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Shutting them out: opportunities and challenges of women's participation in Zimbabwean politics--a historical perspective.


This paper argues that women's participation in decision making despite their seemingly high demographic numbers is still very low. It traces the four phases of Zimbabwean history and discusses women's participation therein. The paper also highlights the challenges that women face when they try to enter male-dominated domains like politics. The influence of neoliberalism on shaping the participation of women in Zimbabwean politics will also be discussed. The paper finally concludes with some possible intervention strategies that could improve women's participation in the public sphere. Gender relations in Zimbabwe have always been biased against women. Gender in this paper is defined as a social construct as opposed to sex, which is biological. Gender relations are constituted in terms of the relations of power and dominance that structure the life chances of men and women. Upon the biological differences between men and women, society imposes different social roles based on sex differences. These relations are not always harmonious; they often take the form of male dominance and female subordination. (1) Such situations have often been used to legitimize the exclusion of women from decision-making processes. Male dominance is not only a sexual and social problem but also a political problem directed at maintaining existing power relations which subordinate women. The glaring manifestation of these unequal relations is the failure of women to access basic resources like education, health and participation in politics. (2) In Zimbabwe, women constitute 37% of tertiary and vocational education students as compared to males who constitute 63%. (3) Furthermore, in the ongoing land redistribution program, women only constitute 18% of farm beneficiaries. (4) The paper brings to the fore the various factors that prejudiced women's participation in politics and discuss the Zimbabwean democracy and the expansion of women's roles in the public sphere.


From the onset it has to be noted that conventional interpretation of pre-colonial Zimbabwean society is biased against African culture due to cultural imperialism. In traditional society women had different roles and concerns from those of women in the colonial period. They considered themselves as people who were carrying out their duties both in the domestic and public spheres. In the domestic realm women were responsible for the house and home-based tasks. These included food processing, preparation, cooking and cleaning. They also helped men with agricultural work. Men cleared the land and ploughed the fields while women did the sowing and weeding. Both men and women harvested the produce together. In a society in which land was collectively owned, women were also given small pieces of land to grow what they deemed necessary for the family. This demonstrates that in the traditional Zimbabwean society, women contributed to the formation of a stable unit of production--mhuri. (5)

Apart from the domestic sphere, women were also important public figures who played a crucial political role. Some women were chiefs, arbitrators in courts, village elders, leaders in wars and spirit mediums. It has to be noted that in the pre-colonial period there was no clear distinction between religious and political domains. Women assumed such important roles as spirit mediums --key mediators in local disputes who were also consulted about disasters such as drought and famine, and were generally concerned with the well-being of the community, lineage, or clan. In all these respects, the nature of their involvement in public life was clearly political. (6) Zimbabwean women had power and were recognized in their traditional society as exemplified by mbuya Nehanda, a legendary figure who played a significant role in the history of the liberation of Zimbabwe. She led the Shona people (dominant ethnic group in Zimbabwe comprising of about 75% of the population) in 1896-7 against the white settlers. She mobilized and sustained the uprising and was responsible for the death of Henry Pollard, the Native Commissioner of Mazowe area at the outbreak of the uprising. (7) Nehanda was a very influential and respected political leader such that when her people defeated their enemies, they took the war booty to her so that she could distribute it to them. She also controlled the ammunition of the Shona people and the settlers acknowledged her powerful status. (8)

There is historical evidence of women chiefs among the Manyika (an ethnic group in eastern Zimbabwe). Historians note that Makoni and Chiduku headwomen had historically ruled over areas which by the 1930s and 1940s had been removed from their control. (9) However, at least one headwoman governed an area in Makoni reserve until the 1950s without the knowledge of the European administration. There were also female chiefs who led female warriors in wars against their rivals. History also states that some of the best combat regiments during the Monomutapa period were comprised of only women, mainly young and unmarried. (10) Being accorded the chance to lead is a manifestation of women's capabilities and that they were not marginalized but worked together with men for the betterment of the whole society. Female participation in politics is therefore not new to African women from this part of the region. Powerful female political leaders were also found among different ethnic groups in Africa.

From the discussion above on women's participation in politics in the pre-colonial era, it can be argued that traditional African women wielded more power than what was later acknowledged in customary law. (11) The concept of equality was not part of the traditional African women's perception of social relations. Some scholars observe this and argue that pre-colonial African women did not see themselves as an under-privileged class which had to fight with men in order to seek social equality because they enjoyed more freedom and power in a complementary gender system in which they participated as active agents of development. (12) Even though women had power in the African traditional society, this is not supposed to be taken in a romantic sense since it was a patriarchal society.


Women's participation in politics and the public sphere in general during the colonial period diminished due to a number of factors. These included imperial domination, customary law and failure to access western education among others. The onset of European imperialism in the late 19th century changed Shona and Ndebele (an ethnic group in Zimbabwe) social relations. Capitalism from its beginnings and through the Victorian age was essentially a patriarchal system in which men enjoyed more elaborate citizenship rights. In its imperialist stage, capitalism was still essentially patriarchal and women took a back seat in this venture. (13) The colonial government introduced a number of legislative laws that forced men to move to commercial establishments to seek employment. (14) The Land Apportionment Act forced men to go and work in urban areas and farm establishments while women had to remain in the rural areas to till barren land and had to rely on their husbands' wages. (15) Colonialism bracketed the Zimbabwean woman into restricted roles of mother and wife. Women's performance space was the home with their major staging area as the kitchen. (16) This was the root cause of Shona and Ndebele women's economic marginalization, which has been argued by western scholars to originate in African patriarchy. (17)

From the mid 1910s the colonial government introduced customary law in which women wielded no power at all and could no longer own property; they were reduced to perpetual minors. Through customary law fluid and flexible customs were turned into hard and fast rules. (18) While custom had been both adaptable and sensitive to extenuating circumstances, customary law was not. African 'customary law' heavily biased towards the male elite was now written in stone. It was engraved with Victorian values and was used by the colonial government to give more power to the domestic authority of the African male guardians. Marginalized from performance spaces constructed by Europeans, Zimbabwean women became victims of a deeply classed and gendered Anglo-imperilaism. (19) This diminished the prerogatives and rights which African women formerly enjoyed. With such hard and fast rules participation of women in politics was inconceivable.

A close analysis of the Rhodesia parliament and cabinet clearly shows that not only were black women shut out from the political arena but even white women were considered second-class citizens and could not actively participate in the public sphere. The Southern Rhodesia cabinet of 1950-1960 had 6 ministers and the parliament had 30 legislators and none of them was female. The 1970 cabinet had 13 ministers whilst the parliament had 65 legislators, and again none was female. The 1975 parliament had 16 ministers and 66 legislators of which only one was female, Mrs Watson from Hillside. It was only in the Rhodesia-Zimbabwe parliament that four black women were elected into a parliament of hundred legislators. (20) Women were excluded from active involvement in governance, a right that they formerly enjoyed in pre-colonial times.


Political role played by women at the rear

The liberation struggle facilitated positive change in male-female relations. The national liberation wars of African countries including Zimbabwe helped to reshape and insert women's military and political agency into nationalist narrative. This happened in the 1960s up to the 1980s and coincided with the global trend in the feminist movement in which women challenged their subservient role of mother and wife. (21) The war of liberation in Zimbabwe provided a platform for women both at the war front and at the rear to challenge the colonial traditional view that they were supposed to be in subservient roles of mother, wife and obedient daughter. (22) The war influenced rural women's perception of life to the extent that women in rural areas used the change in gender ideologies that took place during the war to re-negotiate relationships within the households. Some women reported their husbands who abused them to the guerillas and managed to have them publicly chastised. (23) Women were now conscious of the relationships, which could be construed as exploitative. The liberation struggle raised their gender awareness and enabled them to challenge some of the assumptions that were brought by colonial customary law.

Women who did not go to the war contributed significantly to the success of the struggle by giving the freedom fighters moral, material and logistical support. It was this support that boosted the morale of the combatants and successfully waged the liberation struggle against the colonial regime. Mothers of the Revolution gives a detailed account of how 30 women across the country were involved in the liberation struggle. The stories reveal their courage and endurance as they celebrate the fortitude and strength of the mothers of the struggle. These women were both victims and actors and throughout the war they fed and protected the freedom fighters and risked their lives to do so. They also provided clothes, transport, cigarettes, wireless transmitters for national news and medicines. On rare occasions the mothers provided shelter to ill and wounded ZANLA and ZIPRA guerillas. (24) By assisting the guerillas the women had already made a very strong political statement of wanting to remove the settler regime from power.

Young unmarried women below the age of twenty five popularly known as "chimbwidos" during the war also helped elderly women in their logistical and material support of the war. They would also cook, clean and wash for the combatants and were handy in the transportation of goods. Young women were also responsible for maintaining base areas and leaving no trace of guerilla visits after they left. This was a very crucial role that necessitated the successful operation of the war. Young women were also sent on errands to buy cigarettes for the combatants. They also acted as the "eyes and ears" of the guerillas for they gathered information on the movements of the security forces which was crucial for the strategic execution of the struggle. (25) These young women also acted as tour guides to the combatants since they were familiar with the local terrain. They advised the guerillas, who were sometimes unfamiliar with the local terrain.

Political role played by women at the war front

Women who were at the war front participated as combatants at the battlefront, nurses, instructors, educators, providers of food and political commissars in the military training and refugee camps. There is historical evidence which attest to the presence of female combatants amongst ZANLA and ZIPRA forces in Mozambique. (26) In 1976, Joyce Mujuru was already an instructor and she is the one who initiated Tekere into guerilla warfare, she was his first instructor. There were also other female instructors like Sheiba Tavarwisa who was a major source of inspiration to both male and female combatants. These women commanders were highly respected and they instilled a very high level of discipline among the trainees. (27) ZIPRA had female instructors like Molly Mpofu who trained ZIPRA combatants at their base in Zambia. Apart from these high-level female cadres both ZANLA and ZIPRA had a lot of women who were fighting in their armies inside the country.

Apart from being instructors and combatants women also participated as political commissars. These also taught villagers in the war zones and military trainees and the refugees in the camps about the aims and objectives of the party in the liberation struggle. Also women who had medical expertise like Mrs Shamuyarira who was a matron at Dar-es-Salaam Hospital had to quit their jobs and helped to set up the Maputo Department of Health, which catered for ZANLA combatants, trainees and refugees. Teachers like Fay Chung worked tirelessly hard to set up the ZANU department of Education. Together with Dzingai they designed the curriculum, which was later used in independent Zimbabwe. She also initiated the ZINTEC program for training teachers in Mozambique and was successfully implemented in Zimbabwe after independence. Sally Mugabe also helped to source out donations of sewing machines and rolls of materials, and in turn taught women how to sew thereby providing the much-needed clothes for both the military and refugees. (28) These are just a few examples of women who participated in the war; they left their homes and went to join the liberation struggle. ZANU adopted a policy of treating women as equals in the struggle.

As evidence to its commitment to changing gender relations, ZANU appointed women to positions of authority. After the Geneva Conference, Joyce Teurai Ropa Nhongo (now Mujuru), was appointed into the Central Committee, the highest decision-making organ of the party then; later on Sarudzai Chinamaropa also joined Mujuru in the august body. Julia Zvobgo was appointed Secretary for Administration after the Xai Xai Conference. ZANU PF held a Women's Conference in Maputo where the role of women and their importance in the war were expounded by both male and female speakers. Women made it clear at the conference that they were being sidelined in leadership and other important roles. Mugabe acknowledged their important role at the Women's conference and summarized it as follows: women were found gallantly serving in almost every department of the party, namely: logistics, health, army, education and intelligence among others. (29) This demonstrates that women's roles in the struggle permeated all sectors of economic life; they participated in both the public and private spheres.

Women who remained home and those who left to join the liberation struggle were both sexually abused by the guerillas and army commanders respectively. This abuse was not only happening in the war zones but also in the military camps in which women were expected to offer sexual favors to army commanders. (30) The sexual abuse which women faced during the war was not confined to Zimbabwe alone but a typical characteristic feature of war zones in other parts of the continent. Pepetela in Mayombe vividly explains how women were sexually abused during Angola's war of liberation. (31) This demonstrates that women also faced sexual abuse from men during the liberation struggle as they performed the role of gratifying men's sexual desires. The discussion on the liberation struggle has amply demonstrated how women participated in the struggle together with men; they were not confined to the domestic sphere but had now found ways of re-entering the public sphere.


Opportunities and outcomes of women's participation in politics

The post independence period ushered in a new era. Women had participated together with men in the liberation struggle and through this they had re-negotiated their roles and statuses. At independence this translated into having a number of prominent women included in the new political leadership as parliamentarians and cabinet ministers. (32) In 1980 Joyce Mujuru was appointed Minister of Youth Sport and Recreation, and in 1981 after a cabinet reshuffle, she was appointed Minister of Community Development and Women's Affairs. As a young and energetic minister, Mujuru was able to use her powerful position to inaugurate a number of new laws that benefited women. She was assisted by the then Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Dr. Eddison Zvobgo and Justice Elizabeth Gwaunza who was president of The Women's Lawyers Association during that time. Also of importance to note was the role of the Women's Action Group (WAG) which also worked with grassroots women and then forwarded their decisions to government and Women's Lawyers Association.

One of the laws that came about as a direct result of the efforts made by Mujuru and the Women's Lawyers Association was the passing of the Legal Age of Majority Act of 1982, which meant that women were no longer minors, "men and women were for the first time legally equal". (33) The law also enabled women to own property and open bank accounts, rights that they could not exercise under customary law. Another positive development from the tireless efforts of Joyce Mujuru and the Ministry of Women's Affairs was the passing of the Equal Pay Act of 1982. This meant that women employed to do the same job as men having the same qualifications would get equal salaries with their male counterparts. This was a welcome move for women who had been economically marginalized by getting lower salaries than their male colleagues. (34) In 1985, the government introduced the Matrimonial Property Rights Act. Under customary law, women owned no property and when divorced they became destitute since property belonged to the husband. The government through the lobbying of the Ministry of Women's Affairs headed by Mujuru passed the above-mentioned laws in order to improve women's situation. Thus women could now actively participate in governance by producing gender-sensitive laws.

Of significance was the government's introduction of universal education at independence in which no one was supposed to be discriminated against in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, and religious affiliation among others. This meant that the previously marginalized women could now access western education, which would improve their chances of participating in the public sphere, especially the political arena. Over and above the passing of these legislations and the introduction of the policy of education for all, Zimbabwe is a signatory to a number of regional and international treaties that aim at creating an enabling environment for the attainment of equity and equality between women and men. These include The Southern African Development Community's Declaration to Gender and Development and its addendum on the Prevention and Eradication of Violence Against Women and Children, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC), Convention on the Minimum Age of Marriage and Registration of Marriages. In an effort to effectively transform the provisions of regional and international legal and human rights instruments to the practical level the government has drawn up and adopted a National Gender Policy which aims at providing guidelines and institutional frameworks to engender all sectoral policies, programs, projects and activities at all levels of our society and economy. (35) It strives to improve the lives of both women and men by removing the various discriminatory customs and legislations. The Women's Action Group is also working tirelessly in trying to educate the grassroots women on the new social changes brought about by the new laws.

In order to comply with the international treaties and the national gender policy, more women are now being accorded the opportunity to be actively involved in politics. Women can now be appointed to cabinet, parliamentary, senatorial and governorship posts. Though their numbers are still low, at least something is being done to involve them in decision-making. In keeping with the SADC Ministerial Declaration of 1997, the Government of Zimbabwe has set out a 30% quota for women parliamentarians, which means that some constituencies are reserved for women,-over and above the ones they can equally compete with men for election into office. Table 1 shows women's participation in politics since 1980.

Table 1 shows the number of women who have been appointed or elected into cabinet, parliament and deputy ministerial position since 1980. Despite the seemingly low numbers of women in cabinet and deputy ministerial positions, it is important to note that in 2000, Joyce Mujuru who was the Minister of Water Resources was appointed to an acting position as Minister of Defense after the tragic death of the incumbent minister, Moven Mahachi in a road traffic accident. Appointing a female minister to such a powerful and strategic position such as defense shows that women are capable and can execute their duties in an efficient and effective manner. In January 2005, Joyce Mujuru was appointed the first female Vice President of Zimbabwe, an ample demonstration that women can now participate in national politics at high levels like the presidium.

After the 2000 elections, parliament consisted of mainly Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and ZANU PF legislators. Women parliamentarians have formed the Women's parliamentary Caucus. Its membership reflects the configuration of parliament and the leadership is from both MDC and ZANU PF. The main aim of the caucus is to enable women legislators to rise above party politics and address issues of common concern. Through it, women parliamentarians lobbied the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs to amend section 23 of the constitution to grant women the same legal rights as men. This amply demonstrates that Zimbabwean women are being involved in the formulation of principles that guide their lives. Also, women's participation in the upper house and the senate is increasing. Table 2 shows the number of women senators since 1980.

The number of women in the senate has increased from 3 in 1980 to 24 in 2005 but has slightly dropped to 20 in the 29 March harmonized elections. The above figures of 36.4% in 2005 and 33.3% in 2008 meet the SADC minimum quota of 30% women in decision-making positions by 2005. However, this has since been adjusted to 50% by 2015. From 1990 to 2004, the Zimbabwe government had done away with the senate, which was only reenacted in 2005. What is of significance to note is Mrs. Edna Madzongwe's appointment to be the president of senate in 2005. Despite their low numbers in senate, women are being appointed to head the senate and influence legislation and governance in Zimbabwe. However, the raw numbers of women in leadership cannot be celebrated since both tables 1 and 2 demonstrate that despite the pomp and fanfare exhibited by government in trying to advance women's causes, there is no serious commitment to this agenda due to patriarchal attitudes. Indeed, this situation significantly explains the rise and fall of women's numbers, and also, not so very high numbers wherever women are involved. (36) Also, grassroots women were left out in enjoying the national cake. There is strong evidence that suggests it was only the educated women, women that were in elite positions, and those who had powerful male relatives (husbands or brothers) that seemed to get political appointments after independence. This is notwithstanding the fact that during the war, every woman had participated irrespective of having influential relatives or not. This illuminates the emerging reality that after independence, exclusionary politics was at play. In effect, what emerged was a situation where the cost of democratic struggle for freedom and independence in Zimbabwe was democratically and socially shared, but the gains were significantly privatized to the advantage of political elites and those that were well connected politically.

Women's participation in party structures: MDC and ZANU PF

Apart from contesting and being elected or appointed parliamentarians, women are increasingly being involved in the leadership of party structures in both the MDC and ZANU PF, which are the two dominant political parties in Zimbabwe. In both the MDC and ZANU PF, the national party policy is to adhere to at least 30% women in leadership positions. Both parties are striving towards that goal and have female vice presidents. Also, in the Government of National Unity which was ushered in by the signing of the Global Political Agreement in 2008,there are two women leaders Joyce Mujuru as Vice President and Thokozani Khupe as Deputy Prime Minister.

Women's participation in party politics is also guided by their political affiliation. Those women leaders in ZANU have strove to promote their party manifesto even when ZANU PF was still a popular party and also when it had lost its popularity among the electorate. Furthermore, women in MDC also follow their party beliefs and implement them in trying to bring about change in the lives of the people. Both women in the Inclusive government are working hard to achieve the objectives of the GPA but aligned to their party lines. However, to be commended was Mrs. Margareth Dongo, the then ZANU PF member of parliament in 1990, who left the party and contested as an independent party member because she wanted a different ideology from that of her party, which was no longer very popular and socially responsible in the eyes of many people. She won the Harare South seat of parliament as an independent candidate and always referred to it in parliament as 'the Independent Republic of Harare South.' Mrs. Dongo also challenged other parliamentarians not just to give a 'yes nod' to ZANU PF policies which were no longer popular with the electorate. She referred to other parliamentarians as "Mugabe's wives who could not dare to challenge him" (as their husband). (37) In Shona and Ndebele culture in Zimbabwe, married women and respectable women are not supposed to challenge their husbands in public. (38) if fever they have any ideas to give to their husbands, they would rather do it in private or in the home environment. But with this crop of parliamentarians which Mrs. Dongo referred to as "Mugabe's wives" it looks like they never dared to challenge the decisions of the party. Along the same line, women like Joice Mujuru in the GPA are currently being seen as progressive women who are spearheading progressive thinking in the party and government. (39) Thus, not all women follow the politics of repression, and although this is minimal, it should be celebrated.


The Women's Coalition

Women are also actively involved in the civil society in Zimbabwe. In June 1999, the Women's Coalition, which comprised of 66 activists, researchers, academics and a wide range of 30 women's human rights organizations was launched. Its main aim was to inform and invite women to participate in the constitutional reform process. It stood out as a broad lobbying and advocacy front that pressed for the adoption of a constitution that would protect women's political, social and economic rights. It campaigned for a "No Vote" on the draft constitution and in February 2000, women used their numbers to vote against it in the historic referendum. They rejected the draft constitution because it was silent on issues pertaining to women's empowerment. This intervention by a coalition of women's civil society groups amply demonstrates the ability of women to determine the contents of the future constitution of the country. Riding on the success of the February 2000 referendum, the coalition of women's groups in civil society facilitated the women's political agenda by supporting and endorsing 55 women candidates who were standing for parliamentary elections. (40) Unlike male politicians, women began talking across political parties, they disobeyed the rigid and dogmatic laws of political ideological boundaries and created common platforms of overlapping consensus, conversation, and exchanging of ideas. Through the coalition's efforts women engaged in a battle of challenging men's dominance in politics. The efforts of the coalition were realized when 14 women were voted into parliament in 2000.

Commission of Zimbabwe Women's engagement in Constitutional Reform: National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and The Constitutional (CCZ)

Women's role in the constitutional debate was also seen in their involvement in the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which was officially launched on 30 January 1998. Its objectives were to raise the level of national consciousness concerning the need for a new constitution, reviewing the Lancaster House Constitution and draft a "new home-grown" constitution in a process that involved an authentic national debate. (41) During the initial stages of NCA, it was male-dominated and women were more vocal about gender imbalances within the organization and campaigned vigorously for increased female representation on the taskforce. Their calls were beard and at the NCA General Assembly held in June 1999, 8 women were appointed into the 18-member committee constituting 44%. Thoko Mathe, a woman, was elected deputy chairperson of the organization. When Morgan Tsvangirai resigned as chairperson to form the MDC Party, Mathe was appointed chairperson. Thus women were engaging in constitutional reform process from leadership positions and not as followers only. The government also responded to the constitutional debate by establishing the Constitutional Commission of Zimbabwe and appointed 400 commissioners of which 54 were women. (42) Even though the government had fewer women commissioners, it must be commended for appointing a sizeable number of women to its executive committee. Notably among these were Dr. Amy Tsanga, MP Rita Makarau, Prof Rudo Gaidzanwa and Mrs. Lupi Mushayakarara. (43) The government-sponsored constitution did not give women much space to address issues that affected them. This explains why they resoundingly voted against the draft constitution in the February 2000 referendum. By engaging in the constitutional debate both in the NCA and CCZ, women were actively participating and influencing decisions in the political affairs of their country.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)

The Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) is a civic group, which raises political awareness among women. Its main agenda is to enable Zimbabwean women to make independent decisions and actively participate in their community's development. It also highlights the gender disparities that have characterised the Zimbabwean social space. It therefore encourages women to rise above party politics and fight for women's political agenda.

The participation of women in Zimbabwean politics amply demonstrates that after independence, a few elite women have been incorporated into the ruling government and the bulk of the grassroots women who participated in the war of liberation have been left out. Women and nationalist politics also reflect the much broader question of individual or continental nationalist narratives as a whole: the narrative, benefits, and opportunities are hijacked after the struggle by a few. In this case, the grassroots elements, the subaltern aspects are left out of enjoying the national cake after independence. The other factors which have perpetually sidelined women from national politics are expounded in the next section.


The preceding discussion illuminates the fact that the government of Zimbabwe and civil society organizations had very sound policies and initiatives meant to increase the number of women's participation in politics. However, 3:2 years after independence, the intended level of gender equity in politics has not been achieved. Women still comprise only 14.3% of parliament. In the last harmonized elections, I 18 out of 710 candidates for the House of Assembly were women, while 60 were vying for the senate out of the total 196 candidates. In council elections, 740 out of a total 1 958 candidates were women. (44) Even if all women had won, these figures are still very low and fall short of the SADC 30 % target of women in decision-making by 2005, which has since been adjusted upward to 50%. It also still remains a mystery why there is not a single female presidential candidate to date amid flurry of all campaigns. (45) In this respect, the paper makes an attempt to identify some of the obstacles that impede the achievement of gender equity in politics, which are discussed below.

Neoliberal policies have played a major role in impeding women's participation in Zimbabwean politics. Neoliberalism refers to an age in which power and wealth are, to an ever increasing degree, concentrated within transnational corporations and elite groups and is the dominant ideology shaping our world today. (46) It is both a body of economic theory and policy stance. Neoliberal theory further claims that a largely unregulated capitalist system (a 'free market economy') not only embodies the ideal of a free individual choice but also achieves optimum economic performance with respect to efficiency, economic growth, technical progress, and distributional justice. (47) The state therefore is assigned very limited economic role: defining property rights, enforcing contracts and regulating money supply. It deregulates business, privatizes public activities and assets, eliminates or cuts social welfare programs and reduces taxes on businesses and the investing class. (48) In Third World countries like Zimbabwe, neoliberalism is incarnated concretely in the Economic Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPS) implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank through direct pressure on the Zimbabwean government to implement these SAPS.

In Zimbabwe, SAPS were implemented in the early 1990s and this meant that less money was to be injected into social services like health, education and other facilities. The government of Zimbabwe had to abolish free primary education and in 1993 it re-introduced payment of fees in urban primary schools. Also, the subsidy on secondary education was scrapped. These stringent economic measures meant that most parents could no longer afford to send their children to school and due to patriarchal beliefs upheld by many Zimbabweans, given the choice, parents again resorted to sending male children to school at the expense of the girls. Thus the new capitalist path of development followed by the government continued to sideline women.

Furthermore, in a neoliberal economy such as the Zimbabwean one after 1990, money is owned by men who tend to support the promotion of their own agenda and relatives. Such neoliberal policies really worked against women who found it very difficult again to break even in the male-dominated domain since they do not own enough resources to compete very well. In Zimbabwe, neoliberalism has also created a situation of increased monetization of politics. Money is needed for campaigns, and to even register as a candidate to stand in an election, one needs to have a certain capital base in order to do so; and because women have limited resources, very few women can participate actively in politics. Those few who can actively participate tend to be sponsored by some men (either as wives or daughters) who have the strong economic resources. This explains the close link between the most powerful women in Zimbabwean politics and powerful men who own the resources and are willing to back up their women's political involvement, resulting in mainly the elite women taking part in decision making positions in politics, leaving out the poor grassroots women to just act as good fertile base of party supporters, waiting for political messiahs, male and females from elite backgrounds. With this background on neoliberalism, one can appreciate the challenges that women in Zimbabwe continue to face when they try to enter male-dominated domains like politics.

Lack of access to financial resources and education impede women from making political contributions. Women in Zimbabwe still face the biggest hurdle of having to pull resources together to mount campaigns. The other major challenge that women face when they try to engage in politics is patriarchal attitudes. There is a general belief among the Zimbabwean society that women cannot participate in the public sphere and should not lead but be subservient to male leadership. This explains the low number of females in politics even after 1980. In the previous harmonized elections, all 24 independent and 3 senatorial female candidates lost the election. Also, socialization is an impediment to women's participation in decision making.

Women are socialized to become good wives and mothers such that they often wait to seek office until their children are grown up. Powerful socialization forces have led women to believe that politics is a "dirty game" which should better be left to men. The lack of self-belief among women and patriarchal tendencies of the Zimbabwean society are some of the reasons why women are reluctant to contest elections. Society also does not look kindly on women who try to achieve great things in life; it sometimes regards them as "tokens," supposing that they are in their positions not by merit but because they are equity "flagships". (49) Often it has been charged that successful women got to where they are by "fluttering their eye lashes" to male superiors. (50) Women who engage in politics are regarded as prostitutes and unfit for marriage. These stereotypical images of women in politics inhibit some women from even trying. Party politics as well continue to promote men at the expense of women. The two major parties MDC and ZANU PF fielded female candidates in constituencies in which both parties had minimal support.

It can be inferred from the preceding discussion that for a variety of reasons like ignorance, lack of information, lack of resources, social pressures and many other responsibilities, women have fewer opportunities than men to participate in politics. These factors conniving with patriarchal hegemony combine to shut women out of politics.


The earlier approaches used to achieve gender equity in politics did not take into account the different needs, interests, priorities, roles and responsibilities of men and women in developing public policy, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation stages. This paper, as stated earlier recognizes that women are disadvantaged in relation to men, however the following intervention strategies could help the removal of these disparities. These strategies treat the disease itself(unequal power relations) and not just the symptoms of the disease (women's limited access to development).

One of the major recommendations in improving women's participation would be gender sensitization of socializing agents like the school, family, religion and the media. Media campaigns highlighting women who have made it in politics should be encouraged. Political parties should sponsor training workshops for female candidates covering topics such as campaigning, advertising and get-out-the-vote techniques. (51) Once the parties equip their female candidates with such skill, they can go out and campaign and ultimately win, for they would have gained confidence through the training.

Proportional representation system should be used in electing members of parliament, which means that women should be proportionally represented. It can also be used together with the constituency-based quota. Studies have shown that the chances of women getting elected are even higher when proportional representation system is combined with a legislated party-based quota for women. (52) It would help if Zimbabwe could immediately implement the SADC target of 50% of women in decision-making. Equally relevant, increased access to education could also go a long way in improving women's socio-economic status. Once the socio-economic status of women is improved they would be able to participate in politics more effectively and relatively even with men.


The paper has traced the participation of women in Zimbabwean politics from pre-colonial to post independence periods. Women in precolonial times could actively participate in politics as evidenced by Nehanda among other people. However, the passing of various legislations in the colonial period resulted in the economic marginalization of women such that they could no longer engage in politics. The liberation struggle offered an ample opportunity to re-negotiate gender role relationships and re-entry into politics. The post independence period has found more women participating in politics but their number still remains low as compared to men. And even when women are successful in politics, many of such women are highly doing so because of their connection with men. A number of challenges impeding female participation have clearly been discussed and a number of intervention strategies were also given. It is hoped that if these suggestions are implemented, Zimbabwe might realize increased numbers of women in politics with substantive and meaningful changes that empower the lives of ordinary Zimbabwean women.

Women in other Third World countries can follow the example of Zimbabwe. Women should not be confined to the domestic sphere alone but should also make effort to actively participate in the public sphere. If they are accorded the relevant opportunities to empower themselves through education and access to other resources like land, they can actively participate in the public sphere. The platform given to Zimbabwean women during the liberation struggle to participate together with men at the war front should continue to prevail and not to re-confine them to the domestic sphere after independence. There is need for all countries to take a leaf from Zimbabwe and strive to lessen the gender inequalities between women and men in terms of access to resources, participation in politics and in decision-making positions among others. Despite the patriarchal hegemony and some other conditions that put women in disadvantaged situation, women in their respective countries should not take a backseat but should continue to strive to get better positions in their respective countries.


(1) Lise Ostergaard, Gender and Development: A Practical Guide(New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 6.

(2.) Enna S. Gudhlanga, Miles or Mirages? Women and the Public Sphere in Zimbabwe (Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag Publishing, 2011), p. 74.

(3.) Zimbabwe Women Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) and Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), Beyond Inequalities: Women in Zimbabwe(Harare: ZWCRN and SARDC, 1998), p. 51.

(4.) Sunungurayi Chingarande, "Gender and the Struggle for Land Equity" in Sam Moyo (ed.). Contested Terrain: Land Reform and Civil Society in Zimbabwe (Pietermaritzburg: S and S Publishers in association with African Institute for Agrarian Studies), pp. 275-304.

(5.) Kenneth C. Chinyowa, "The invention of Shona stereotypes in Shona Literature." Zimbabwe Review 3, 4 (1997), 12-14.

(6.) Kingsley Garbett, "Spirit Mediums as Mediators in Valley Korekore Society" in John Beattie and John Middleton, (eds.), Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa(New York: Africana Publishing, 1969) pp. 104-127.

(7.) Terence O. Ranger, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7: A Study of African Resistance(London: Heinemann, 1967), p. 209.

(8.) Ibid., p. 210.

(9.) Terence O. Ranger, Women in Politics of Makoni District, Zimbabwe 1890-1980(Manchester: University of Manchester, 1981), p. 3.

(10.) Norma J. Kriger, Zimbabwe's Guerrilla War: Peasant Voices(Cambridge: CUP, 1992), p. 192.

(11.) Elinor Batezaat et al, "Women and Independence: The Heritage and the Struggle," in Colin Stoneman (ed.), Zimbabwe's Prospects: Issues of Race, Class, State and Capital in Southern Africa(London: Macmillan, 1988) pp. 153-174.

(12.) Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay, Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Changes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), p. 3.

(13.) Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 171.

(14.) Elizabeth Schmidt, Peasants Traders and Wives: Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe 1870-1939(Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1992), p. 86.

(15.) Sam Moyo, "A Gendered Perspective of the Land Question." Southern African Feminist Review, 1, 1 (1995), 13-31.

(16.) Munashe Furusa, "The Muse of History and Politics of Gender Representation in Zimbabwean Women's Literature," in Zifikile Mguni, Munashe Furusa and Ruby Magosvongwe, African Womanhood in Zimbabwean Literature: New Critical Perspectives on Women's Literature in African Languages (Harare: College Press), pp. 1-23.

(17.) Munashe Furusa, "The Muse of History and Politics of Gender Representation in Zimbabwean Women's Literature."

(18.) Elizabeth Schmidt, "Negotiated Spaces and Contested Terrain: Men, Women and the Law in Colonial Zimbabwe." Journal of Southern African Studies 16, 4 (1990), 622-648.

(19.) Munashe Furusa, "The Muse of History and Politics of Gender Representation in Zimbabwean Women's Literature."

(20.) Southern Rhodesia Legislative Assembly Debates, 1950-1979.

(21.) David Lodge, Modern Criticism and Theory (London: Longman), p. 36.

(22.) Kwanele O. Jirira, "Our Struggle Our Selves: Shaping the Feminist Theory in Our Context: The Zimbabwe Scenario." Southern African Feminist Review 1, 1 (1995), 70-82.

(23.) Rudo B. Gaidzanwa, "Bourgeois Theories of Gender and Feminism and their Shortcomings With Special Reference in Southern Africa" in Ruth Meena (ed.). Gender in ,Southern Africa: Conceptual and Theoretical Issues(Harare: Southern African Political Economic Series, 1992) pp. 69-80.

(24.) Irene Staunton, Mothers of the Revolution: The War Experience of Thirty Zimbabwean Women (London: James Currey, 1990).

(25.) Norma J. Kriger, Zimbabwe's Guerrilla War: Peasant Voices, pp. 170-211.

(26.) Edgar Tekere, Edgar "2boy" Zivanai Tekere: A Lifetime of Struggle(Harare: Southern African Political Economic Series, 2007), p. 77.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Fay Chung, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from the Liberation Struggle (Harare: Weaver Press, 2007), p. 213.

(29.) Robert G. Mugabe's Speech in Women's Liberation in the Zimbabwean Revolution.Materials from the ZANU Women's Seminar, Maputo Mozambique (May 1979), p. 15.

(30.) Fay Chung, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from the Liberation Struggle, p. 213.

(31.) Pepetela (Artur Pestana) Mayombe (London: Penguin), pp. 30-50.

(32.) Fay Chung, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from the Liberation Struggle, p. 287.

(33.) James Mahlaule, "Feminist Writing in the Context of Listening and Culture: A Comparative Study of Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions and of the Film Script Neria," M.A. Thesis (University of Natal: Department of English, 1995), p. 7.

(34.) Jane Ngwenya, "Women and Liberation in Zimbabwe," in Miranda Davies (ed.),Third World Second Sex: Women's Struggles and National Liberation(London: Zed Books, 1983), pp. 80-98.

(35.) Zimbabwe's National Gender Policy (Harare: Ministry of Women's Affairs, Gender and Community Development, undated).

(36.) Linda Chipunza, "Equal Opportunities in Educational Management in Institutions of Higher Learning: An Agenda for Gender." Zambezia Journal of Arts and Humanities, 30, 1 (2003) 1-8.

(37.) Margareth Dongo, Zimbabwe Legislative Assembly Debates 1990-2000.

(38.) Linda Chipunza, "Equal Opportunities in Educational Management in Institutions of Higher Learning: An Agenda for Gender."

(39.) Enna S. Gudhlanga, Miles or Mirages? Women and the Public Sphere in Zimbabwe, p. 20.

(40.) Shereen Essof, "She-murenga: Challenges, Opportunities and Setbacks of the Women Movement in Zimbabwe," Feminist Africa: Women Mobilized 4 (2005), 25-45.

(41.) Ibid.

(42.) Joyce Kazembe, "Participation in the Constitutional Commission of Zimbabwe: Personal Experience and Observations," Southern African Feminist Review 4, 1 (2000), 85-95.

(43.) Yvonne Mahlangu, "The Gender Dynamics of the Constitutional Debate," Southern African Feminist Review 4, 1 (2000), 67-70.

(44.) Stanley Kwenda, "Wanted: Female Presidential Candidate," The Financial Gazzette, March 27, 2008.

(45.) Ibid.

(46.) Alfredo Saad-Filho and Johnston Deborah, "Introduction," in Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston (ed.). Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader (London: Pluto Press), pp. 1-6.

(47.) Ibid

(48.) Ibid.

(49.) Claud Cockburn, In the Way of Women: Men's Resistance to Sex Equality in Organizations(London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 66.

(50.) Linda Chipunza, "Equal Opportunities in Educational Management in Institutions of Higher Learning: An Agenda for Gender."

(51.) Enna S. Gudhlanga, "Opportunities and challenges of women's participation in Zimbabwean Politics," Paper presented at the SEPH1S International Conference on Women and the Public Sphere (Azerbaijan: Baku, 18-21 June 2008).

(52.) Ibid.

By Enna Gudhlanga *

* Enna Gudhlanga is a lecturer at Zimbabwe Open University, Department of Studies. Please direct all correspondence to:

Elections &     Women in      % women in    Women         %
Appointments   Parliament     Parliament   Ministers    Women

1980              9/100           9          1/20         5.0
1985              9/100           9          2/26         7.7
1990              17/150         11.3        3129        10.3
1995              21/150          14         1/22         4.5
2000              14/150         9.3         6/30         20
2005              24/150          16         3/20         15
2008              30/210         14.3        5/36        13.8

Elections &     Women     % Women
Appointments    Deputy     Deputy
               Minister   Minister

1980             2/14       14.3
1985             2/11       18.2
1990             6/14       42.9
1995             4/16        25
2000             3/14       21.4
2005             2/20        10
2008              --         --

Source: Hansard-Proceedings of Zimbabwe Parliamntary Debates,

SINCE 1980

Elections and   Seats    Men      Women    % of
Appointments                               Women

1980              40       37       3       7.5
1985              40       37       3       7.5
2005              66       42       24      36.4
2008              60       40       20      33.3

Source: The Zimbabwe Independent 2008
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Title Annotation:OTHER PAPERS
Author:Gudhlanga, Enna
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6ZIMB
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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