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  • Inclusive government - Index of articles

  • Walking through parliament in high heels
    Prespone Matawira
    March 19, 2009

    This is the fifth article in the Chii Chirikuita (What-s Up?) series

    In an unprecedented move in Harare last week, women cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and MPs from across party lines gathered over lunch. They gathered to celebrate the women who contested the March 2008 elections and to continue the process of building and strengthening a cross-party women-s alliance in parliament in order to push forward a women-focused agenda.

    First to arrive was Lucia Matabenga MP (MDC-T (Movement for Democratic Change - Tsvangirai)); she was followed by Margret Zinyemba (MDC-T). Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, minister of regional integration and international cooperation (MDC-M (Movement for Democratic Change - Mutambara)), and the new Minister of Labour and Social Welfare Paurine Mpariwa (MDC-T) were joined by Flora Bhuka, head of Zanu PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front) women-s league. Next came Deputy Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Jessie Majome (MDC-T), Sekai Holland MP (MDC-T), Fay Chung and Rudo Gaidzanwa - who stood as independents (linked to Muvambo) - and Mai Dandajena (MDC-T), a long-time community activist and now a senator. Former Minister of Women-s Affairs Oppah Muchinguri (Zanu PF) called in an apology, along with Olivia Muchena (Zanu PF), current minister of women affairs, gender and community development, and former Minister Shuvai Mahofa (Zanu PF). Still they continued arriving.

    Despite the creation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development, which stipulates that women should hold equal positions to men in both public and private sectors by 2015, there are no provisions for quotas as a way of advancing the representation of women in publicly elected bodies in the current Constitution of Zimbabwe (1980) or the electoral laws.

    Political parties are left to their own devices on this score and the effective participation of women has been dramatically limited by the closed political environment and the 'political competition and contestation- that has characterised opposition politics in Zimbabwe in the last 12 years.

    Women were caught and sacrificed in the party politics that characterised the last elections, both literally and figuratively. Consequently, there is a low representation of women politicians in the inclusive government, in fact the lowest in 15 years: only four women are part of the 35-member cabinet. Women make up 14 per cent of the House of Assembly and 33 per cent of the Senate.

    But getting bogged down in the math is tiring.

    Quotas are a step forward, but numbers are not enough. Quotas arose out of a feminist strategy to get women into parliament as a means of representing, fighting for and being accountable to the needs and issues of women as a constituency. It was ultimately one of a number of strategies to ensure transformation and subsequently true and meaningful freedom for women. But as we-ve discovered, just because you are in a women-s body doesn-t necessarily mean you embody a transformatory politics. As we-ve also discovered, a depoliticized uptake of quotas prevents the adoption of a political culture whereby women, however they may be positioned, are integrated into the political system. Quotas can circumvent meaningful structural change.

    Listening to the conversations around the table that day, I realised that once in, women face different challenges. Quotas do not ensure real political participation or leadership by women, and women-s activities in parliament often remain marginal. 'Women-s issues-, for their part, become ghettoised and reduced to the implementation of 'gender policies-, often with a lack of financial resources to support their implementation.

    The dominant model of political leadership remains competitive, masculine, territorial, violent and dehumanising. This limits not only women but men with 'non-traditional- approaches too. Now more than ever we need not only alternatives, but people who are willing to break rank in order to make them a reality.

    The status quo is not going to do it for women in Zimbabwe, and the women sitting around the table know this. They know it for they have been in the patriarchal party political trenches.

    There are no 'women-s issues-. Every issue facing Zimbabwe right now involves and impacts on Zimbabwean women. Ask them, they will tell you.

    So. Where does that leave us?

    While I will always have a healthy scepticism about the extent of parliament as a radical site for change, my hope lies in the energetic and vital link that some of these women parliamentarians have with their constituencies through Constituency Consultative Forums, more commonly known as CCFs.

    Facilitated by a cutting edge women-s political support organisation, these structures have since 2005 been systematically established in constituencies where women MPs committed to women have served a term of office and/or were contesting elections, on both a Zanu PF or MDC ticket.

    The CCFs are comprised of a minimum of 70 women drawn from the various wards in the constituency. Members participate in political education programmes and exchange visits to other, rural or urban, constituency forums. The CCFs provide a support base for women MPs during elections, and their vibrancy and dynamism means that they also provide necessary checks and balances in terms of accountability after the elections.

    As a key organiser within the facilitation team commented, 'In areas with CCFs women contested elections and won. In the two areas where women lost, the tide of internal party politics was too strong. The CCFs are powerful structures and the women members know what they want.-

    In the chain of public participation in governance, we move from the CCFs to another interesting women-only space, the women-s parliamentary caucus. Many of the women who broke bread together that day were members of this body. From here, women MPs share, learn, support and strategise. Women can and have caucused on issues, put forward positions and have even creatively blocked things detrimental to women at large from passing through parliament. It-s certainly 'safer- for women MPs to come together under the banner of the women-s parliamentary caucus in order challenge the status quo than for individual women to do so!

    The party whip is never far away. It-s a fragile space.

    In this period of 'transition-, I guess my hope lies in the potential and possibilities of the space to contribute to a radical politics, a politics that centres on the needs and demands of ordinary Zimbabwean women wherever they may be found, and a politics committed to real and sustainable change, and not simply the transfer of power from one elite patriarchal group to the next. I hope for a politics that interrogates our current political culture and that refuses a paternalism that 'allows- women to have their quotas, thereby fulfilling regional and international obligations around governance, with very little else.

    No, this is not enough.

    In this period of transition, whether the women-s parliamentary caucus and the CCFs will haemorrhage from the wounds of partisan politics, be suffocated by the quest for individual power or be nurtured so that they can grow and form the beginnings of this new politics, remains to be seen.

    I for one will be listening, following the click-click of those heels as they walk from the far-flung districts through to the corridors of parliament.

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