Mutare, Zimbabwe – More than half of the 6.5 million registered voters set to cast their ballots in Zimbabwe’s hotly contested presidential, local municipality and parliamentary elections on Wednesday, are women.
Despite dominating the voter population, women have been reduced to mostly cheerleaders in the political landscape.
In June, when the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced 11 presidential candidates, there were no women. In 2018, there were four female candidates.
Two female presidential candidates, Elisabeth Valerio of United Zimbabwe Alliance (UZA) and Linda Masarira of the Labour, Economists and African Democrats (LEAD), were excluded by the ZEC for late submission of nomination papers and late payment of nomination fees, respectively.
Both female presidential candidates took the matter to court. Valerio won her case and the ZEC was forced to accept her nomination papers, but Masarira was not as fortunate.
In the National Assembly, there are 70 female candidates compared with 637 men across the 210 constituencies, according to the Election Resource Centre, comprising 11 percent of candidates – down from 14 percent in 2018.
Analysts have said that the declining number of female candidates was an indication that political power structures have remained deeply patriarchal.
“It is quite disappointing that women failed to make it to the ballot after all the work and investment they had made to get into leadership over the past five years,” said Sitabile Dewa, an executive director and founder of Women’s Academy For Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE). “It is sad that only one woman presidential candidate made it after the intervention of the courts.”
The constitution, she told Al Jazeera, clearly stipulated gender balance but political parties were not following through.
The 2013 Constitution sets aside 60 seats of the 270 seats in parliament for women through proportional representation. They are distributed to political parties based on the number of seats won in each province.
This constitutional requirement had been set to expire this year but was brought back through an amendment made to the constitution by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Other sections of the constitution require political parties to put in place mechanisms for women to run for constituency-based seats.
Nevertheless, analysts have said that there has been a lack of political will to bring more women into governance.
“The primary responsibility to promote gender equality lies with political parties. Lack of political will and sincerity to promote equality on the part of political parties is the main reason why the country has failed on the gender equality mark,” Dewa said.
Glanis Changachirere, a team leader at Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD), said there was a need for commitment to advance the rights of women from independent commissions like the ZEC.
“How Elisabeth Valerio landed on the ballot paper testifies how women’s political participation and representation is itself a struggle within the struggle for democracy,” she said. “The courts should be a last resort and not the starting place for women to seek the recognition of their rights.”
Changachirere worried that the lack of women on the ballot threatened to reverse the gains made over time towards gender equality and was waiting to see how many female candidates are elected when results are announced.
“The 11 percent [number of women] who made it will further decrease after voting as some of the aspiring women leaders are contesting in constituencies their parties rarely win,” Dewa said.
In previous elections, many women failed to raise the funds required by the ZEC to file nomination papers.
For this election, the ZEC raised the nomination fees, making it harder for independent candidates and political parties with less funding.
Presidential candidates paid $20,000 while parliamentary candidates parted away with $1,000 and $100 for council candidates. In contrast, in 2018, presidential candidates paid $1,000, while legislators paid $50.
Masarira, one of the disqualified presidential candidates, struggled to raise the $20,000 nomination fee and told Al Jazeera that it was a barrier for anyone aspiring to get into politics.
“We need regulation of candidate nomination fees to make the fees affordable to every Zimbabwean,” she said.
When the ZEC gazetted the enormous nomination fees last year, there was a backlash from critics, particularly women, arguing that the move was grossly unreasonable.
Masarira told Al Jazeera that the increasing costs could lead to an imminent decline in women’s political participation.
“It is sad that women continue to be viewed as second-class class citizens in Zimbabwe and viewed as only good enough to cast a vote and not good enough to be a presidential or parliamentary candidate,” she said.
In March this year, the nomination fees were challenged in court, which declared the high fees to be unconstitutional.
But Parliament, through the Parliamentary Legal Committee, upheld the ZEC’s gazetted fees, arguing in their report that there were no contraventions to the constitution by the electoral body.
Changachirere said women, who are the majority of the poor, suffer financial exclusion.
“Increasing the cost of political participation and representation like that clearly further marginalises women from politics,” she said.
“ZEC was insensitive to the current economic challenges facing the country, the fees were supposed to reflect the state of the economy. Elections must not be monetised,” she said.
Changachirere said barriers, including high nomination fees, were pushing women away from constituency-based seats.
“The continued decline of women who contest on the constituency-based seats, with many relying on the proportional representation seats, shows how hard and uneven the playing field is for women across all levels of governance,” she said.
In 2018, election observers from the 16-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) called for political parties to make the political climate more favourable to women’s participation in politics.
But leading political parties, including the governing ZANU-PF and CCC, have yet to implement the recommendations of the election observers.
Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said Zimbabwean society is strongly masculine and very few women get support from those around them, given the generally negative attitudes associated with women in politics.
“Our highly violent, personalised, dirty and dangerous political environment is not for the faint-hearted and this discourages women from participating in politics,” she told Al Jazeera.