In a large hall at the headquarters of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, women responded with roaring cheers when President Emmerson Mnangagwa described them as the party’s “backbone” whose votes are vital to victory in elections scheduled for August.
At a recent opposition rally, women with the face of their male party leader emblazoned on dresses and skirts sang, danced and promised to vote for change — never mind that the election again represents a status quo where women are largely limited to cheerleading.
It appears worse this year because the number of women candidates has plummeted, despite women constituting the majority of the population and, traditionally, the biggest number of voters.
“We have some of the best laws and policies on gender equality and women representation, but that’s just on paper. The reality on the ground is that the role of women in politics is restricted to being fervent supporters and dependable voters,” said Marufu Mandevere, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Harare.
The shortage of women candidates puts Zimbabwe at odds with trends on the continent. According to a report released in March by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the number of women in national parliaments in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 10% in 1995 to about 27% in 2022. The IPU describes itself as a global organization of national parliaments established in 1889.
In Zimbabwe, a patriarchal southern African nation of 15 million people, gender-based biases are still rampant. Men have historically dominated the political, economic, religious and social spheres. The Aug. 23 election suggests that change could be beyond the horizon, despite vigorous local campaigns and global pressure for increased female participation in decision-making.
In the last election, in 2018, there were four female candidates for the presidency, a record. When registration closed on Jun. 21 this year, there were 11 male candidates — and no women.
In the end, one woman did manage to qualify for the ballot, but only just. Elisabeth Valerio was one of two women, along with Linda Masarira, who were rejected because they had failed to pay the $20,000 registration fee on time, up from $1,000 in 2018. In July, Valerio successfully challenged the decision in court.
For the National Assembly, there are 70 women candidates against 637 men in 210 constituencies. This represents 11% of candidates, down from 14% in 2018.
Parliamentary candidates must pay $1,000 to register, compared to $50 in the previous election — and that’s before the huge amounts necessary to compete in a country where vote-buying is rampant.
“Women have historically been squeezed out of the economic arena … That deprivation is now being used to elbow us out of the race for public office,” lamented Masarira. “Political leadership is a preserve of rich men.”
Many women chose to stay away rather than try to raise such “exorbitant fees,” she said.
Pressure groups are disappointed, especially after campaigning hard ahead of party primaries.
In February, major political parties signed a ”Women Charter”, pledging action to increase the number of women candidates under a #2023LetsGo5050 campaign driven by a coalition of women’s rights groups.
When candidate registration closed, the biggest political parties had fielded less than 12% women candidates each for the National Assembly, said Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence or WALPE, a local non-governmental organization.
WALPE described the numbers as a “slap in the face,” accused the parties of “tokenism” and threatened to campaign against them “as the only way” to demonstrate women’s determination for a seat at the table. The group is now running a campaign urging women voters to elect fellow women where they appear on the ballot.
Those women who do run for public office also endure derogatory stereotypes.
Take Judith Tobaiwa, an opposition politician, and the first female MP for a politically volatile constituency in central Zimbabwe. She is seeking re-election. But for her opponents, gender seems to trump the 35-year-old’s track record.
“What is so special about Judy … How different is she from other girls?” thundered a ruling party campaigner during a recent rally in her constituency. “If it’s about being a prostitute, we also have prostitutes in ZANU-PF,” he said to applause for the comments captured on video and later widely criticized by activists.
Yet, according to Mandevere, the human rights lawyer, females have proven to be effective leaders through many decades of multiple crises in Zimbabwe. These range from the HIV/AIDS pandemic that killed millions, to the coronavirus outbreak that left many women and girls as household heads, and a prolonged and debilitating economic meltdown that catapulted women to the forefront of fending for families.
“That’s the sad part. We are fine with women taking care of us at home during times of crisis, but we frown upon their ambitions when it comes to national politics,” he said.