As Zimbabwe prepares for the 2023 general elections, women who aspire to participate in politics face numerous challenges, including stereotypes, violence, and patriarchal dominance.
Within the landscape of Zimbabwean politics, women’s representation remains disproportionately low. Discrimination and gender bias have long plagued the nation’s political arena, stifling the potential contributions of talented and capable women leaders.
This issue, however, has not gone unnoticed. Advocacy groups and prominent figures are calling for change, emphasizing the importance of equal representation in politics.
According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a civil society organization that monitors elections, only 15 per cent of the candidates who contested in the 2018 harmonized elections were women. This was a decline from the 16 per cent recorded in the 2013 elections.
The ZESN also noted that women faced various forms of violence and intimidation during the electoral process, such as physical attacks, verbal abuse, threats, and harassment.
One such case was that of Thokozile Dube, a 61-year-old farmer who represented the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) in a local government by-election in Matabeleland South province in March 2022. She told Al Jazeera that she was attacked by a gang of assailants who stormed her yard at twilight, carrying stones and shouting obscenities.
She said they were supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) candidate vying for the same position. “They parked just outside the gate and forced their way into my yard under the orders of Silibaziso Nkala and other leaders in their party,” she said. “My tormentors were mostly youths who had constantly dissuaded me from contesting in the polls.”
Dube’s experience is not unique. Many women who dare to challenge the status quo face similar ordeals of misogyny, sexism, and hegemonic masculinity.
A case in point is former first lady Grace Mugabe, who was subjected to brutal sexist vitriol when she was perceived to have presidential aspirations ahead of the November 2017 military coup that ended her husband Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule.
She was framed as the biblical Jezebel and prostitute who had taken advantage of an aged Robert Mugabe to instigate a bedroom coup and capture the executive. During the demonstrations that demanded Robert Mugabe’s resignation, protesters appealed to then Army General Constantino Chiwenga to thwart Grace’s ambitions by bringing in a ‘boob-less’ commander-in-chief (President Emmerson Mnangagwa).
Such narratives demonstrate how women are objectified and dehumanized in Zimbabwean politics, where they are seen as either cheerleaders or threats to male politicians. They also show how politics and state institutions are constructed as masculine domains, which are seen as naturally controlled and led by males. This has implications for women’s participation and representation in decision-making platforms, as well as for democracy and development.
However, some women’s rights activists and organizations have been advocating for more women’s involvement in politics and elections, as well as for an end to gender-based violence and discrimination. They have suggested various solutions to increase women’s participation in the political space.
Emilia Bundo, media and information officer at ZESN, said: “There can be an introduction of intra-party quotas to promote the participation of more women in politics. Women’s leadership should be strengthened through training and mentoring. There is also a need for media campaigns on the representation and participation of women. There is a need for the political will of those in power to create an enabling environment for women to participate in politics and election processes.”
Netsai Mushonga, a former commissioner at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), said: “Political parties are critical in implementing gender balance because they are the ones that select candidates for elections. The Electoral Commission of South Africa has the power to sanction political parties if they are any electoral malpractice.”
She added that there is also a need for legal reforms to ensure that the constitutional provisions on gender equality are implemented and enforced. She cited the example of Section 17 of the constitution, which states that “the state must promote full gender balance in Zimbabwean society” and “take all measures, including legislative measures, needed to ensure that both genders are equally represented in all institutions and agencies of government at every level”.
It is worth noting that Zimbabwean legislation has made efforts to advocate for equal representation in politics. Statutes such as the Electoral Act and the Constitution of Zimbabwe outline the principles of equality, non-discrimination, and the need for women’s full and effective participation in political processes. These laws provide a foundation upon which further progress can be built.
However, while the laws exist, their implementation and enforcement remain crucial. The Electoral Commission of Zimbabwe (ECZ) should wield its power to ensure that political parties adhere to these statutes and sanction any instances of electoral malpractice, including discrimination against women. Holding political parties accountable for promoting gender equality would send a powerful message and contribute to levelling the playing field for aspiring women politicians.
As Zimbabwe gears up for the 2023 elections, it remains to be seen whether women will have a fair chance to participate and compete in politics without fear or favour. It also remains to be seen whether the state and society will respect and uphold their rights and dignity as equal citizens.