“In the past we would nominate men to speak for the community, now I have knowledge and power myself”
I started the day yesterday at the office of our partner WIPSU (Women in Politics Support Unit) meeting women MPs and Councillors, from Zimbabwe’s different political parties, who were speaking about the support they had received before and since they were elected. The support ranged from the practical, like training on using the internet or speech-making, to the less tangible confidence-building workshops.
“WIPSU is part of my foundation”, said Anastasia, a 33 year old woman and the first person born since independence to be elected to Parliament. One of the recently elected Councillors said “WIPSU made me technologically empowered. It’s a milestone for me to be able to communicate through the internet”. She proudly showed us her first residents’ newsletter. The topics of sewage, water and refuse collection and the leaflet layout were so reminiscent of the Liberal Focus leaflets I used to produce 25 years ago. Wherever you are in the world, the issues of concern to local communities and local politicians are strikingly similar!
Working together across party lines
Currently 19% of the Zimbabwean Members of Parliament are women and, despite the very real political differences between ZANU PF and the MDC they come together in the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus where they focus on the issues which unite them as women.
One issue they are all agreed on is the urgent need to have gender equality embedded in the draft constitution for Zimbabwe and specifically for 50% representation at all levels of public life. It made me think back to my time as a local councillor and then as an MP in the UK. Anyone dreaming of getting each political party to commit to 50% women candidates and to reserved seats in Parliament for women would have been dismissed as unrealistic.
Involving women in politics at the grass roots
WIPSU recognises that you have to start by building the capacity of individuals and strengthening grassroots structures, so they facilitate consultative meetings for women in some of the wards with female Councillors. In the afternoon we were fortunate to be invited to one of the meetings in Harare Ward 23. Fifty women had been invited to the meeting in the small back garden of a house, but over a hundred turned up, plus many children and a handful of young men. As we arrived they greeted us with singing and dancing.
They told us that, through a network of local ward committees they decide on the community priorities and feed these through to the councillor through the forum. Women described how the forum had given them the confidence to come to meetings to talk about political issues: “in the past we would nominate men to speak for the community, now I have knowledge and power myself”.
Peace and positive change
One of the first tangible outcomes of the forum was a clean up campaign, where the women (and a few men) cleared blocked drains. At this point in the meeting the young men came forward, apparently spontaneously, and sang a song they had written supporting the 50/50 campaign. A woman living with HIV and AIDS stood up and said that she was not discriminated against and has now taken on a leadership role visiting other HIV positive women in the community. Someone else said “I used to fall out with my neighbour over the boundary wall, but since coming to meetings and learning about conflict resolution we now get on better”.
Women from ZANU PF spoke about initially coming to meetings wearing their party regalia, but then they realised that this was confrontational and divisive so now they just come as community members. In fact as a ward they have drawn up their own anti-violence constitution for the next elections. “We will not tolerate the violence of the past, we have to live together as neighbours after the political contest is over”.
Healing and empowering
The work of women’s organisations on the draft constitution (which says that the State must take measures, including legislation, to ensure that there is equal representation of men and women in all state institutions and agencies and at all levels) may seem a million miles from local clean up campaigns and provision of clean water, but it is all part of a process of empowering and healing.
When I see reports of the next elections in Zimbabwe I will think of those women in Ward 23 dancing and singing together and of those female MPs working together and pray that their commitment and bravery is rewarded with a peaceful and fair democratic process and, of course, a 50/50 outcome.
Please donate now to help our partners prepare for the elections next year and give women in Zimbabwe an equal say.