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Life After Mugabe: Women in Zimbabwe Push for Political Power

During the hardline president's 37-year regime women were largely forced out of politics. Will things change under new leadership?

Zimbabwe's new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, swore in his cabinet recently, consolidating his power after bringing 37 years of Robert Mugabe's iron-fisted rule to an end this November.

But the lack of women in Mnangagwa's new administration has women leaders and rights campaigners concerned over efforts to advance women's political empowerment in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.

Out of nearly two dozen cabinet posts, only four ministries are led by women: women and youth affairs, environment, tourism, and the ministry of state for Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city.

All six deputy ministers are men, despite the fact that gender balance in public appointments is a constitutional requirement. Local advocacy groups such as the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe have expressed dismay at the line-up, saying that, since independence in 1980, women—who form the majority of the population – have been "deliberately excluded" from key ministries such as health, education, and finance.

Under ex-president Mugabe, who resigned following a military takeover, women's groups consistently lobbied for their socioeconomic rights, often against a tide of male resistance. Sakhile Sifelani-Ngoma, the executive director of the Women in Politics Support Unit, describes the struggle to gain representation under Mugabe as "tragic."

As the country looks ahead to general elections in 2018, she stresses the importance of creating a safe environment for women to participate equally in the political process.

"For many years, we've been saying there is a need to create the platform for women to be able to participate in politics in the same way as men without intimidation or fear because of one's gender," she says. "In 2018, this will be very important if women are to make strides in politics."

"Politics Is Not for Good Girls"

Linda Masarira, 35, a human rights activist who was jailed for four months by the authorities last year, plans to run as an independent candidate in 2018. She says it is crucial for women to make a stand in order to gain political visibility, even if it comes at a social cost.

"Even after Mugabe, the women's struggle continues. We will not achieve what we want anytime soon as long as women cannot stand up and be vigilant. I've said to myself I will not let what other people think of women hold me back," she says. "There are a lot of labels that are assigned to women. I've been told I'm a 'prostitute,' [asked] why is it I'm not married and told I want to behave like a man. But I've realized that politics is not for good girls, it's not for sissies. If you want to be a good girl you won't survive politics."

Masarira is critical of Mnangagwa's army-aided assent to power, and fears public euphoria over Mugabe's exit could overshadow the opportunity for real change. If Mnangagwa is elected president next year, she says the country risks going back to the same patriarchal rule it endured under Mugabe.

"[Mnangagwa] can give us a show for the next six or seven months and everyone will be happy, but if they vote [for him] we'll still be under the military's control and dominated by a bunch of men," she says.

Leaning on Quotas

Currently, women occupy 35 percent of parliamentary seats, largely due to a proportional representation quota of at least 30 percent that was introduced in 2013. Legislators are considering extending the policy by a further 10 years after it expires in 2022, to ensure the country achieves 50-50 gender representation.

But activists say Zimbabwe will need more than an election and a parliamentary quota to achieve gender balance.

A recent policy briefing by the Harare-based Research and Advocacy Unit revealed that women are underrepresented at all executive levels in public institutions, including in state-owned enterprises and local authorities. The RAU also found that, within political party structures, women were more likely appointed "based on patronage and to window dress" rather than as a means to build women's capacity.

Within the ruling Zanu-PF party, Mugabe had, at times, bowed to calls to adhere to the quota system in appointing the party's four-member executive, to open the way for a female vice president. Joice Mujuru was made party deputy in 2004 and, after that, appointed as Zimbabwe's first female vice president. But many observers say Mujuru was only given the roles because she posed little threat to Mugabe's succession plans.

In 2014, she was fired amid accusations of plotting against Mugabe, while former first lady Grace Mugabe rose up the ladder as leader of Zanu-PF's Women's League.

Shortly before Mugabe's resignation, the party structures had collectively endorsed Grace as the sole candidate for the post of Zanu-PF second secretary and national vice president ahead of the party's December congress. This move, along with the sacking of then-vice president Mnangagwa and several key party figures, was seen as an attempt to ensure Grace would succeed her 93-year-old husband, and it prompted the army to act.

After Mugabe's fall, the two vice president posts remain vacant. Mnangagwa, who has the authority to approve both party and state appointments, is yet to indicate whether a woman could be considered, in line with the constitutional requirement that women make up half of all elected or appointed state posts.

Taking Up the Challenge

As the country waits to see who Mnangagwa will appoint as his deputies, some analysts worry he might fill the posts only with an eye to furthering his own political interests. But Vimbaishe Musvaburi, 35, a rights and youth activist, is holding out hope for the appointment of a female vice president.

"There are definitely many strong women within politics that we look up to both in the opposition and Zanu-PF, so there's no reason why a woman shouldn't be appointed to that post," says Musvaburi, who intends to run as an independent candidate in a Bulawayo constituency in 2018.

Musvaburi also wants more people to understand the kinds of political biases women candidates are facing in the run-up to the election. If the public knew how hard it is for women to get into politics in Zimbabwe, she says, it might help build a wider social acceptance of women standing for office.

"As a female independent candidate, there are many challenges one faces, including social prejudice, victimization, and financial challenges. Those are some of the biggest challenges I've faced," she says. "But it's the only way for people to accept women can be leaders."

This article originally appeared on Women & Girls. You can find the original here. For more news coverage and community engagement focused on women and girls in the developing world. You can sign up for the Women & Girls email list.