10 January 2014

Zimbabwe: Women Cabinet Ministers' Role in Gender Equality

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Effective, unapologetic

Comparative case studies of women cabinet ministers in SSA, conducted from data I gathered during my field research in both West and Southern Africa within the past two years have revealed that women ministers tend to be more effective and unapologetic in their promotion of women's interests when they are closely connected to mainstream societal and political networks.

These networks, including civil society, opposition parties, media etc, provide women with support and protection, creating a driving force for an equitable gender agenda.

No pressure

An individual minister's willingness and ability to act is also key. Data gathered in the region included semi-structured, in-depth interviews with both male and female ministers. These indicated some women ministers feel no pressure, responsibility nor obligation to represent women's interests and issues, although they may opportunistically support such measures as and when they arise.

Others saw substantive representation as a central part of their role. However, amongst this group there was a hierarchy of sorts between those who were willing to take action on such issues at any cost, and those who remained primarily concerned about their own career, and took action slowly for fear of backlash from both patronage networks and society at large.

The foregoing has implications for questions of responsibility and accountability of various stakeholders. Firstly, it places a responsibility on women's movements and other gender-based civil society organisations to ratchet up their lobbying efforts to ensure that the women who are appointed into these cabinet positions are encouraged to champion gender equality. Second, it should engender a reassessment of how women's movements have related with women in cabinets. Women's movements in the past have mainly focused on building coalitions with women legislators, while largely neglecting women ministers.

In light of the increasing inclusion of women in cabinets, and the power and resources attached to ministerial portfolios in SSA, this should be rectified.

Third, stakeholders at all levels should work to foster an environment in which women ministers are informally held to account for what they do and do not achieve to further women's welfare while in office.

Chiedo is a PhD candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware in the United States.

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