Women Fight for a Place in Zambian Politics by Dando Mweetwa
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – Ruth Zozi, 47, dreams of becoming a member of Parliament, MP, and representing her constituency. But she says there are three factors that will never allow her dream to come true: She is illiterate. She is poor. She is a woman.
Zozi resides in the interior area of Chawama, a compound of Lusaka, the capital. Every day she leaves her home early in the morning to sell her fish at Chawama market, hoping to make a living.
Wearing a chitenge, an African garment similar to a sarong, she sits on a brown sack. Zozi says she has tried to search for someone to connect her with women already in politics who could help mentor her, but her efforts have been in vain. With her legs stretched out on the sack of fresh fish, which she sells for 5,000, 10,000 and 25,000 kwachas, $1, $2 and $5.20 USD, she articulates local issues with a strong voice.
“There are women like us who really would love to join politics, but because there is no one to support us, we fail,” she says. “I am [illiterate], poor and, above all, a woman. I don’t think anyone would support me.”
She says if women were more empowered here, then they could fully participate in politics. For now, she says women’s participation is limited to voting and dancing and singing songs of praise for the president when he leaves for and returns from trips and at political rallies.
“It’s always sad to see women dancing at the airports and voting in large number[s], but not much is done to support these women,” she says.
She says that increasing the number of women politicians is the solution.
“We want change, and it is by putting women in powerful political positions that we can have such change,” she says. “If more women are adopted and supported financially in politics, then we women can be given more skills.”
In Zambia, many women say they believe women don’t belong in politics. But women already serving in the political arena – and some of their male colleagues – are challenging this stereotype, citing women’s successes. Zambians attribute the lack of women in politics to cultural, religious, legal and safety barriers. Meanwhile, the government and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have been working to remove these barriers in advance of the fall 2011 elections.
Of the 158 MPs here, just 22 are women. With women representing just 14 percent of Parliament, Zambia is one of the poorest performers on affirmative action in the South African Development Community, SADC, a regional interparliamentary body made up of 15 member countries.
Zambia will hold its presidential and legislative elections in October 2011. The Regional Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, a policy organ of the SADC, aims for women to make up half of Zambia’s Parliament after these elections.
But not all women here support that goal. Karen Mbuji, 19, a nursing student, says a woman’s place is not in politics.
A woman loses respect and dignity if she engages in politics, and I don’t see the reason of her participating in politics,” she says, using her hands for emphasis. “How can a woman gain respect when she takes the place of a man?”
Katie Nachaba, a housewife and a student, says men are leaders and should participate in politics rather than women.
“As women we have been brought up believing that men are our leaders,” she says. “I don’t expect a woman to engage in political issues.”
She says women who participate in politics risk being associated with prostitution.
“A women is a respected figure in society, and how can a woman mingle with cadres who are usually [not respected]?” she asks.
Mumbi Phiri, 42, an MP for the Patriotic Front party, acknowledges the stereotype but says that women politicians are not prostitutes.
Phiri says her interest for politics developed after her son and many other students died in a road traffic accident on their way home from boarding school. She attributed the accident to negligence by the education sector and says the only way she could make a change was through politics, which she became involved in in 2006.
Phiri, a mother of seven children, says her husband supports her. Still, she says it is not easy to be a woman politician.
“As women, we tend to be harassed, like in my situation where I was taken to court and detained,” she says.
Phiri says she was arrested in 2009 with her counterpart MP, Jean Kapata, for disorderly conduct for unnecessary shouting in public.
But she says she is used to this and that men usually take advantage of women in Parliament and women in general. She says women need to challenge this.
“But let’s go in as women and fight,” she says. “Let us prove ourselves, stand up and be counted.”
As a woman politician, Phiri says she tries to prove that a woman can do more than people expect of her. She says she has worked hard to make sure people in her constituency have access to clean water and women have access to hummer meals, or machines used to grind maize. She was also behind the construction of a bridge to prevent children from drowning and a maternity wing at a local clinic.
Nelson Banda, coordinator and information officer for the Zambia National Women’s Lobby, an NGO that promotes the representation and participation of women at all levels of decision-making, says there is no society that can develop without women’s participation. If women can manage a home, what can stop them from managing the country, he asks.
”We have represented our women very well,” he says. “I am willing to help any woman. Those planning to join politics, [I] am willing to mentor them.”
Victor Banda, a local resident, says he supports women’s political participation but doesn’t think a woman could be president.
“Women do not support each other here,” he says. “In as much as we may have women MPs, ministers [who are] women, we cannot have a woman president to rule us because women are not strong.”
Banda says women in politics do not have many resources, so men prefer other men as leaders. He also says that religion and the way women have been socialized here have created cultural barriers to their political participation.
Politically motivated violence also hinders women from participating in politics, he says. Many times women are physically violated or verbally violated, called different names such as “prostitutes.”
Banda says there are also legal barriers. He says the current constitution is silent about ensuring that women make up half of Parliament and that the draft constitution doesn’t clearly define gender equality.
“We do not have a good constitution and political will to engage more women in politics,” he says.
But Christian M. Chilufya of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy party, councilor for the Mpima ward in Kabwe, a district in Zambia’s Central province, says there is something good for women in the new draft constitution.
Article 183 of a 2010 amendment to Zambia’s Constitution sets a 30-percent minimum for women and men in the National Assembly, according to the Zambian Economist, an online platform run by economist Chola Mukanga. But the constitution is still being debated and has not been approved yet.
Chilufya, a retired teacher, says she developed an interest in politics long before she retired because of an eagerness to see development occur in her area. She says she decided to use her retirement savings for campaigns, but was luckily the only person on her party’s ticket and was quickly adopted by the ruling party. She was elected councilor last year.She says her husband is supportive, and her political life doesn’t interfere with taking care of her six children.
Chilufya says the government supports and encourages women’s participation in politics. The government also supports women in her ward in developmental activities, such as providing them farming input loans, she says.
Both Banda of Zambia National Women’s Lobby and Phiri say they have prepared women adequately to participate in this year’s general election.
Banda says his organization has prepared campaign materials and airtime for these women to help them communicate their messages.
“We have trained aspiring candidates, and so far the response is good,” Banda says.
Phiri says this year’s elections will see an increase in the number of women in Parliament.
”We are prepared as women,” she says. “Just watch what happens!”
Waving flies from the fish laid on the sack, Zozi says women in politics must look out for their fellow women once elected.
“Women should remember us in Parliament,” she says. “When elected, they should represent us well and also include us in their plans because they, the women, [understand] our problems [more] than men.”
by Dando Mweetwa , Reporter The Global Press Institute ©2011, http://globalpressinstitute.org
Nustrat Ara´s biography at http://prosumerzen.net/external-editorial-partnerships-contributions/