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Women struggle to make parliament impact

WHILE more women made it into Zimbabwe’s Eighth Parliament after the July 31 general elections last year, courtesy of the new constitution’s proportional representation system, they are still to make their mark in parliament seven months after being sworn in.

Wongai Zhangazha

The Eighth Parliament has 85 women out of 270 legislators who secured seats in the National Assembly following the elections, while the Senate has 39 women out of 80 members.

According to the new constitution, 60 National Assembly seats are reserved for women, 60 senatorial and 10 persons on each provincial council elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Of the 60 national assembly seats reserved for women and the 60 senatorial seats, six will come from each of the country’s 10 provinces.

In the words of then Women’s Affairs minister Olivia Muchena last year the quota system “is the opportunity for female parliamentarians to prove that they are hard workers, responsible and can perform just like men”.

But despite their increased number in parliament, little has changed as it is usually the voices of the same powerful women like Vice-President Joice Mujuru, Women’s Affairs minister Oppah Muchinguri (Zanu PF), MDC secretary general Priscilla Misihairaibwi-Mushonga, MDC-T deputy president Thokozani Khupe, Nyasha Chikwinya (Zanu PF MP) and Jessie Majome (MDC-T MP), who dominate coverage of women legislators.

Much has been happening in the country over the last seven months since the legislators were sworn-in, some of which mainly affects females who make up more than 50% of the population.

Given their numbers in parliament, one would have expected to hear more women’s voices expressing their sentiments on the variety of topical issues, and standing up and fight for other women who suffer all sorts of prejudices and stereotypes in a patriarchal society.

National discourse has been dominated by the issue of endemic corruption, especially at government institutions and parastatals, and the so-called “salary-gate” in which management at such institutions were raking in “obscene” salaries despite the fact that most of them are wallowing in bankruptcy.

The continued underperformance of the economy has also figured prominently, with worries mounting that it is showing fresh signs of stress.

As far as women’s issues are concerned, the issue of rape remains a major problem, with government officials in a recent case accused of demanding sexual favours in exchange for food from women at Chingwizi holding camp for Tokwe-Mukosi flood victims.

However, female parliamentarians have largely remained mum on this issue.

They were also deafeningly silent on the alleged exploitation of members of the national women’s football team which allegedly got a paltry US$5 in allowance and substandard food while in camp.

Though we have had motions raised on imposing minimum sentences on certain crimes, provision for child sex and rape offenders, growing gender -based violence by Majome and the introduction of a cancer levy by Khupe which received political support from women from other political parties, many feel it is still not enough from the women in parliament.

More of this aggressive participation in parliament on other topical issues, including economic issues, is needed.

This has prompted questions being asked whether the increase in the number of women parliamentarians merely mean quantitative symbolism or it reflects a change of emphasis in debate and qualitative representation of women’s issues in parliament.

Unfortunately, its existence has ended up being more quantitative than qualitative as it is failing to challenge the patriarchal culture that informs parliamentary processes.

However, some female MPs have blamed the media for the lack coverage of the women parliamentarians.

“It’s also indicative of the bias in the media because on the corruption issues and Tokwe-Mukosi floods disaster we have had several women MPs speaking out but they don’t get covered.We have identified inherent biases and discrimination in coverage within the media of women participation in parliament,” said one parliamentarian.

A senior parliamentary reporter , who attends most parliament sittings and portfolio committee meetings, said women MPs have been very vocal when issues such as water, electricity, maternity issues and others that directly affect women are discussed in parliament.

She said although women issues have been articulated at both Houses due to a larger representation by female MPs, the question of whether quantity is better than quality still arises because far less than half of the females in parliament are vocal, even on issues that directly affect women.

“This is despite that parliament allows for debate even in indigenous languages (Shona and Ndebele). The result is that very few female parliamentarians end up being covered in the media – and in most circumstances it is the same vocal women like Irene Zindi (Zanu PF) and Majome (MDC-T), Thabita Khumalo (MDC-T) (Sithembile Mlotshwa MDC-T senator), Misihairabwi-Mushonga (MDC) and a few others who are often covered by the media for their contributions,” said the parliament reporter.

“These mentioned female MPs have been so daring and are brave enough even to discuss issues that might be considered as taboo.

“They are also eloquent and can bring well researched contributions which can be much better than some contributions made by their male counterparts.”

The reporter said at parliamentary portfolio and thematic committees, female MPs who have contributed immensely include Majome, Paurina Mpariwa (MDC-T), Biata Nyamupinga (Zanu PF), Jasmine Toffa (MDC), Lillian Timveous (MDC-T senator), Berita Chikwama (Zanu PF), Irene Zindi (Zanu PF), Annastancia Ndhlovu (Zanu PF).

Women in Politics Support Unit (Wipsu) programmes manager Patricia Muganhiri- Muwandi said it was a bit too early to try to get what was achieved so far as most of the women were still to understand parliamentary processes.

She said: “Honestly speaking, I think what the quota has done is that it has literally increased the figures of the women in parliament because they are now 124 they used to be just above 51 there is a big increase in the number of women sitting in parliament .

“But in terms of what has been achieved so far I think the group is large but we are still working with the women to really find ways of having them start participating effectively, bringing up motions or influencing policies debates in such a manner that people can actually say it is because of the women. It’s also a little bit too early, I think most of the women, the biggest challenge is that most are first timers in parliament and they are still learning their roles and responsibilities.”

Muganhiri-Muwandi said there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure that these women are able to speak confidently and to contribute meaningfully.

She said Wipsu has a number of activities, that include Hansard analysis, which look at how women are participating as well as challenges and research on the legislative agenda in parliament.

“So we look at those Bills or policies that are before parliament and we will analyse them and make them more user-friendly so that the women contribute during debates,” said Muganhiri-Muwandi.

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