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Ivory tower no space for women in Southern Africa

 The Big Issue Zambia 21 June 2019

Getting more women into parliament is hailed as a benchmark of equality. But what happens once you get there? Southern African states have signed up to female-friendly quotas, but women say they are fighting a culture of sexism and violence. (951 Words) - By Samba Yonga


Big Issue Zambia

 Courtesy of The Big Issue Zambia

Edith Nawakwi is a member of the most elite group of women in the world. A former Zambian finance minister, now leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Development party, she has been tipped as a future president. An outspoken figure, she is known for being tough, leading a national campaign in 2000 to stop former president Frederick Chiluba seeking a third term. But today, she thinks twice about what she says in public.

During a radio interview in January Nawakwi criticised the government's handling of fuel prices. Days later Chris Chalwe, the chairman of the youth league of the ruling Movement for Multi Party Democracy, went on national television and threatened the 50-year-old politician she would be gang raped if she continued to speak out against the Zambian president.

"Just because I am a woman they can stand up and say they are going to gang rape me, which I know they can because this group has picked up machetes in the past," she says. What added to the feeling of public outrage following the threat was the apparent reluctance of President Rupiah Banda to distance himself from the outburst. Chris Chalwe was not sacked or disciplined. Several Zambian newspapers reported that behind closed doors the president was supportive of his youth league chairman. Nawakwi filed a police complaint, only to be told that threatening violence was not a crime.

Rights activists in Zambia saw the incident as revealing a disturbing culture of impunity towards sexual violence. Nawakwi sees it as an example of the deep-seated resistance to women challenging the powerful networks of men who run the country. "Generally in Zambia if men can't stop you they will debase themselves to the level that Chris Chalwe has done," she says. "What indicates where Africa is in terms of development is that you see men still find it hard to accept that women can ascend to high positions while still keeping their dignity."

"The truth is that in this country there is no political will to ensure there is adequate participation by women in the political process," says Matrine Chuulu, the regional coordinator for the regional organisation that litigates, advocates and lobbies for women who have faced gender based violence, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA).

Chuulu, a lawyer by profession, says that, with the exception of South Africa, women still do not have an influential enough voice in their countries. Of the 12 countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, only South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania have achieved their target of reserving 30 per cent of decision making political positions for women. Even in South Africa, says Chuulu, "Women and men fought side by side during the freedom struggle so women are very prominent in politics, but you will find that gender based violence is still rife. Women are still facing a lot of abuse at the hands of men both at governance and citizen level which we continue to fight."

In South Africa, where rape levels are among the highest in the world, gender organisations have become alarmed at the emergence of hate speech aimed at women in politics. During the 2006 rape trial and subsequent acquittal of Jacob Zuma, his accuser was subjected to a campaign of abuse by Zuma's supporters. She left the country following the trial, claiming asylum in Holland.

This month, South Africa's Equality Court found the ANC youth league chairman Julius Malema guilty of hate speech and harassment after Malema implied the woman must have enjoyed "a nice time" with Mr Zuma.  The case was brought by the Sonke Gender Justice Network which advocates for human rights for women.

"Julius Malema is a very popular leader and carried a general attitude of thinking that he can get away with whatever he does. He thought he was untouchable and to be held accountable for his actions was something that has never happened before. This shows that democracy has given birth to institutions that uphold the rights of women. The case has put women in a vindicated position and is sending a very clear message to the politicians and other men that you can't say certain things about a woman or treat women in a certain way and expect get away with it. This is also an opportunity for the legal systems to strengthen their processes and tailor them in a way that will support women's rights," says Mbuyiselo Botha, Government Media Relations Manager.

In Zambia, Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Educational Trust for Zambia(WLSA), the Acting National Coordinator for Hope Kasese Khumalo says just after the 1980's they started to see a recorded increase in violence towards women carried out with impunity.

"On face value the leaders will appear as if they want to include women in the political process but the truth is they do not. They still want to be in control and are afraid of relinquishing any kind of power," said Ms Khumalo. "These are the people that we are supposed to look up to show us leadership of progression and integrity but if all we get is threats of violence and government leaders who let it pass with no action then it is a very dangerous place we are headed to."

Edith Nawakwi has not ruled out a bid for the Zambian presidency in 2011, though many see her chances as at best slim. "Women don't want to get into politics for various reasons, culturally it is mostly unacceptable," she says. "If we just stand by no man will give us a chance to govern the country, we have to fight for it. We have to go out there and canvas for the vote."


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Originally published by The Big Issue Zambia. ©

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