CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP?: Five: Walking Parliament in High Heels

9 March 2009 

In an unprecedented move in Harare last week women cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs), from across party lines, gathered over lunch.  They gathered to celebrate the women who contested the March 2008 elections and to continue the process of building and strengthening a cross party women’s alliance in Parliament in order to push forward a women focused agenda. 

First to arrive was Lucia Matabenga MP (MDC-T), she was followed by Margret Zinyemba (MDC-T). Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga Minister of Regional Integration and International Cooperation (MDC-M) and the new Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Paurine Mpariwa (MDC-T) were joined by Flora Bhuka, head of ZANU-PF women’s league.  Next came Deputy Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs, Jessie Majome (MDC-T), Sekai Holland MP (MDC-T), Fay Chung and Rudo Gaidzanwa who stood as independents (linked to Muvambo) were followed Mai Dandajena (MDC-T) a long time community activist and now a senator. Oppah Muchinguri (ZANU-PF) former Minister of Women’s Affairs called in an apology, along with Olivia Muchena (ZANU-PF), current Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development and former Minister Shuvai Mahofa (ZANU-PF).  Still they continued arriving.

Despite the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development which stipulates that women should hold equal position to men in both public and private sectors by 2015, there are no provisions for quotas as a way to advance the representation of women in publicly elected bodies in the current Constitution of Zimbabwe (1980) or the electoral laws. 

Political parties are left to their own devices on this score and effective participation of women has been dramatically limited by the closed political environment and the “political competition and contestation” that has characterised opposition politics in Zimbabwe in the last 12 years. 

Women were caught and sacrificed in the party politics that characterised the last elections, literally and figuratively. Subsequently, there is a low representation of women politicians in the inclusive government, in fact the lowest in 15 years: only four women are part of the 35 member cabinet. Women make up 14% of the House of Assembly and 33% in the Senate. 

But getting bogged down in the math is tiring. 

Quotas are a step forward, but the numbers are not enough.  Quota’s arose out of a feminist strategy to get women into parliament in order to represent, fight for and be accountable to the needs and issues of women as a constituency. It was ultimately one of a number of strategies to ensure transformation and subsequently true and meaningful freedom for women.   But as we’ve discovered, just because you are in a women’s body, doesn’t necessarily mean you embody a transformatory politics.  As we’ve discovered too, a depoliticized uptake of quotas prevents the adoption of a political culture whereby women, however they may be positioned, are integrated into the political system.  Quotas  can circumvent meaningful structural change. 

Listening to the conversations around the table that day, I realised that once in, women face different challenges: quotas do not ensure real political participation or leadership by women; women’s activity in Parliament can often remain marginal and “women’s issues” become ghettoised and reduced to the implementation of “gender policies” often with the lack of financial resources to support their implementation. 

The dominant model of political leadership remains competitive, masculine, territorial, violent and dehumanising.  This limits not only women but also men with “non-traditional” approaches and now more than ever we need not only alternatives, but people who are willing to break rank in order to make them a reality.

The status quo is not going to do it for women in Zimbabwe and the women sitting around the table know this.  They know it for they have been in the patriarchal party political trenches.

There are no “women’s issues”.  Every issue facing Zimbabwe right now involves and impacts on Zimbabwean women. Ask them, they will tell you.

So.  Where does that leave us?

While I will always have a healthy skepticism about the extent of parliament as a radical site for change.  My hope lies in the energetic and vital link that some of these women parliamentarians have with their constituencies, through Constituency Consultative Forums, more commonly known as CCF’s.

Facilitated by a cutting edge Women’s Political Support Organisation, since 2005 these structures have been systematically established in constituencies where women MP’s committed to women served a term of office and/or were contesting elections, either under a ZANU PF or MDC ticket.

The CCF’s are comprised of a minimum of 70 women drawn from the various wards in the constituency.  Members participate in political education programmes and exchange visits to other, rural or urban, constituency forums.  The CCF’s provide both a support base for the women MP’s during elections and the vibrancy and dynamism of the CCF’s means that they also provide the necessary checks and balances in terms of accountability after the elections.

“In areas with CCF’s women contested elections and won.  In the two areas where women lost, the tide of internal party politics was too strong.  The CCF’s are powerful structures and the women members know what they want”, said a key organizer within the facilitation team.

In the chain of public participation in governance, we move from the CCF’s to another interesting women’s only space: The women’s parliamentary caucus. Many of the women who broke bread together that day were members of this body. From here, women MPs share, learn, support and startegise.  Women can and have caucused on issues, put forward positions and have even creatively blocked things detrimental to women at large from passing through parliament.  It’s certainly “safer” for women MP’s to come together under the banner of the women’s parliamentary caucus in order challenge the status quo, than for individual women to do so!

The party whip is never far away. It’s a fragile space.

In this period of “transition”, I guess my hope lies in the potentials and possibilities of  the space to contribute to a radical politics:  a politics that centers the needs and demands of ordinary Zimbabwean women wherever they may be found; a politics committed to real and sustainable change, not just the transfer of power from one elite patriarchal group to the next; a politics that interrogates our current political cultures and that refuses a paternalism that “allows” women to have their quotas, thereby fulfilling regional and international obligations around governance, with very little else.

No, this is not enough.

In this period of transition, whether the women’s parliamentary caucus and the CCF’s will haemorrhage from the wounds of partisan politics, be suffocated by the quest for individual power or be nurtured so that it can grow and form the beginnings of this new politics, remains to be seen.

I for one will be listening, following the click click of those heels as they walk from the far flung districts through to the corridors of parliament.