social commentary:with Moses Mugugunyeki
In September 1995, 25 years ago, people from all walks of life from across the globe converged in Beijing, China, for the fourth World Conference on Women.
For them, it was an opportunity to usher the way forward with regard to gender equality and ending violence against women.
After two weeks of deliberations, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, regarded as the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights, was birthed.
The Platform for Action made comprehensive commitments under 12 critical areas of concern, which member states, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other participants pledged to undertake in their respective jurisdictions.
September 2020 marked the Silver Jubilee of the Beijing Platform for Action, a framework that has turned out to be a powerful source of guidance and inspiration for many nations, Zimbabwe included.
Zimbabwe was one of the countries represented in Beijing and today 25 years on, it is among several nations that are mainstreaming the Beijing Platform for Action.
While the global blueprint was under construction in Beijing, Tracy Chindeya (not real name) was doing Grade 1.
Chindeya, now 32, from Kondo village in Chipinge’s ward 16, had hoped that at some point of her adulthood she would break into the male-dominated world of politics.
It became her desire throughout her primary education and secondary schooling, which, however, was cut short after she fell pregnant and dropped out of school while she was in Form 2.
However, early marriage did not deter Chindeya from pursuing her dream although she had to face a plethora of challenges ranging from patriarchal systems, social, religious and cultural norms
“I think I grew up differently from other girls in my hood. Chipinge is one of the communities that is largely characterised by deeply ingrained stereotypes and is a highly patriarchal society,” said Chindeya.
“At school I challenged boys on certain aspects regarded as ‘macho’ and when we got to the village, males would be afforded absolute priority at the expense of females who, to some extent, had their rights limited,” she recalled.
Chindeya said she had to face the bull by its horns and became a gender champion in her community despite facing a lot of resistance even from her family.
Buoyed by the government’s desire to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment at the grassroots, thanks to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Chindeya has been instrumental in gender sensitisation programmes in her community.
“It’s a tall order getting into the communities to preach this gender equality gospel. I am seeing a handful of women in our rural communities now sitting at the high tables with men,” she said.
“The reason that I will not allow you to publish my name is that I am vying for a political office. It will not be wise enough to go public and announce that because there are lots of obstacles I have to go through. I will make that public when the right time comes.
“We have these policies and laws that form the milieu for women’s participation in politics and public administration in Zimbabwe, which were born out of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, but 25 years on we are on the fringes of politics.”
Apart from the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Zimbabwe is a signatory to many regional and international instruments on women’s rights, including the the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
The country is also a signatory to the Sadc Protocol on Gender and Development, which came to an end in 2015.
“We are not there yet when it comes to women’s participation in politics. We still play second fiddle to men in all aspects of leadership,” Chindeya said.
According to a Gender Links analysis of the July 2018 general elections in Zimbabwe titled Gender in the 2018 Zimbabwe Local Government Elections, the representation of women in local government declined from 16% to 14% in the election.
Only 1 156 women (17% of the total) contested for local government seats.
For Chipinge district, the outcome of the election, just like many local authorities, reflects how communities give absolute priority to men when it comes to leadership and governance.
Only nine of the 38 councillors that were voted in the 2018 elections in Chipinge are female. However, the only positive is that the local authority has a female chairperson, Patience Mlambo.
“There had been some improvements in as far as increasing women’s participation in politics in Chipinge since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, thanks to gender sensitisation programmes that have been going on over the years,” said Platform for Youth Development Trust gender and advocacy officer Cynthia Gwenzi.
“During the run-up to the July 2018 elections, we ran a project titled Muganga Wedu [Our Home] with the aim of encouraging women to participate in politics in Chipinge. This helped a lot as we managed to come up with nine female councillors although we failed to have a female MP (Member of Parliament).
“Our programmes start from the grassroots where we encourage women to take up positions in community programmes like school development committees.
We have also embraced traditional leaders in our gender mainstreaming programmes and it’s paying off.”
Gwenzi believes communities are now receptive to gender issues although she noted that there were some harmful traditional practices derailing gender equality.
“There is hope, but there are certain traditional practices that need to be done away with. In our programming, however, we have embraced some aspects of the Ndau culture that we feel are progressive. We now borrow some good things of our tradition, which we incorporate with human rights,” Gwenzi said.
Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE) programmes manager Batanayi Gwangwawa said while Zimbabwe was a signatory to many global declarations and had promulgated policies and laws at home aimed at increasing women’s leadership and decision-making, the snail’s pace in the implementation was worrisome.
“You will realise that just after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the government introduced the Gender and Women Affairs ministry and that in its own way was an achievement,” said Gwangwawa.
“We had a new Constitution in 2013, which provides a quota of 60 seats set aside for women for proportional representation in Parliament and this guarantee woman’s positions in Parliament.”
According to the 2019 edition of the biennial Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Map of Women in Politics, in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of women in parliament grew in 2018, with a regional average share at 23,7%.
And Gwangwawa feels achieving the 50% benchmark in Zimbabwe appears to be pie in the sky.
“Despite all these efforts, we haven’t reached the 50/50 representation and getting to this in the very near future is unlikely. At this pace, it will take us almost 70 years to achieve this.”
She, however, said WALPE had come up with a raft of programmes meant to encourage women to take up leadership and governance positions.
“We are grooming and nurturing potential women leaders through our capacity-building initiatives. We take the potential candidate from zero to 100 through trainings on etiquette and confidence-building, among others,” Gwangwawa said.
“Women politicians have problems when it comes to campaigning because they lack financial resources. So, we have a social entrepreneurship component where we empower potential women leaders with financial support to start income-generating programmes so that they have enough financial footing to contest with their male counterparts.
“We are also informing on policy and debate around issues to do with women participation in politics.”
Gwangwawa said WALPE launched an ambitious programme dubbed the 2,2 Million Votes For Women From Women campaign meant to canvass women voters and aspiring female candidates to support each other.
Zimbabwe Gender Commission [ZGC] CEO Virginia Muwanigwa believes Zimbabwe has done a lot to build the leadership capacity of women at various levels.
“As a country, we have done considerably well in our endeavours to promote the participation and representation of women in politics,” she said.
“Our biggest achievement, which should be the bedrock of a country, is the promulgation of a very progressive Constitution in respect of gender equality and non-discrimination. And this applies in principle to the politics and decision-making sector.”
However, Muwanigwa had her reservations on the implementation of global and regional conventions and domestic statutes.
“While our legislative framework adheres to the regional and international standards, we are not doing so well on the implementation of the constitutional provisions. In practice we are failing, failing to implement the constitutional provisions that promote the participation and representation of women in politics,” she said.
She said ZGC, as a constitutional body, was working with political parties, the executive, Parliament, other commissions, civil society organisations and women’s rights organisations to demand accountability to increase women’s participation in leadership and decision-making.
Although a comprehensive enabling legislative and policy framework exists in Zimbabwe, the full implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action remains a challenge.