Zimbabwe: Calls for more women in politics

HARARE, 27 July 2007 (IRIN) - Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU), a Zimbabwean non-governmental organisation, is leading a campaign for the achievement of gender parity in choosing candidates for office, while a new report by human rights advocacy organisation Amnesty International shows women are increasingly becoming victims of political repression.

"The campaign [called Fifty:Fifty] has already kicked off, and what we are currently doing is to audit the constitutions and manifestos of all political parties," the director of WIPSU, Rutendo Hadebe, told IRIN.

"We want to see if they have any policies on equality in decision-making; if they have any clear policies on how they ensure that women politicians also participate equally in terms of decision-making, including within the political parties themselves."

Currently, 22.2 percent of political offices are held by women in Zimbabwe, including five female ministers in a cabinet of 53; 24 of the country's 150 parliamentarians are women; two of its 10 provincial governors are women, and of a total of 305 councillors in urban areas, 43 are female.

The African Union, in line with international benchmarks, has called for a minimum of 30 percent female representation in public and private office, and an ideal of 50 percent.

Zimbabwe's local government elections for councillors and executive mayors are set for January 2008, while the joint presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for March.

The ruling ZANU-PF party is expected to field President Robert Mugabe as their presidential candidate, who assumed power in 1980 after the country achieved independence from Britain.

The main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has split into two factions, is likely to field one of its faction leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai, as a coalition candidate. Prof Arthur Mutambara is the leader of the MDC's other faction.

WIPSU's short-term goal is to ensure that 50 percent of candidates standing in next year's elections are female, and the long-term aim is for gender parity in the cabinet, public service, judiciary and diplomatic postings, as well as in the media, the private sector and civil society.

"We are concerned that, despite the fact that women make up 52 percent of the population, they are not adequately represented in areas of decision-making, such as parliament and local government. This means the views of 52 percent of the population are not being represented," Hadebe said.

"We have observed in the past that political parties, in the name of equal representation, will field female candidates in unsafe seats, where they know they will face certain defeat, while male candidates would be fielded in safe constituencies, where victory would be guaranteed."

She said WIPSU had been helping to develop the political careers of women, irrespective of political affiliation, since 2001. "We work with all female politicians from across the political divide, and group them on issues like how to address meetings, dressing, understanding the Electoral Act and how to be effective leaders."

Elections have increasingly been marred by political violence, but among women there has been remarkable cooperation across the political divide.

"We hold workshops and meetings where female politicians work so well together. The female politicians also have what is known as Women's Caucus, which groups all female members of parliament. It is chaired by a female politician from ZANU-PF and deputised by an MP from the opposition MDC," Rutendo said.

Oppression of women

The Amnesty International (AI) report, Zimbabwe: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Women Human Rights Defenders at Risk, released this week, said women made up the "majority of the hundreds of Zimbabwean human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for engaging in peaceful protest marches or meetings in the last two years."

The human rights of women were being violated in numerous ways. "Some have been detained with their children, or while pregnant, in deplorable conditions falling far below international human rights standards," the report said.

"Women ... have been ill-treated while in custody after engaging in, or after attempting to engage in, peaceful protest. They are often held in overcrowded cells for periods ranging from a couple of hours to several days before being taken to court or released," the AI researchers said.

"Police often deny human rights defenders access to lawyers and food. In addition, human rights defenders who are injured as a result of police beatings during arrest, and/or while in custody, are also denied access to medical care."

Women were being insulted and abused because of their gender. "Amnesty International notes that most women human rights defenders who are arrested and are taken into police custody are humiliated and subjected to sexist verbal attacks. These include being called 'whores', and being told that they are 'bad women' who deserve no sympathy from the police authorities."

Among the leading female MDC members who have been assualted are Lucia Matibenga, Grace Kwinjeh and Sekai Holland. All three are currently convalescing from injuries sustained during alleged police beatings earlier this year.