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Women Rights Organisations Strategize for Democracy in Zimbabwe

FRIDAY FILE – Zimbabwe’s 31st July general election was largely peaceful but the credibility of the poll and the resulting landslide victory for the ruling Zanu PF has been questioned. AWID spoke to Netsai Mushonga–Mazvidza, National Coordinator of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) about their strategies to promote democracy in the country.

By Susan Tolmay

President Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party have been ruling Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from the British in 1980. The Southern African country has experienced major socio-economic, political and humanitarian crisis from 2006 – 2009. This was stemmed by the formation of a coalition government that led the country from 2009-2013, ending with the July 31 elections. While the 2013 elections were peaceful, the main opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), believe that the elections were a farce saying, "The credibility of this election has been marred by administrative and legal violations which affected the legitimacy of its outcome." While some international observers have praised the conduct of the election, the largest group of domestic observers, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), said the voting was compromised.

Elections and democracy

According to Netsai Mushonga–Mazvidza, the results of the election came as a shock, “people expected that there would be a very close race between ZANU PF and MDC-T, so the landslide victory for ZANU-PF was unexpected.” The women’s movement campaigned for a peaceful election, where people would be free to go and vote. Asked about their observations and credibility of the election, Mushonga–Mazvidza says, “Some of the observers that we dispatched to various parts of the country saw a lot of assisted voting in certain stations, mainly in rural areas, including teachers and headmasters, so very literate people. These were incidents that undermined the secrecy of the ballot. We also noticed intimidation in some voting stations, including taking down details of the people who were entering the voting stations and people who were told to come to vote at certain times. Some activities were also happening outside polling stations, which made them difficult to observe and keep track of.”

There were also challenges with the voter registration process for women, according to Mushonga–Mazvidza, “It was quite difficult to register to vote, especially in urban areas as there were fewer voting stations, there were stories of women who stood in queues for about four to five hours waiting to register to vote.” In addition, one of the requirements to register to vote was proof of residence, “and we know that many women in Zimbabwe don’t own property or it is not registered in their name, so they struggled to get registered, and then on voting day there were women who could not find their names on voters roll. This election was peaceful, but it presented many challenges to people, especially women, to vote.”

This was the first time women came together as a coalition to work on the elections. A ‘Women’s Situation Room’ (pioneered in Liberia, Senegal and Sierra Leone), was established, where women come together to discuss issues related to women and elections, plan and strategize as women. “We started a Campaign for Peace, where we met women leaders and took them through the advocacy campaign, calling on women to come out and vote and asking women to speak about their election experience because you usually don’t hear women speak on elections. Part of the situation room was getting women out there to observe elections, so with the few resources we had, we managed to have 150 women observe elections. While this may seem small, it is only the beginning and in the next elections we’ll improve on this and we’ll have a lot more women in all of the constituencies to come out and speak about their experiences and we’ll also ensure that there are enough women candidates. We also had an information centre, where people could access information, specifically related to women and elections in the various polling stations and we would send people to intervene is there was a challenge, so it was exciting to begin doing this work for the first time.”

“After the elections we began thinking about what we need to be doing as a way forward. We need to engage very actively with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and make sure that it becomes more gender sensitive and that it improves in terms of transparency, especially around registration of voters. But, the election has already happened and was endorsed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) with some reservations and we believe that any protestations at this point are water under the bridge. We have to be constructive, with thinking about what should we be doing from now to ensure that women participate more in the next election, so that we feel we own the elections and that they are more credible.”

Women in decision-making, quotas and backlash

These elections saw, for the first time, the implementation of a quota system. The quota which was strongly lobbied for in the new Constitution (May 2013), prescribes that 60 seats are set aside for women. And while this resulted in a large increase in women’s representation in parliament, from 19% in 2008 to 34% (32% in National Assembly and 48% in Senate), what in fact transpired, is that the actual number of women who were elected through the country’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) or “winner takes all” electoral system fell from 34 to 26.

Mushonga–Mazvidza says, “This was a huge shock, because we thought political parties, by now, have an understanding of the need to create a gender balance in all structures of governance. But we had quite a few powerful women being pushed out of their constituencies, like the former vice Prime Minister and the former Minister of Women’s Affairs (a renowned political strategist).” Mushonga–Mazvidza agrees that this result points to deeply entrenched patriarchy and backlash, “backlash from men and political parties who think that women now have 60 seats, so why give them more”. In the end 86 women came in, 60 on the quota and 26 through FPTP out of 270 positions in parliament. “There was quite a lot of disappointment for Zimbabwean women, because we expected something different, we have been drafting a new constitution and we have been raising a lot of awareness around the need for more women in parliament, but there were very few women.”

Addressing patriarchy head on

Patriarchy is alive and well in Zimbabwe, as evidenced by the backlash mentioned above, as well as, for example, the derogatory comments by Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe about South Africa’s International Relations Adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, referring to her as "stupid and idiotic ", after she spoke out against the Zimbabwean election date, saying Zimbabwe was not ready for elections and on a separate occasion, also calling her a "street woman." Raising the question, that if a woman in such a powerful position can be subjected to such a vitriolic and misogynistic attack, what about grassroots women voters and politicians?

But Mushonga–Mazvidza says that these traditional attitudes are changing with the newer generation that is coming into politics and rather than be discouraged by the sentiments expressed by the President and other leaders publicly, “We are thinking about how strategically we were positioned as women and who our allies are, powerful women and men who can support us in what we are doing. One of the things we managed to do was to bring in Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, who came with seven women from the African region. The team managed to speak to the President and then Prime Minister to encourage them to ensure that women’s rights are explicit in the new Constitution. By the time Robinson left, President Mugabe was saying we need more women in leadership positions and constitution making. So this time around, we are also looking at who our allies are, how we use these 86 women parliamentarians and female vice president as a resource, work with and form strategic alliances with them and reach consensus on what is needed to take the country forward.”

Making elections a process rather than an event

The coalition has already held several strategy meetings due to the shifting political landscape and the consensus from their recent national conference was that work on gender and governance cannot be event based, but rather that it should be an ongoing process, “The work for the 2018 elections needs to begin now and it has to be ongoing. Our strategy at the political party level includes going to all political parties to demand that they have democracy within their parties and begin to respect their manifestos. We want to ensure that political parties are democratic and gender aware, and meet the gender demands they have set for themselves. In addition the work on civic education should be ongoing, rather than starting a year or a few months before the elections. All organisations in the coalition agreed that capacity should be built in all organisations so they are able to educate women on voting, mobilise women to join political parties and support women to be leaders in their political parties.”