The Zimbabwean government sent senior representatives to the Beijing Conference in 1995 and agreed that the problems that women face include:
• the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women,
• inequalities and inadequacies in the access to education and training,
• violence against women,
• inequalities between men and women at all levels of decision making,
• lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of human rights for women.
22 years after Beijing women are still suffering the same ills as they did before. Government has invested time and resources over the years but there is no real improvement in women’s lives, we can therefore conclude that there is no political will at the highest level.
Granted the Constitution was a positive step to bring about gender equality and raise the profile of women’s rights. The reality however is that women are still not regarded as equal partners especially in decision making positions. An example is the recent statement quoted in the Daily News where female MPs are calling for equal representation in Parliament by demanding 105 seats of the 210 Constituency House of Assembly. One of their male colleagues, Shamva South MP, Joseph Mapiki, said that women’s contributions in Parliament need to be looked as they are not adding value, and are just the same as the women in the villages. He called female MPs, particularly those who came in through the quota system as prescribed by section 124 of the Constitution, benchwarmers.
These MPs have been called worse by their colleagues and by the general public. The question that begs an answer here is, why are the expectations of women’s performance so much higher when they are in leadership positions? Does Mapiki’s comment reflect the thinking of the leadership of his political party? The women who came in through the quota are new to Parliament, they are learning how the system works and they are building their confidence to speak in an intimidating set up, where they are heckled and regarded as inferior. They should be treated the same as men who are in parliament for the first time.
The MPs that came in as a result of section 124 should be cut some slack: if we were go back and look at the performance of the male MPs during their first term in office and assess their performance, what would we find? Were they articulate, were they able to follow and understand the process? The answers would be in the negative. Section 124 allows the quota for 10 years, why are we so quick to criticise it before it is even half way through?
In 2013, RAU did an assessment of the performance of parliamentarians according to gender, and one of main findings was that as a group, female MPs attendance was more impressive than that of their male counterparts. All of them, except one, scored attendance rates above 25%. In the House of Assembly, women’s participation was the same as that of the men, speaking an average 6.5 times compared to men’s average 6.4 times. However fewer women, 5 out of 34 (14.7%), never spoke, while more men, 45 out of 176 (25.8%), never spoke.
This research shows that they were more men who were bench warmers in Parliament, who not only didn’t table motions but actually said nothing at all. It would be interesting to do the same assessment for this Parliament including those that came in through the quota so that we can ascertain who speaks more, including tabling motions. Perhaps this will silence the naysayers who shout when women are warming benches but are quiet when men do exactly the same.
It is important to have women in decision making positions so that they represent interests that are being raised by their constituencies as we cannot solve national challenges unless women participate fully in efforts to find solutions. Since we have a population of 52% women, it is not too much to ask to have equal representation in all decision making positions.