By Aleck Murimigwa
Constitution Amendment Bill No.2 was passed in the Senate this week with 65 members giving it a nod while 10 voted against it. The Bill is now left for President Emmerson Mnangagwa to sign into law any time soon.
Among other clauses, the Bill has two clauses that have been regarded as being outrageous to democratic principles.
The first clause abolishes the running-mates clause and the second one exempts top judges from public interviews when being promoted and gives the President powers to extend terms of office for judges due for retirement.
However, I am not going to deal with the outrageousness of the two mentioned clauses in detail. In summary, the Bill reverses what Zimbabweans in their overwhelming numbers rejected in the 2013 referendum.
Legal watchdogs, civil society organizations, and the MDC Alliance have labeled the amendment as being retrogressive. This does not withstand, some clauses of the same Bill which the opposition MDC-T and Zanu PF call progressive.
For instance, the MDC-T says it voted YES to the Bill because it was persuaded largely by the extension of the women’s quota system by another 10 years.
MDC-T president Douglas Mwonzora said his party’s legislators were caught in a dilemma and they could not let go of the women’s quota extension, the youth quota, and devolution.
They had an option to vote in their totality against the Bill. Judging by numbers in Parliament, the Bill could not have sailed through because Zanu PF alone does not have a two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution.
In this article, I have chosen to deal with the 10-year extension of the women’s quota system. I will try to check if it is worth celebrating and whether it does empower women as is being celebrated by some sections.
It must be noted that one of the reasons why the 2013 adopted Constitution was celebrated is because it calls for gender equality. Men and women are placed at par.
Section 124(b) of the Constitution says, “for the life of the first two Parliaments after the effective date, an additional sixty women members, six from each of the provinces into which Zimbabwe is divided, elected under a party-list system of proportional representation based on the votes cast for candidates representing political parties in a general election for constituency members in the provinces.”
In essence, this section awards power to political party leaders to handpick a maximum of six legislators from each province as proportional representatives. In short, they serve at the pleasure of the top political party officials.
It is important at this stage to highlight that the women’s quota system as enshrined in section 124(b), was going to end in 2023.
With the advent of the Constitution Amendment Bill No.2, the women’s quota system life span has been extended by 10 years starting from the 2023 general elections and ending in 2033.
The question that begs an answer, though, still stands. Does the extension of the women’s quota system, therefore, empower women in the Zimbabwean context? The answer is no. I arrived at this position due to several reasons.
Empowerment implies a certain degree of autonomy and self-determination.
The very fact that political parties reserve the right to handpick proportional representatives to go into Parliament sets a wrong precedence. It takes away the autonomy aspect. The political party whipping system makes it even harder for women to feel empowered or act in an empowered way when in Parliament.
As long as these proportional representatives legislators serve at the pleasure of their political party bosses, the women empowerment or gender equality through the women’s quota remains a fallacy.
The handpicked female legislators are simply placeholders who enjoy hefty allowances at the expense of the taxpayer.
Section 124 (b) before it was amended or after its amendment should have at least set a minimum qualification for one to become a proportional representation legislator.
This is to avoid picking people with no substance into Parliament. Parliament is an August House where policy issues that affect women are deliberated. So, it is not empowerment when female legislators are picked without a defined minimum age and educational requirements.
Most of these proportional representation legislators resort to bench-warming in Parliament and they are not alone in this.
Most if not all proportional representation legislators, cannot raise a voice against the executive who happens to be their party bosses otherwise they risk not being picked again. The worst is that they can be recalled from Parliament.
So even if the women’s quota system life span is extended by 100 years, without granting these legislators some form of protection and autonomy, then women empowerment in Parliament remains a pipe dream.
The women’s quota system also exposes women to sexual abuse. They are vulnerable. The appointing hand or at the very least recommending hand can claim sexual favors in return.
Some of these women have not been employed in their entire lives outside their political parties. She cannot survive outside politics. Some have not pursued any studies in their lives.
So, it is not empowerment to have such people in Parliament through the women’s quota.
One should also care to acknowledge the role the adverse political environment plays in Zimbabwe to hinder women’s empowerment.
Since the turn of the new millennium, the political environment in Zimbabwe has been hostile. It scares women the most from taking active political roles.
What comes into the mind of a young woman who looks at Harare West legislator Joana Mamombe frequenting courts and prisons? Until this Wednesday, Mamombe has been locked up at Chikurubi Maximum Prison for about 60 days over allegations of violating Covid-19 health guidelines.
Mamombe is not a proportional representation legislator. What she has gone through influences other female legislators who may dare to stand up and speak out. In the end, gender equality and women’s empowerment continue to fall by wayside.
While Mamombe’s presence during the voting on Amendment Bill No. 2 could not have made a difference, she deserved a chance to participate in the process.
The toxicity that characterizes Parliamentary sittings does not favor women.
Heckling and name-calling have been the norm of late in the August House. Women are the victims at most.
They are called derogatory names that eat away their confidence. Some women are not bold enough to withstand heckling in Parliament. In the end, they resort to bench-warming and the idea of empowering them through the quota system continues to lose its lustre.
Until and unless there is a change of engagement culture in Parliament, the women’s quota system will continue to create placeholders in Parliament. That is not empowerment or gender quality.
Very few are like Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga who dare to stand amid heckling and name-calling. Unfortunately, this has been the norm of late in the August House. This does not affect proportional representation legislators alone. It includes even those with constituencies.
The Constitutional Amendment Bill No.2 should have gone beyond extending the life span of the women’s quota system. This was the opportunity to reflect on how it fared for the past eight years of its existence.
It should spell out the criteria by which these women are selected. For instance, it should have defined minimum educational requirements and a certain degree of autonomy from the political parties that appointed them. In that sense, they can claim empowerment. They can speak out without fear of reprisals.
The empowerment of women in Parliament, despite the extension of the women’s quota system by the Bill, remains a dream.