JUST over two months after Zimbabwe held the controversial 23 and 24 August general election which was marred by a high number of court challenges, legal battles continue following the recalling of some opposition CCC legislators and councillors, including women who had made strides since the polls.
Among the recalled are two female mayors, Shantel Chiwara from Masvingo and Anna Sande from Epworth, both 25 years of age, and eight women’s quota representatives, among other female MPs and councillors.
This undermines women’s political participation.
The numbers are already worrying as the country has witnessed a significant drop in female candidates in the 2023 election cycle, compared to the previous elections.
On 3 October 2023, Sengezo Tshabangu who claimed to be the interim secretary-general of the CCC, wrote two letters, one addressed to the Jacob Mudenda (Speaker of Parliament), and another letter to Winston Chatindo, the minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing, claiming that certain elected members of the National Assembly had “seized” to be members of the CCC, and requesting that they be recalled.
Consequently, all those named on the letters were recalled, without any official verification of the validity of the letters. The recalled legislators have approached the courts in an effort to resolve the issue.
Zimbabwe has a history of female politicians and women’s rights defenders having to fight legal battles in order to stake a claim in the political space.
According to Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE), women in political leadership have often been dragged before the courts more, an indication of how lawfare can be used a tool to silence women’s voices.
“Intra- and inter-party conflicts have a negative effect on women’s full participation in politics because they undermine women, especially those elected through proportional representation. This, in turn, has a ripple effect as it deters women, young women and women with disabilities from aspiring to take up and occupy leadership positions. Party conflicts, which are started by men, should not abuse and use women as collateral in their personal vendettas,” said WALPE director Sitabile Dewa.
Dewa said the lengthy legal processes push women away from taking part in the formulation of laws and policies which are gender sensitive, and thereby reverse the gains of gender equality that has been attained over the years.
In 2018, four women contested in the presidential election, and this year only one woman, Elisabeth Valerio, made it to the ballot paper after challenging a court ruling which had nullified her candidacy.
Valerio of the United Zimbabwe Alliance had her nomination turned down after her nomination fee payment in RTGS reflected in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s bank account after the cut-off time. She challenged the case and emerged as the only female candidate.
Another female presidential hopeful, Linda Masarira of the Labour Economists and Afrikan Democrats, could not make it through despite efforts to file her nomination papers. She approached the High Court arguing that the US$20 000 presidential nomination fee was too steep for women, but lost the case.
Another court case that trended was that of the 12 Bulawayo opposition parliamentary candidates, including women, who were being pushed out of the race after the court had ruled that their nomination papers had been nullified on the basis that they did not file on time. Fortunately, the ruling was nullified by a superior court and they were reinstated.
This case came at a time when only 11%, which translates to 70 women out of 637 candidates, vied for national seats, a drop from 14.4% in 2018.
The same applied to local authority seats where only 14% (665 out of 3940) of women are contesting as councillors.
Of the 70, only 22 women made it to Parliament, and for the first time Zimbabwe saw young women being elected as councillors and mayors.
“Young women saw inspiration in the rise of women and their recall will further deter them from actively pursuing leadership positions for fear of being targeted in political party conflicts,” Dewa said.
According to a United Nations mission report on South Sudan, pre-, during and post-conflict legal regimes may reinforce marginalisation of women as the rule of law and human/women rights often break down during conflicts.
Women already have little confidence when it comes to electoral participation as they face a lot of structural and institutional barriers.
The unending court cases can further disadvantage them, and seeing other women losing these cases can also intimidate aspiring female political leaders.
While the constitution is the first legally binding framework which affords women equal rights, it often fails to align with electoral laws and this gap leaves women vulnerable to discrimination.
“Women in politics should make use of the already existing legislative measures such as sections 17, 56 and 80 to push for and ensure gender balance,” said Dewa.
Women can also fall short when it comes to covering legal fees as most of them already lack access and control to finances and resources.
Resources aside, women can also lose faith in the judicial system if it appears to favour one political party over another, in terms of cases being brought before the courts and the outcomes thereof.
Women also struggle to access justice due to limited availability of legal mechanisms and support services. Poor representation in courts, both as plaintiff and respondents, can be another contributing factor to the silencing of women’s voices in politics.
Dewa also challenged political parties to field enough female candidates and ensure adequate distribution of campaign resources in the case of by-elections which have already been declared by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“There is no guarantee that the number of women will increase or decrease in the coming by-election. However, as WALPE we urge political parties to field equal numbers of male and female candidates for the by-election. We also urge them to distribute resources adequately to all candidates to ensure women also campaign with enough resources to have a fighting chance at winning,” Dewa said.
*This article was supported by the Canadian Embassy in Zimbabwe in partnership with the Centre for Public Interest Journalism (The NewsHawks)