13 September 2013

Zambia: It's a Rich Man's World - Where Are the Women in Zambia's Legislature?


A poor record on female representation means Zambia lags behind other sub-Saharan African countries. Extravagant electoral campaigns may be to blame.

In September 2011, no one in Zambia could have missed that the country was in the midst of a heavily contested election. The country was awash with party paraphernalia that adorned street corners and supporters alike.

Candidates from the incumbent Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and Patriotic Front (PF) both employed slick, outlandish branding and catchy slogans in what amounted to the most expensive election campaign ever seen in the country.

The election resulted in the transfer of power from the MMD to Michael Sata and the PF, ending their twenty years in power; Zambia was seen to be on a path of continued democratisation.

Yet the election was also one that saw a fall in the number of female candidates elected for legislative positions. Indeed, despite the reinstallation of multi-party politics in 1991, little has changed in terms of the number of women in the legislatures. In 2011, only 11.5% of legislative positions were held by women, a decline from its 2006 value of 14.6%.

Only 106 of the 709 candidates selected to stand for Parliament in 2011 were women, according to the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Furthermore, Electoral Commission data for 2011 shows that female representation in local government is also worryingly low at less than 6% while only 19 of Zambia's 287 traditional leaders are women. This imbalance continues in the civil service where men hold the majority of decision-making posts.

Bucking the trend

Despite democratic advances in terms of electoral turnover, Zambia lags behind many of its neighbours when it comes to female representation in legislatures.

It is behind South Africa (42.3%) Angola (34.1%), Mozambique (39.2%) and Zimbabwe (15%). Across the continent, female representation is on the increase - of the 50 countries in the world with the highest percentage of women in parliament, 13 of these are in Africa - but Zambia is bucking this trend.

Social attitudes towards women are one crucial reason underpinning this and the problem is on the rise, according to Dr Charlotte Harland Scott, a political activist and the wife of Vice President Guy Scott. Particularly concerning, she finds, is that "rather than reducing the inequalities that arose from traditional gender roles, we are replacing them with new habits and practices that are based on disturbing, aggressive and deeply anti-women sentiments".

Instead, there is "a dangerous and unfortunately growing tendency to introduce hate-speech and viciously anti-women speech into political and civic debate".

In a speech made on International Women's Day, Scott argued that "comments made on women leaders on some of the well-known and apparently widely read internet news sites in particular are routinely disgusting, outrageous and insulting".

Such comments serve as an intimidating barrier to many aspiring young women: "Why should a woman want to try to do her best as a politician, journalist or leader in civic affairs when she is likely to experience vicious public harassment and abuse?" she asks.

As a product of these attitudes the political arena and public life are seen as exclusively male domains where traditional masculine qualities of strength, aggression and competitiveness are valued while feminine qualities are belittled.

The 2011 Gender Sector Analysis noted that women are taught to refrain from voicing opinions and to behave modestly in the presence of men, including their husbands.

Furthermore, women who have the relevant qualifications and expertise to apply for political positions are less confident of their ability given the prevailing social attitude, as well as being frequently looked down upon for not meeting the standards of femininity that traditional gender roles require. Unsurprisingly, in 2012, Zambia ranked 163 out of 186 countries on the 2012 Gender Equality Index with a score of 0.623.

Looking ahead

In addition to having direct consequences on the number of women willing to run for political office these attitudes also have indirect consquences.

Conceptions of gender roles are such that women are faced with structural disadvantages and have less access to formal education and employment opportunities than their male counterparts.

For example, the female/male income ratio is 0.56, while the tertiary enrolment ratio is 0.46. This lack of financial resources, a pre-requisite to politics in a country where election campaigns are increasingly expensive, often serves as an insurmountable barrier to political office.

Speaking to Think Africa Press, a local business woman in Lusaka highlighted the increasingly common practice of politicians becoming patrons of the electorate: "They must cover funeral expenses, distribute food and clothing and help out with everyday living costs which are always increasing."

As a result there are increasing numbers of wealthy businessmen winning elections due to the financial resources at their disposal, with which they can provide for their constituents and garner support.

Zambia is presently in the process of redrafting its constitution and has invited delegates to debate potential amendments to clauses. The draft constitution makes provisions for a gender equality commission and requires that political parties "ensure that in nominations for elections there is equitable representation of each gender, persons with disabilities and the youth".

However, unlike many African states, the new constitution has stopped short of imposing a quota or any formal measure to more directly address low levels of female representation. By contrast the Southern African Development Community, of which Zambia is a member, has set a goal of 50%.

Yet, as election costs continue to climb, a more systematic problem emerges; namely that of money playing an increasingly prominent role in political decision making.

This is an issue which is difficult to combat, especially as electoral competition becomes fiercer -- a by-product of the democratisation process. Women's lack of access to good education - and resulting difficulties in obtaining well-paid jobs - increasingly exclude them from positions of power.

Political will to instigate change is minimal. The incumbency advantage provided to politicians by wealth gives them little incentive to address the link between money and political success.

In addition fielding women candidates in localities where unequal social attitudes are prevalent is not electorally viable, especially not in a competitive party system where parties wish to see a return on the investments they make in their electoral campaigns.

A plan for action

Kanni Wignaraja, UN Resident Coordinator and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative, and Viola Morgan, UNDP Country Director in Zambia advocate the implementation of a number of measures to counteract the imbalance. As well as formal measures such as implementing quota systems, both argue that political parties and wider civil society have a role to play.

They recommend that parties ensure that female candidates have a fair share of nominations, set a framework for campaign financing that encourages those from a wide demographic to apply and that parties vocalise their commitment to supporting aspiring female politicians. Civil society and NGOs are also critical in enhancing women's literacy and thus overcoming the structural disadvantages that they continue to face which serve as crippling barriers to entry.

Furthermore, social movements have access to local networks and are therefore able to address the cultural sentiments which are subtle but deeply ingrained obstacles to the role of women in politics. Echoing Scott's views, they believe the media, too, have their role to play.

"They can help break negative stereotypes, construct positive public image, convey balanced and positive stories and provide the airtime and editorial space for women candidates and their campaigns, thus keeping the issue on the national transformation agenda."

"The visible role and engagement of more women in politics is a clear signal to the country and to the rest of the world, of the state of a society's long term health and stability. Men and women bring different experiences, ideas and perspectives to the seats of decision-making and policy making.

Keeping women away from elected bodies and limiting their political and policy making contributions diminishes the democratic space and holds back human development," they argue. Ultimately, for these reasons, it is crucial that Zambia addresses the lack of female representation in legislatures as it continues its democratisation.

Alisha Patel is a freelance journalist, and recently completed an MSc in African Studies at the University of Oxford. Interests include political ideologies, electoral mobilisation, and gender inequalities. She is also a committee member and working paper editor for Oxford Transitional Justice Research.

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