Modern democracy “has inexorably come to mean representative democracy” (Bratton and Van de Walle, 1997, 11). If so, can a system where more than half of the population remains severely under-represented count as a true democracy?
Currently, of the 150 members of parliament (MPs) in Zambia, 16 are women, or 10.7%. In the cabinet there are two female ministers out of 28, and only four female deputy ministers out of 18. And yet women constitute more than half of the total population. We say all the right things; have signed all manner of protocols declaring our commitment to the increased participation of women in the political arena and yet the evidence shows that we continue to lag behind. And in this last election, we lost previously made gains.
When we address the issue of representation, many argue that this is not necessarily about discrimination but rather that many women in general are apathetic about politics and choose not to participate. The inherent weakness of this argument is it fails to underscore the barriers that exist in women’s representation in the legislative and executive branches of government, and does not adequately explain women’s reticence to stand for office.
These barriers include, but are not limited to the following: male-dominant culture, low levels of women’s activism within political parties, discriminatory adoption practices often dictated by the party head, lack of financial resources, and cultural constraints that confine women into gender specific roles.
Looking at Zambia’s political parties across the board, few women occupy high level, decision-making positions and this has a direct impact on the number of well qualified women who stand for election. We have the obligatory chairperson of women’s affairs which is just a shorter and politically correct title for “chief dancer and coordinator of dancing women cadres,” and not much else.
The opposition women face when they choose to enter politics is stiff. It often starts within their own homes and social groups, and extends further into political parties and among the electorate. This is characterised by media blackouts as well as hostile campaigns which are particularly demeaning and often sexist. It is not uncommon for a woman to articulate throughout her campaign how her husband supports her endeavours because anything short of that has her labeled as “untaught” or “rebellious.” Pity the single woman or divorcée without a man to give his blessing.
The lack of financial resources is also a significant barrier. Election campaigns are very costly. Party fundraising remains veiled in secrecy. And we often do not know who is making contributions or how the monies are distributed internally to candidates seeking election. But what we do know in speaking with past and present women MPs is that many women finance themselves because they are often not well established within the party elite to get the needed backing.
It is therefore unsurprising that many women have largely withdrawn from politics “taking their grievances to the NGO sector” where their voices can be heard and are valued (Geisler 1995, 545). With that said, there has been a resurgence of organisations lobbying for women’s political leadership, legislative and constitutional changes that are gender-sensitive and civic education focused on mentoring and teaching people about their rights as citizens.
In the past, all too often women's mobilization was co-opted by the male elite who used women's political energy for their own ends and forced a narrow agenda such as women’s morality (Geisler 1995, 562) and detracted from a much broader focus on issues that adversely affect women. This has been shifting, as more women realise that having a seat at the table is the best means of having a say in development of economic and social policies.
Women’s NGOs have been extremely effective is bringing public awareness to socio-economic issues affecting women and children such as child marriage, domestic violence, sexual harassment, health, property ownership and access to credit. This has been done through campaigns and seminars, and we now see this energy being channeled to build networks for women who go into politics.
Entry into political office, though significant it is just one step. Gender discrimination and sometimes sexual harassment continue to plague women in government. The prevalent view is that politics is a male domain, and as a result women feel the pressure to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to prove they have earned the right to be in their positions.
One missing element in Zambia’s parliament also inhibiting progress is the lack of cross-party collaboration. It is difficult to work with colleagues from other parties when the risk of party discipline looms large, and in an environment where women’s numbers are small to begin with; this limits the ability for women MPs to work under a united front on women’s issues and to be wholly effective.
Men and women bring diverse experiences and ideas to their positions as decision and policy makers. When women are not adequately represented in decision-making roles, especially at the national level, their rights and freedoms are often violated. We need to further develop and implement capacity building programmes to support women aspirants and potential candidates; NGOs have taken the lead and it is time for political parties to live up their promises and expectations. A true partnership between men and women must be established in our quest for sustainable development and more just world.
Bratton, M., Van de Walle, N. “Democratic experiments in Africa: regime transitions in comparative perspective.” Cambridge University Press (1997): 11
Geisler, Gisela. "Troubled Sisterhood: Women and Politics in Southern Africa." African Affairs 94 (1995): 545-578.
Bwalya Chileya is a Zambian living in the USA. She writes regularly on Zambia, politics, gender and sustainable development. You can read more at well known blog - Seize the Moment.
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