10 January 2014

Zimbabwe: Women Cabinet Ministers' Role in Gender Equality

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As of 2011, South Africa and Nigeria had some of the highest numbers of women in cabinet representation in SSA, with South Africa tops at 41% and Nigeria at 33%. Cape Verde (40%), Burundi (38%), Uganda (36%), Lesotho (31%), and Rwanda (31%), have all achieved up to or above the formal minimally acceptable level of women's inclusion in cabinet membership at 30%, termed "critical mass".

These levels are close to, and in some cases way ahead, of some of the mature and established democracies like the United States at 33,3%, the United Kingdom (22,3%), Australia (23,3%), and Canada at 37%. These impressive figures push us to ask, what is the status of women cabinet ministers in SSA as a whole?

As is the case in other parts of the world, except perhaps in the Nordic countries, women's increased access to cabinet membership is a relatively recent phenomenon. Progress in SSA has been mixed to date and there is marked cross-country variation. Some countries still show very low numbers of women cabinet membership, like Sierra Leone at 4,8%, Somalia (5,4%) and Djibouti (6,3%) respectively. Nonetheless, there is an obvious upward trend in the phenomenon, even though this is not linear.

Zimbabwe cabinet

Last year women's groups responded angrily to President Robert Mugabe's decision to appoint just four women to his 30-seat cabinet after his triumph in the July 31 elections, but Mugabe told journalists women must do better in elections to be eligible for Cabinet posts.

Women argue that the road to gender equity in Zimbabwean politics is a long one, given their disadvantaged background.

Only 12% of Zimbabwe's new Cabinet is female.

Women's involvement in sub-Saharan Africa national cabinets challenges deeply held norms and traditions the world over, not least in Africa. Although women have broken down the exclusionary norms that have kept them out of such power-productive arenas, they have had to engage and perform their roles within the existing contexts of power, which has, historically, been male-centric.

Women cabinet ministers arguably internalise an array of different expectations on their journey to the cabinet and whilst there, they must attempt to balance the push and pull of masculinist and feminist gender stereotypes. The range of claims they do or do not make as women will, in turn, significantly inform their governance orientation, and shape whether, and how, they pursue/promote issues that concern women. Subjection to these competing pressures and counter-pressures might give way to identity crisis of sorts, influencing what side they take on various issues or, worse still, encouraging them to sit on the fence.

Thus, while democratisation and the proliferation of multi-party elections in SSA in the 1990s has opened opportunities for women's inclusion in deliberative and legislative governance bodies previously closed off by the predominance of single-partism and its "old-boys" political networks, it is still largely unclear whether women's inclusion into the prime decision making body of national cabinets has provided, or continues to provide, significant policy leverage for women's agendas and interests.

While the same political patronage and patriarchal networks that have excluded women from these bodies for so long could continue to constrain their ability to substantively represent the interests of women once they have secured a cabinet seat, this depends on the individual involved and the density and form of the political networks to which they have access.

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