It is fair to say there has been reasonable progress for women in political leadership and decision-making in the past three decades. Yet, 27 years after the Beijing declaration at the world conference on women, adopted by 189 countries and seen as the key moment for radical change in gender equality, too much remains the same.
Since 2015, women in almost every country have had the right to vote, at least in theory. The world has seen impressive female leaders including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mia Mottley, Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern. A few countries, such as Finland, even have cabinets dominated by women. These achievements have in large part happened because of measures invoked since the Beijing conference.
However, there has been very slow progress in other areas. In Zimbabwe, women remain under-represented in party politics, in parliament and in cabinet.
Deep-seated patriarchal and political violence are sustained by legacies of masculinised nationalist politics that helped liberate Zimbabwe from equally patriarchal colonial rule. Masculinised nationalism finds powerful expression through Zanu-PF, the ruling party for more than four decades.
Women make up less than 50% of parliamentarians, yet gender parity is a constitutional requirement. Since independence in 1980, there has not been a female president. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission only registered five female voters in one of the country’s biggest provinces, Mashonaland Central last year. Women are excluded from political processes, to the detriment of society.
The mere fact of being a woman does not give one the right to lead. Both men and women must be held to the same standards of non-patriarchal values, integrity, accountability, transparency; these are all key components of ethical leadership, regardless of gender. We should focus on choosing leaders who connect with people, drive positive social change, focus on uplifting their communities.
In my journey as a relatively young woman in politics, I have observed and experienced prejudices and stereotypes. Sometimes, when I open my mouth to speak, instead of engaging with the content, my audience will ask: “But why aren’t you married?” Instead of taking issue with the government and fighting the system, I’m told I should get married and have children. Some sexualise my appearance and, rather than focus on the substance of a press conference, comment on my face or hair. Then there is cyberbullying, trolling and fake news.
Opponents mount disinformation campaigns that are easily sexualised in the political context.
I deal with it by choosing not to be a victim. I am not the sort of politician who is going to sing every day about how everything is so unfair. I focus on what I can control: my competence and my delivery. It takes time to gain public trust. But once people see you as a leader of integrity – that you are transparent, accountable and prepared to accept criticism with a measure of humility – they start to see beyond gender.
One of the main things to increase women’s democratic participation is seeing other women in leadership – the role-model effect. Women comprise an embarrassingly low 14% of councillors in Zimbabwe. This lack of representation can lead to apathy, as women fail to see themselves represented. Having women stand as examples of public leadership and investing in the next generation of female leaders creates models in the public imagination and pushes more women to get involved. It builds courage.
I remain optimistic about the future of Zimbabwe. Despite the present challenges of patriarchy, poverty and corruption, it is a country with all the ingredients necessary for success. But people, women especially, must register to vote. When the election comes in 2023, they must elect non-patriarchal women and men who will address the gender disparities in Zimbabwe’s political, social and economic realms.
Apathy aids the patriarchal, anti-people status quo. Voting is the most powerful non-violent tool we have to bring an end to dictatorship and win change for Zimbabwe.
- Fadzayi Mahere is an advocate at the high court of Zimbabwe and a leading activist in getting women to register to vote