LINDA Masarira is arguably the most vilified politician in Zimbabwe. This is not because of any outrageous political stance on her part but only because of her biology – being a woman.
Or so she believes.
These abuses, the Labour Economics and Afrikan Democrats (Lead) president opines, are only serving to scare women from aspiring for political leadership – especially those who feel their skin is not thick enough to endure the defamation – who are in the majority.
“Most of the times when a woman stands up and says l want to be a councillor, l want to be MP, or I want to be President or l want to be involved in politics, [she is subjected to] a whole lot of names that she is loose, she is not wife material, and a whole lot of things attached to you.
“Body shaming comes along the way and most women are not brave enough to stand all those things that are said to women in politics and we end up having few women participating in political processes in this country,” Masarira said.
The number of women contesting for elected political positions has been on the decline as abuse of women, including cyber-bullying, has been on the rise in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe Media Monitors (ZMM) reports show a significant decline in women’s participation at all levels of candidacy between the 2018 and 2023 elections.
In 2018, 17 contested the presidential seat and in 2023 only 9% contested, representing an 8.7% decline. For the National Assembly, 15% contested in 2018 and 11% in 2023, a 4% decrease. For the local authority elections in 2018, 17% of participants were women, with the numbers falling to 14.9% in 2023 – a 2.1% fall.
Masarira, who has been a member of the Movement for Democratic Change and People’s Democratic Party before forming LEAD, which she considers a “feminist transformation political party”, believes the marginalisation and discrimination of women is both structural and systemic across all the country’s major political formations.
She contends that they are often relegated to pursue illusions of power while their male counterparts contest and claim influential positions.
“Women are structurally and systematically marginalised in political leadership. For example, in political parties they are clustered into a women’s wing or a women’s league, depending on the structures of the political party.
“Whilst they are in those wings, they are most prone to be fighting against themselves for an illusion of powers that is non-existent,” Masarira said.
The Lead president said the women’s departments are condemned to the fringes of their respective political party decision-making bodies.
“You find that when they get into the politburo, in the instance of Zanu PF, there is only one woman from the whole women’s league who actually goes and sits in the politburo. In the standing committee of the MDC-T, it is only the women’s chair of the women’s wing that goes to sit in the standing committee and in other political parties who have a women’s wing it’s just one woman who sits in there,” Masarira said.
With women fighting for fringe positions, power remains the preserve of men, she said.
“When it comes to the most powerful positions which will be the main wings or the politburo, or whatever you call it in different political parties, you find out it will be men jostling for those positions of power, which leaves women marginalised in the so-called women’s leagues or wings that have got no power at all, so when we talk about women being structurally marginalised it is the political parties the way they are structured,” Masarira added.
Media lecturer and political analyst Dr Alexander Rusero said the marginalisation of women in politics is due to a culture that perceives women as subordinate to men.
“Does Zimbabwe have a political culture that regards women as equals? The question is not about readiness because Zimbabwe like any other progressive states should be ready for women in leadership positions, but it’s not much about Zimbabwe but the political parties and the political culture.
“Do we have a culture that regards women equals in as much as political contest, political participation, political appointment, and occupation of political leadership positions are concerned? I would say no! That political culture is not there,” Rusero said.
Dr Rusero said the treatment of women in politics in the country was heavily influenced by the ruling party’s attitude towards women.
“Whatever political culture our country has is heavily reflected by the ruling party of the day. So, the Zanu PF ruling party as much as it has got a whole dedicated wing of the women’s league and with the noise that they make does not correlate with the number of women in positions of leadership in Zanu PF, because besides Amai Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, there is no one occupying a meaningful position both at government and party level…
“So, you see there is no political culture that regards women as equals, ” he said.
Dr Rusero noted that Zimbabwe’s political leadership status is not reflective of its population demography where women outnumber men.
“Our country is not reflective of its population demography where women outnumber men, if you look at Zanu pf presidium, government ministers, and deputy ministers. How many women do we have?
“If you go to the opposition, it’s even worse, it’s even pathetic, at least Zanu PF has got some postures. Deep down its conscience, Zanu PF knows. The opposition, they are actually clueless, it’s a boy’s game and there is not even any effort to invest in women despite that there are also talented opposition figures who are women,” he said.
Dr Rusero added that the change that can happen to accommodate women is the change of political culture.
“You can only resolve this by changing the culture and culture is very notorious because it’s something you hardly change overnight unfortunately, but we need to change the political culture and the instruments are there. We cannot talk of regional, national and continental protocols because all the legislations are there, including a Gender Commission, but the culture of adhering to what we have adopted, legislated and domesticated, it’s not there. So, it’s about how we can foster the idea of parity of gender, that tolerates the ideas of equity and equality between and amongst genders,” Rusero said.
The Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC) says women’s competency in leadership is not in question in various sectors including Parliament, ministerial positions and corporate realm, showcasing their competence and effectiveness.
Despite these achievements, challenges persist primarily due to structural socio-cultural, economic and political barriers.
ZGC chief executive officer Viginia Muwanigwa said the patriarchal nature of Zimbabwean society also contributes to the decline in female participation in politics.
“The participation nature of our Zimbabwean societies also contributes to the declining numbers. Gender stereotypes and discrimination mean women often face negative stereotypes and discrimination in politics, which discourage them from running for office or getting involved in political campaigns,” Muwanigwa said.
Muwanigwa also said lack of resources discourages women from running for office due to high financial requirements for candidacy.
“High financial requirements for candidacy for women participating in politics disproportionately affects women due to resource disparities,” Muwanigwa said.
She noted that the first-past-the-post electoral system used for direct elections does not in principle enable proportional representation of women and men in the general elections. Likewise, intra-party obstacles arise from constitutions, male-dominated structures, procedures and systems negatively affect women’s equal representation, resulting in declining numbers in women’s participation in elections.
Muwanigwa added that the Gender Commission has undertaken initiatives to address challenges.
“Zimbabwe Gender Commission has undertaken various initiatives to address these challenges effectively. These efforts include providing training and mentorship to women with political aspirations through partnerships like the Women Rise in Politics (WRlP) program in collaboration with UN Women.
“Additionally, the ZGC conducts gender audits of political parties to assess their commitment to gender equality and identify areas for improvement in supporting women candidates.
“Recommending changes to laws, customs and practices is also our key focus, with lobbying efforts aimed at reducing systemic barriers to women’s participation in politics and promoting fair and accurate reporting on women’s participation,” Muwanigwa said.
According to a ZMM report on elections, the media has also played a role in the marginalisation of women in politics, particularly around election reportage.
It noted that women’s voices constituted only 11% while men constituted 89% of the news sources, which reflects a continuation of a trend from 2018 when women comprised 9% of news sources.
The report notes that political party systems sidelined women through the construction of politics and elections as masculine spaces.
The report also states that the transfer of patriarchy into the space outside of the home creates imbalances and perpetuates segregation of women.
Citizens on their own are also influencing the withdrawal of women from the electoral space through online gendered violence on social media. This behaviour contributes to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and biases amplifying gender-based discrimination and misinformation.
*This article was supported by the Canadian Embassy in Zimbabwe in partnership with the Centre for Public Interest Journalism (The NewsHawks)