in elections is a national problem in Zimbabwe and intolerance to violence should be taught by all political parties,” Siziba said.
The scales remain tipped against women in political participation despite a post-2018 election report by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) noting that more women registered to vote in 2018 than in previous electoral cycles, with women making up 54% of the voters’ roll.
“Despite the increase, the actual number of women who are represented in parliament fell by 2%. Only 26 women were elected in 2018 as compared to 29 in 2013,” the report observed.
Although the ruling Zanu-PF has encouraged women party members to take on men in primaries, breaking the glass ceiling amid violence and gunshots clearly demands uncommon valour.
After the 2018 elections, President Emmerson Mnangagwa expressed disappointment that his party had failed to increase the number of women legislators. Yet an analysis by the Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU) found that in the past three elections, the number of women candidates tripled.
The recent Zanu-PF elections for party positions that were marred by violence and alleged irregularities have only added to concerns about the bruising nature of the country’s politics that has pushed women to the periphery.
According to a ZESN count, a record 23 candidates contested the 2018 presidential election, but only four of the 23 candidates were female. Compared with previous elections, the number of presidential candidates significantly increased — in 2008 and 2013 there were no female candidates.
“Women are coming forward as candidates for elections but they contest those elections under incredibly difficult and unfair conditions,” said Sakhile Sifelani-Ngoma, WiPSU’s executive director.
It is not yet known how many — if any — women will throw in their hats for the big prize in the 2023 poll: president of Zimbabwe.