- A report released by Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) has confirmed that recent elections in Zambia failed to address the gender gap in terms of women's participation in elections. For Zambia to meet the Southern African Development Community (SADC) goal of 50 percent women in decision-making positions, government must take action to create paths for women's participation.
Out of the 150 parliamentary seats contested, only 22 seats (14 percent) have gone to women. This is a marginal increase on the previous 12.7 percent of seats held by women. The small number of women candidates was a disappointment to observers who were hopeful that the 2006 tripartite elections would re-define Zambia's male dominated electoral landscape.
Launching the report on 13 October at Lusaka's Christma hotel, WiLDAF Chairperson Joyce Macmillan said women enjoyed a numerical advantage at the voting roll, constituting 52.02 percent of the recorded 3,940,053 voters registered by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ).
However, on the candidate roll, the number of women was significantly less. In the presidential race, there was no single woman contesting. "At parliamentary level, the statistics are appalling. The distribution here by gender shows that only 106 out of the 709 parliamentary candidates were women. Furthermore, only 27 of the 130 independent parliamentary candidates were women."
At local government level, where one would expect more women to participate, the situation was even more discouraging. WiLDAF noted with concern that out of the 4,095 candidates at the local government level, only 387 won seats - a mere 9.5 percent.
Other countries in the region, such as South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia, have made great strides in increasing the number of women in local government. Much of this has resulted from new legislation and targeted efforts to encourage women candidates.
Lesotho saw a significant increase of women in local government due to the 30 percent legislated quota implemented for the last elections. Women now occupy 53 percent of the local government seats. Namibia, which also has a legislated quota, has long maintained a representation of between 40-42 percent women in local government.
Zambian gender activists often are told that the few numbers of women candidates in the country was evidence of their lack of interest in politics. However, the WiLDAF report suggested that Zambia's electoral regime has built in obstacles that hinder the meaningful participation of women as candidates.
Ms Macmillan said as a women's movement WiLDAF was disappointed that the current Lusaka government has not adopted affirmative action. She said it was disappointing that 40 years down the line after independence, Zambia has not even had a female Speaker of the National Assembly when other countries that had their independence later than Zambia have had.
Zambia, like many countries in the Southern African region, has not traditionally encouraged women to take a place in the political arena. Ms Macmillan pointed to three challenges facing women in elections.
First, they often had limited resources to run campaigns. Secondly, traditional stereotypes had resulted in fewer educational qualifications as well as the socialised perception of men and women about women's role being in the private, rather than public domain. Thirdly, public perceptions and stereotypes of politics posed "a tremendous challenge".
Ms Macmillan further said that even if WiLDAF had conducted capacity-building initiatives of empowering women to effectively contest local government elections, due to the above factors, women's participation was not satisfactory.
She added: "For instance out of a total of 438 women trained to participate in the local government elections, 97 or 22 percent actually applied to be adopted as candidates by various political parties and only 57 women candidates, representing 13 percent, were adopted by various political parties."
Ms MacMillan also mentioned how political parties' failure to adopt affirmative action measures concerning their female members wishing to stand was another challenge.
Gender activists therefore hold it is time the Zambian government adopted measures to encourage women candidates. There was a need for a broad policy shift that would help Zambia dismantle the cultural prejudices that disadvantage women in the process of selection of candidates at presidential, parliamentary and local government levels, they hold.
Ms Macmillan said this would require "woman-friendly legislation" that ensures, through constitutional provision, that women get due representation. Therefore, the Electoral Reform Technical Committee recommendations on proportional representation should be reconsidered and adopted by the government, she held.
WiLDAF is now looking to Zambia's 2011 elections for a fresh break from what it calls a "discriminatory elections system". However, "if we hope to break this cycle of unequal representation, we must act now," the gender group emphasises.
By Perpertual Sichikwenkwe. Ms Sichikwenkwe is a journalist in Zambia.
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