"Measuring Up" features new and cutting-edge research related to the status of women and girls, and identifies how evidence-based findings can inform and evaluate policy approaches to global challenges. This post is authored by Hilary Matfess, doctoral candidate at Yale University.
Much of the attention paid to Zimbabwe’s elections has focused on its historical importance as the first presidential election since independence in which Robert Mugabe is not on the ballot—overlooking the fact that Zimbabwean voters are also going to the polls to vote for their parliamentary representatives. Even less frequently discussed is the fate of the country’s female candidates, who made up 15 percent of those contesting parliamentary seats. A new assessment from the International Foundation for Electoral Studies (IFES) finds that despite gains driven by the country’s gender quota, Zimbabwean women in politics continue to face numerous barriers. The quota, originally set for a 10-year period, will expire after this week’s elections unless parliament moves to extend its mandate.
Zimbabwe’s quota system helped propel the percentage of women in parliament from 17 percent in 2008 to 35 percent in 2013.When adopted, the quota was designed to apply to two electoral cycles—meaning that the 2018 elections will be the last in which female politicians will benefit from a system of reserved seats. The quota, which came into effect as part of a new constitution in the country, allows women to run for any parliamentary seat, but “reserves an additional 30% of seats for women only,” which are “distributed among parties on a proportional basis.”
Though the genuinely competitive nature of last week’s election has been rightly lauded, as competition between the ZANU-PF and the MDC Alliance heated up, both shifted their attention away from fielding female candidates. An assessment of the party lists from the Women in Politics Support Unit found that “neither the ruling Zanu-PF, which has a 30% quota for women, nor the main opposition MDC Alliance, which boasted a 50% quota for women, have lived up to their manifestos.” The Guardian estimated in June that only 10% of ZANU-PF candidates and approximately 14% of opposition candidates were women.
The reduced focus on incorporating women into the political system in this time of transition is distressing—and calls into question the time limit on Zimbabwe’s quota system. Feminist activists have already begun calling for an extension of the quota, arguing that 10 years has been an insufficient period of implementation.
Women who run for office in Zimbabwe face a variety of persistent challenges. According to IFES’ research, the most significant of these are discrimination and harassment. IFES’ review of violence against women in elections (VAWIE) in Zimbabwe concluded that “female candidates are at the forefront of VAWIE and face intense psychosocial violence,” as well as “attacks on their moral probity, and occasional physical violence.” Women involved with politics faced threats from “political opponents, members of their own parties, family members, and members of their community at large.”
IFES notes that women who run for office or involve themselves in politics are “constantly being labeled as whores and prostitutes” and are subjected to gendered judgments—the report quoted one interviewee who asserted that “A woman still cannot question an MP in parliament without being [told] her thighs are too big.”
In addition to outright threats of violence, female MPs seem to be hamstrung by a stigma surrounding the gender quota. According to IFES, a number of Zimbabweans, including elites involved in the political space consider women in politics as tokenistic, whose positions are “a privilege granted by men.” The report emphasized the heightened level of scrutiny faced by women in politics, noting that the failures of individual women are often used to indict women in politics writ large. IFES researchers “heard repeatedly that ‘we [male political actors] gave you [women] a chance with Grace [Mugabe] but you failed and lost your chance.’”
The 2018 elections signal a transition towards a more democratic Zimbabwe. What role women will play in Zimbabwe going forward remains an issue of critical importance. In light of the many challenges to women politicians raised in IFES’ report, the expiring mandate of Zimbabwe’s gender quota should be the subject of serious assessment.