THE composition of the cabinet recently appointed by President Robert Mugabe has confirmed something that has been witnessed in many other African states: That African leaders have little regard for gender equality and view women as incapable of executing duties at the top levels of government.
While many have criticised Mugabe’s gender imbalanced cabinet from a localised point of view, I feel it is important to analyse the recent appointments as part of a larger problem that affects the whole African continent due to essentially the same reason.
Key elective posts in government as well as those gained by political appointment have generally been filled by men despite African leaders giving lip service to gender equality and signing many conventions that promote the cause.
Earlier this year, the Gender Working Group in Nigeria, a coalition of civil society organisations working on gender and women’s rights, brought it to everyone’s attention that appointments in Kaduna state by governor Patrick Ibrahim Yakowa did not cater for adequate participation of women in governance.
Out of 25 commissioners appointed by Yakowa only two were women and out of 46 area development administrators only one was a woman. Yakowa made these gender-blind appointments even though a gender policy signed and adopted by the government of Nigeria in 2006 states that all nominations emanating from the state for appointments into federal, state, local government and the foreign service should reflect a minimum of 35% women representation.
In Ghana, the Federation of Women Lawyers condemned the marginalisation of Ghanaian women in leadership positions in 2008. They noted that out of 10 regional ministers appointed that year there wasn’t a single woman and out of 10 deputy regional ministers only three were women.
The preponderance of women’s marginalisation in government on the African continent leads to one question: why do African leaders continue to sideline African women despite making attempts on paper to bring about gender equality?
Scholars in the field of gender studies, some of whom have defined gender as unequal social relations between women and men in which imbalanced access to power and resources ensures that women are kept in a subservient position, have offered many explanations one of which I consider to be credible.
According to these scholars, marginalisation of women in governance occurs because governments and other organisations are not gender-neutral, but mirror gender differences found in the external environment.
As such, the way women are marginalised in decision-making at the societal level and given gender-specific roles is the same way they are treated at the governmental level. They are given a small number of posts which are in line with the general roles women play in the broader society such as the caring and nurturing functions; this is why you hardly find women being appointed to such ministries as the ministry of defence or state security which are generally held to be the domain of males.
Since gender relations at an organisational or governmental level mirror those in the broader society, it is important not only to come up with such tools as quota systems to promote participation of women in governance, but also to devise mechanisms to change society’s culture with regards to how women are viewed.
The reason why I emphasise this point is because quota systems, international conventions and policies on gender are not enough to bring about meaningful participation of women in governance because they have been disregarded by African leaders in the past.
As such, while the aforementioned tools for bringing about gender parity should not be abandoned because they have had fruitful results in many countries, they have their shortfalls and should be accompanied by long term mechanisms to change the mindset of society.
The patriarchal society related reasons for unequal gender relations in government given above are some of the significant reasons as to why women are being excluded from top positions in governments and other organisations.
Other reasons to do with women not being educated which have been offered in some quarters to defend Mugabe’s gender-imbalanced cabinet are not only untrue, but a lame excuse to mask the unequal gender relations in government assimilated from society.
A lot of ministers in Mugabe’s cabinet such as Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa only hold first degrees, while some don’t even have degrees. I find it hard to believe that there are no women in top Zanu PF structures who are also in parliament that have degrees whom the president could have appointed to cabinet.Furthermore, even if it were true that women in his party are not educated enough to hold ministerial posts, the president could have appointed women from outside his party.
Part 3 of the new constitution, Section 104(3) states that “ministers and deputy ministers are appointed from among senators or members of the National Assembly, but up to five, chosen for their professional skills and competence may be appointed from outside parliament”.
If the president was sincere about appointing a reasonable number of women in his cabinet, he could have utilised this provision to rope in educated women from various sectors who are not in parliament or do not belong to any political party.
When all is said and done, Mugabe’s grossly gender-imbalanced cabinet is simply untenable, especially in this day and age.