Archive for June 29th, 2010
Update, 21/06/2010: According to the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR), Shiva has been transferred from solitary confinement to the women’s section of Evin prison, which is a public prison.
In an interview with the news agency, Reporters and Human Rights Activists of Iran on 12 June 2010, Shiva Nazar Ahari’s lawyer, Mohammad Sharif, said: “After two different cases brought against Nazar Ahari were integrated, the [new date for the court] session has not yet been declared to us.” Sharif announced that his client had been officially accused of ‘Moharebeh’ (enmity against God), and acts against national security through collective action and participation in the demonstrations. Such charges attract very severe sentences under Iran’s Penal Code and Nazar Ahari and could face the death penalty. Please continue to write to the Iranian authorities calling for Iran to abide by its commitments under international laws and its own constitution.
Read more at http://www.wluml.org/node/6406
An abortion hotline set up in Pakistan on Saturday has been condemned by Islamic groups and political parties as “anti-Islamic” and “colonial”, even though it will save the lives of thousands of women who die each year in back street abortion clinics, reports The Independent.
The hotline, set up by women’s groups in Pakistan and the Dutch pro-choice group Women on Waves, advises women how to use a drug to induce miscarriage safely and aims to reduce the estimated 8.9 lakh unsafe illegal abortions performed in Pakistan every year.
“There will be very strong opposition,” said Ahsan Iqbal, of the Pakistan Muslim League. “This could create misuse. It cannot be done as free choice under our law and our religion.”
Access to abortion in Pakistan is limited. Forbidden under Islamic law unless the mother’s life is in danger, terminating a pregnancy carries a massive social stigma in the country, which is 97 per cent Muslim. As a result, a flourishing trade in backstreet abortion clinics has developed.
Figures from the Population Council of Pakistan show 320 women die for every 1 lakh live births — compared to 13 per 1 lakh in the UK.
The Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual and reproductive health, estimates that as many as one in six deaths are a result of illegal abortions. “We want to save women’s lives,” said Gulalai Ismail, founder of the Pakistani women’s group Aware Girls, which is helping to set up the hotline. “We are empowering women, and trying to give them information to help them take control of their bodies.
Any groups which try to help women will have problems with extremist and fundamentalist groups. Ninety-nine per cent of clerics will oppose this.”
As well as the hotline, trained Pakistani staff will offer abortion information in communities in rural Pakistan, particularly in the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province, where opposition is expected to be fiercest.
Massoud Shadjareh, chairman, Islamic Human Rights Commission, said, “To go against the majority like this might be seen sympathetically in the West, but it will be counterproductive and will create huge problems.
At best, they are misguided, at worst they are trying to provoke.” He added, “It is part of the colonial idea that the West’s way is the best, and that is not the case.”
The Muskoka Initiative, formally announced Friday, has largely failed to inspire both at home and abroad. Despite the $2.85-billion, five-year commitment of Canadian taxpayer money, the initiative is high on rhetoric but short on detail.
Buzzwords — like voluntary family planning, country ownership, health workers, information systems, continuum of care, accountability and effectiveness — are abundant. But the details are missing. How will the initiative be co-ordinated with existing global health activities, particularly the Global Fund? Will the initiative promote universal access to health care for women and children, and if so, how will this be financed? While named in the communiqué, it is not clear how the initiative fits in with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as the UN Joint Action Plan for Women’s and Children’s Health.
The G8 communiqué claims the initiative will prevent the deaths of 1.3 million children five years and under and 64,000 maternal deaths while enabling 12 million couples to access family planning. Yet no information is provided on how these goals will be achieved. Perhaps this lack of specificity is the reason that matching contributions from other G8 countries were disappointingly low. A request for billions of dollars is normally accompanied by a strategic plan.
The lack of enthusiasm abroad is met with skepticism at home. This government recently cut funds to organizations working for the rights of women in Canada and abroad. It also decimated Status of Women Canada, and shut down gender equality units at the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canada to contribute to reducing maternal mortality, he must recognize that maternal health is not a one-off, stand-alone issue.
Improving maternal health depends on the protection, promotion and advancement of the rights and freedoms of women and girls. Canada needs to push countries to fully respect these rights and support programs at home and abroad that allow women and girls to realize them.
Such rights include the ability to access affordable, appropriate and effective health care, as well as the right to clean water and sanitation. Women have a right to be educated, deserve equal opportunities for employment and credit, as well as protection of their property and inheritance rights. The right of women to mobilize as members of civil society and to seek political office must be supported. Voluntary family planning is only voluntary if women’s rights are respected and if they have choice. To quote from the Beijing Platform, women must “have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”
The Muskoka Initiative also needs to be closely linked to Canadian engagement in broader global health initiatives. In advance of the UN’s September MDG Summit, experts are debating how to generate more resources while ensuring that global health interventions are better co-ordinated and managed at the country level. Despite its G8 focus on maternal health, Canada has been largely silent on these debates, nor are they reflected in the G8 communiqué.
This silence is not new. Canada’s response to global health challenges has been largely reactive, driven by public policy issues such as the threat of H1N1, or by international processes at the World Health Organization and other multilateral agencies. This policy vacuum is accompanied by institutional fragmentation. Global health responsibilities are dispersed among CIDA, Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. CIDA does not even list health as one of its three priorities, while Health Canada has few resources for international programming.
Canada, with its expertise in public health and its experience delivering universal health care to a dispersed and diverse population, should be a natural leader in global health. To realize this leadership potential, the government should articulate a bold Global Health Strategy — like the U.S. and British strategies — that identifies how Canada’s global health engagement will protect and improve the health of Canadians and of people around the world. This vision would articulate how best to marshal Canadian government, civil society and academic resources, and clearly delineate institutional responsibilities to implement global health initiatives.
Harper can take this opportunity to frame the maternal health initiative as a key component of Canada’s larger engagement on global health, and accompany the initiative by championing the rights of women and girls. Doing so will not only allay the cynics, it will provide a more inspirational, successful and sustainable foundation for the Muskoka Maternal Health Initiative.
At least 245 million women around the world have been widowed and more than 115 million of them live in devastating poverty, according to a new study launched Tuesday night by Cherie Blair, wife of the former British prime minister.
The most dire consequences are faced by 2 million Afghan widows and at least 740,000 Iraqi widows who lost their husbands as a result of the ongoing conflicts; by widows and their children evicted from their family homes in sub-Saharan Africa; by elderly widows caring for grandchildren orphaned by the HIV/AIDS crisis, and by child widows aged 7 to 17 in developing countries, the report said.
“Across the world, widows suffer dreadful discrimination and abuse,” Blair said. “In too many cases they’re pushed to the very margins of society, trapped in poverty and left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.”
She said many are cheated out of their husbands’ assets and property and expelled from their family home — and since they have no money they can’t support their children, “so misery is heaped on grief.”
Blair was in New York to launch the report entitled “Invisible Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows around the World,” commissioned by the Loomba Foundation which works in a dozen countries to help widows and educate their children.
“The plight of widows — in the shadows of the world — is a human rights catastrophe,” said Blair, the foundation’s president. “It’s really a hidden humanitarian crisis.”
She said the foundation had been working on the basis that there were about 100 million widows but decided to do a study from published sources to get a more accurate figure. She said the foundation was surprised to discover there were at least 245 million widows worldwide, almost half living in poverty.
The report stressed that persecution against widows and their children is not limited to the developing world, noting that large numbers of widows are also found in Europe and Central Asia.
According to the report, the countries with the highest number of widows in 2010 were China with 43 million, India with 42.4 million, the United States with 13.6 million, Indonesia with 9.4 million, Japan with 7.4 million, Russia with 7.1 million, Brazil with 5.6 million, Germany with 5.1 million, and Bangladesh and Vietnam with about 4.7 million each.
Blair said women become widows when their husbands are killed in conflicts, die of diseases including HIV/AIDS, or are killed because they work in dangerous conditions, the only jobs available to many poor men.
When their husbands die, she said, some women are required to be “cleansed,” some are erroneously accused of murder or witchcraft, some are required to marry another member of the family, many are disinherited and forced out of their homes and many are raped.
According to the report, over 500 million dependent and adult children of widows are caught in a vicious underworld in which disease, forced servitude, homelessness and violence are rampant and youngsters are denied schooling, enslaved or preyed upon by human traffickers.
The foundation was established in 1997 by Raj and Veena Loomba in honor of Loomba’s mother, who was widowed at the age of 37 in India when her husband died of tuberculosis and raised her seven children by herself.
“There are few resources in the world available to help widows achieve a safer, more comfortable existence and to promote their equality and pursue justice on their behalf,” Loomba said.
He said that’s why the foundation is campaigning to put the plight of the world’s widows on the U.N. agenda and to have June 23 — his mother’s birthday — declared International Widows Day to raise awareness of the crisis.
Authorities in the Maldives view women’s issues as a core human rights problem and are keen to tackle them head on, but cultural and religious issues often stand in the way.
“No doubt the government of President Mohamed Nasheed recognises many problems and is willing to tackle them, but there’s limited ability to do so because of deep-rooted cultural and religious issues,” according to a Maldivian journalist, who declined to be named.
Member of parliament Eva Abdulla, who belongs to Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – which won power in May 2009, thus ending the 30- year-old reign of dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – said the government firmly believes in affirmative action policies benefiting women.
“The President has called for gender mainstreaming in both formulating and implementing government policies,” she said. She stressed, however, that lack of staff and resources are undermining Nasheed’s good intentions.
Particularly worrying, she said, is the growing religious extremism in the Maldives and its impact on the lives of Maldivian women, who comprise around 48 percent of the country’s population of around 340,000.
“Religion is all too often used as an excuse to limit women,” she added.
Originally Buddhists, Maldivians were converted to Sunni Islam in the mid- 12th century.
Abdulla believes the government and civil society as well as the media need to proactively engage in dealing with the rise in extremism and take tangible steps toward tackling “the adverse affect this will have on the lives of women in the country.”
While women have equal opportunities and there are some very strong females at leadership levels, they are rarely at the top, according to local journalists who spoke to IPS.
Workplace issues such as sexual harassment persist. Recently, the chief executive officer of the state-owned Bank of Maldives fled the country following allegations of this nature, they added.
Still another issue confronting women is domestic violence. Spousal rape is not a crime, and reporting of rape is rare, according to women’s rights advocates in the Maldives.
Maldives has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, with 10.97 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations. Little wonder it is common for women in this small island nation on the Indian Ocean to be married four to five times, since Islam permits divorce and marriages are not considered as a family affair but an individual choice, according to female activists.
But the biggest worry in recent months, they said, is that religious extremism is taking root and having a serious impact on women.
“Religious lectures are growing and there’s some government support for these foreign preachers (who speak in such events),” said a female journalist and activist.
The journalist, who declined to be named for fear of incurring the wrath of extremist groups, said that in one of these gatherings, Jamaican-born Canadian Muslim preacher Bilal Phillips proposed that Sharia laws be the foundation of governance, and cited the need to increase religious education, for women to cover themselves fully, and promote polygamy.
“These extremists want women to be restricted to the home,” said a female judicial activist as she puffed on a cigarette while garbed in denim pants – looking and sounding every inch the epitome of liberalism – while three other women, who shared her views, looked on in agreement.
The activist added that she and her colleagues were deeply concerned that the government’s inability to tackle extremism could eventually subjugate women.
She and her group told IPS that while the Maldives is a 100 percent Muslim country, it did not mean “we must have 100 percent Sharia laws here.” They also expressed fear that extremism from some Islamic fundamentalist countries has begun to spread to small nations like the Maldives.
They claimed the Adaalath Party, a member of Nasheed’s MDP coalition and the main, stridently religious party in the government, has been supportive of extremist views being propagated in the Maldives.
President Nasheed conceded that religious extremism is an issue but said that since the country has been fed on a diet of religion for more than 30 years, it is not easy to turn it overnight into a liberal Muslim society.
He told IPS that his government hopes to anchor itself to a religious-oriented middle ground. “Let the country go along with (the prevailing view) for awhile and at the same time strengthen civil society and other liberal ideas and by and large make society freer,” he said.
In the meantime, said Abdulla, women continue to be under-represented at the decision-making level, with only one female Cabinet minister while only 6 percent of parliamentarians are women.
The MDP led the campaign for pro-democracy reforms some years, which saw many campaigners, including Nasheed, being jailed for many months during Gayoom’s presidency. The end of the Gayoom era generated a lot of reform expectations, especially on human rights, among the people, including women. But the road ahead is not all that easy, he said.
“The kind of expectations that were raised is beyond the reach of anyone within a short period of time. The last year, in particular, has been a non- starter. It took us about eight months to get a good grip on government,” the President said.
Yet, he said, his administration is already making major strides toward change, including the grant of a health insurance scheme to single mothers.
“If we fast-forward to the future, then we could see that we have achieved something,” said Nasheed.
A confidante of the Burmese opposition leader has made a simple but passionate appeal to those in the West to use their freedom to help his country achieve the same.
In a hand-written letter smuggled out of Burma and passed to The Independent, U Win Tin writes: “I want to repeat and echo her own words – ‘please use your liberty to promote ours’. I want to add more to it. Please bring more and more liberty to us, to our country, Burma. We are starving for it and we are waiting for someone or some institutions or some countries to bring it to us.”
The plea from Ms Suu Kyi’s friend and senior political ally, who himself spent almost 20 years in solitary confinement, comes at a desperately difficult time for the opponents of Burma’s military junta.
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been forced to shut down after it decided it could not participate in an election due later this year when she and more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars. While a breakaway group of supporters has decided to contest the polls, most independent analysts believe the election will simply further cement the junta’s position.
While Ms Suu Kyi has been permitted occasional meetings with diplomats and her lawyers, she remains imprisoned within the lakeside Rangoon home once owned and occupied by her mother.
Analysts say that in the aftermath of the 2007 democracy protests – when tens of thousands of people took to the streets – the military authorities have made a concerted effort to marginalise the Nobel laureate, both physically and politically. Before the authorities had allowed the NLD and its largely frail and ageing membership to splutter on, although hundreds of its younger political activists, monks and dissidents were jailed. Now, it has been prevented from operating as a political party.
Amid this, the junta has claimed the elections due to be held this year will mark a crucial staging point in Burma’s journey to full democracy. It is a claim that has been met with derision by most independent observers.
The Elders, a group of global leaders called together by Nelson Mandela, used the occasion of Ms Suu Kyi’s birthday to denounce the planned election. “National processes in Burma have been usurped by the military government – they do not serve the people. The elections due later this year will not be any different,” said Desmond Tutu, chairman of the group.
Gordon Brown told The Independent: “The reason I wrote to both Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela as my final two letters as Prime Minister, was to send a message around the world that as long as [she] is not free then we cannot talk about a free world. And as long as [Mr Mandela's] dream of universal education and eradicating poverty is unrealised, then there is no justice. It is our duty, whatever position we are in, to fight for Aung San Suu Kyi to be free, and democracy to prevail.”
Despite the junta’s efforts to isolate her, experts say Ms Suu Kyi remains the sole person who could perhaps unite Burma. “She remains a powerful icon and, if she were free and there were free presidential elections tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind that she would win,” said author Bertil Lintner.
Aung Din, who also spent time in Burma’s jails as a dissident and now heads the US Campaign for Burma, was even more forceful. “The junta are not able to remove the image of ‘The Lady’ from the hearts of the people. The more the people of Burma see and suffer abuses and injustices by the generals, the more they expect her to save their country”.
Ms Suu Kyi – who rose to become leader of Burma’s political opposition following massive democracy demonstrations in 1988 that were crushed with the loss of up to 6,000 lives – has been repeatedly jailed and detained by the authorities. Her first imprisonment followed an election in 1990 which the NLD won by a landslide but the military refused to acknowledge. Her current term of detention dates from 2003.
While she is slightly built and is perhaps starting to reflect her age, those who have met her during this time say she remains remarkably vibrant, alert and focused.
David Cameron has said that continuing to press for change in Burma will be a key part of his foreign policy agenda. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said yesterday: “Her continued detention, and that of more than 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma, contravenes international human rights law and casts a long shadow over planned elections. I urge the military regime to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally.”
Ms Suu Kyi’s birthday will be celebrated with far more fanfare overseas than in Burma, where it is expected that just hardcore members of her NLD will gather. Paying their respects in person will be utterly impossible; since last year, the road that passes the opposition leader’s crumbling house has been permanently barricaded.
Even at the age of 65, the woman inside carries with her a rare, special power that the generals still fear.
Even if Julia Gillard never gets to move into The Lodge, Australia’s first female prime minister will have a profound effect on the standing, expectations and limitations that have long held and often shackled women.
Gillard announced on Thursday, after taking over the Labor leadership, that she would not move into the PM’s official residence unless she won the election. Practical and politically smart – who’s got time to move when you have just become PM and are months out from a tough election battle? – and typical of Gillard.
But while the euphoria around her triumph is intoxicating, will her supporters wake up with a nasty hangover? If Gillard fails to win the election, will she be seen to have set back the cause of feminism?
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick doesn’t doubt that Gillard’s achievement will raise the expectations and ambitions of young women.
”Her elevation sends a message that there is no public office that is out of reach of women. As my daughter  said to me yesterday after breathlessly telling me we had a female PM. ‘Mum that could be me!”’
The Melbourne headquarters of Emily’s List, the group that Gillard, Joan Kirner and others founded to get Labor women elected, has almost sold out of its ”Future PM” T-shirts for girls. Hutch Hussein, the group’s national co-convener, says Gillard’s winning the highest political office of the land ”speaks volumes about the position of women in society”.
”There is probably no other vocation with as many barriers for women. More so, to have a woman from a working-class background with power to make decisions over the shape of our society,” Hussein says.
Broderick says Gillard’s rise is more of a game-changer than other female pioneers, including Governor-General Quentin Bryce and Australia’s first elected woman premier, Queensland’s Anna Bligh. ”[This is] because it is arguably the most powerful position in our country and power is a trait often attributed to men, not women.”
Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner says she and former WA Labor premier Carmen Lawrence were ”one-offs”. Gillard’s rise is fundamentally different in that there is now something approaching a critical mass of women in Australian parliaments, says Kirner – almost 30 per cent federally.
Kirner says Thursday’s triumph was underpinned by groups such as Emily’s List and women including herself and Gillard pushing the ALP to adopt affirmative action. ”It was clear that unless we had affirmative action, women like Jenny Macklin and Julia Gillard were going to be frustrated in their attempts to be elected – so she was both a gate-opener and she walked through the gate,” Kirner says.
Kirner also notes that the scrutiny on Gillard’s hair, reproductive and marital status has lessened from three years ago. ”Comments like, ‘well she’s childless’, that offends not only many women but also many men. That’s ’70s talk,” Kirner says.
”Women are now seen as making their own choices … Julia Gillard’s not only made it, she breaks the mould. She doesn’t have a marriage partner, children … That would have caused a revolution 20 years ago!”
Lawyer Moira Rayner, a former equal opportunity commissioner, says Gillard has managed to get to the top without becoming ”one of the boys” or needing a patron. ”Julia’s her own woman and has learned a heck of a lot from the women who have gone before,” Rayner says.
Gillard herself has been at pains to not play up her feminist credentials, a smart political tactic, couching policies on principles of fairness, inclusion, hard work, opportunity and productivity. She has said repeatedly that she got into politics to make a difference, not to be the first.
Political scientist Lindy Edwards says Gillard has persuaded the Labor Party that gender doesn’t matter. ”But the question is whether she can convince the general public”.
Lauren Rosewarne, a social and media researcher who lectures in public policy at the University of Melbourne, says acclaim for Gillard – even among young women – is not universal. ”On social media like Facebook and Twitter there’s a mix. Some young women are criticising her appearance,” Rosewarne says with exasperation. ”We can be our own worst enemy, but there are also positive posts from women my age [20s] and younger who are seeing it as a huge victory.”
Edwards says that in 2006 Gillard had more support than Rudd but ceded him the top job because of Labor’s reservations about a woman in the role. (Joan Kirner disagrees on that point, saying Gillard and Rudd needed each others’ numbers.)
”It’s worth remembering all the nastiness that came out from inside the Labor Party in the 2006 contests, about a childless woman being unelectable,” says Edwards. ”What they did [Thursday] was a very high-risk strategy, but there was overwhelming confidence that if anyone could pull it off it would be Julia.
”After 2½ years in the job they are seeing her competence not her gender.”
Broderick says the only risk she can foresee in Gillard’s rise, apart from the inevitable extra scrutiny given to her personal appearance because she is a female, is that some might take the view that because we now have a female PM, gender equality is ”finished business”. ”We need to keep the debates and messaging around pay equity and other areas of inequality very much alive,” Broderick says.
Catherine Marshall, a Sydney-based journalist for Jesuit Communications, doesn’t doubt that Gillard is the best qualified for the job, but is uneasy at how all this feminist ”backslapping” has obscured the ”brutality” of Rudd’s political assassination, and how feminists are being asked to overlook that.
”If the knives were out for Julia Gillard, would we then be saying ‘this is happening because she is a woman’ or will we be man enough (pun intended) to act as equals and take it – because Julia Gillard will not be exempt from that kind of treatment,” Marshall says.
Commentator and writer Helen Razer shares that uneasiness, saying it is dangerous to celebrate this as a ”victory” for women and feminism.
”First, this diminishes the real victory which, in my view, is of a civic-minded pragmatist over a cultural conservative. Second, it reduces the aims of feminism to that of amassing trophies,” she says.
Razer says that many battle fronts – equal pay, equal representation, and domestic violence to name a few – remain. ”I couldn’t, in this moment, be happier that the ALP has a leader that may take real action on industrial reform and indigenous rights … And, I’m hoping that she will demonstrate some feminist mettle. This will only be observed in her policy; not in her appointment. So, I’m reserving my ‘You Go Girl’ sentiments for a future date.”
All the women interviewed emphasise that regardless of the symbolism of Gillard’s appointment, Gillard stands or falls on her policies and politics.
”It’s not her gender that will determine whether she is a good PM, although it may help,” says Kirner, who believes Gillard is ”normalising” women in power.
Rosewarne warns, however, that she’ll have to do that while still batting ”idiotic” questions about her appearance and womb, and carefully calibrating how she projects power and aggression.
The concept of being a ”backstabbing bitch” doesn’t affect men in the same manner, Rosewarne says. ”For a man to backstab, it’s a game men are meant to play in politics because politics always seen as a men’s game. For a woman to do that it’s seen as sly and underhanded.”
* From Greer to Gillard
* Australia’s new prime minister takes her place beside 18 other elected female leaders. But does a woman at the top make any difference to the lives of ordinary women?
As Zimbabwe embarks on writing a new constitution with the countrywide collection of public submissions starting on Jun. 23, not all women are upbeat about the process.
While some gender activists see this public comment phase as an opportunity for their voices to be heard, ordinary women remain in the dark about the proposed new constitution and what exactly they are supposed to contribute.
Activists warn this could be a lost chance for women to speak about issues that affect them and therefore assert their constitutional rights. It could compromise women’s rights advocacy and the drive to have more women in parliament and other decision-making positions, warns Rejoice Timire of the Disabled Women Support Organisation.
“For women’s issues to come out as they want in the constitution, it needs women at the grassroots to be educated about what is a constitution. If they don’t know what it (the constitution) means then we cannot say our issues will come out as we want them to as Zimbabwean women,” Timire told IPS.
There are already complaints among members of the public that not much has been done to adequately advertise the call for public submissions.
Lydia Thembo agrees saying she has no clue about the constitution-making process that she and other Zimbabweans are expected to provide input for.
“I have not heard anything about it (the constitution outreach exercise),” she told IPS. “There are obviously many things I would like addressed that affects us women, for example, issues to do with inheritance laws. But I have no clue how to do this. I only know about voting during elections – that’s all.”
Local newspapers also reported that the public is unaware of where to make their submissions and that one constitutional outreach team dispatched to collect submissions had been thrown out of their hotel, due to lack of accommodation arrangements.
These concerns are emerging against the backdrop of feminist activists having already complained after the formation of the government of national unity in 2009 that the coalition partners had ignored the call for equal representation in senior government positions. This would have been in line with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development, of which Zimbabwe is a signatory.
The protocol demands that women have equal positions to men in both public and private sectors by 2015. Zimbabwe has only four female cabinet ministers of a total 120.
“At the moment women in parliament are too few to make any meaningful change,” Timire said.
Zimbabwe’s next elections are expected after a new constitution has been written and accepted in a referendum. The constitutional outreach process is expected to be completed by September.
But concerns have been raised that this could be another exercise in futility that will serve only as “window dressing.”
“Coming up with a good constitution is one thing, implementing the provisions is quite another thing,” said Slyvia Chirawu, National Coordinator of the Women and Law in Southern Africa (Zimbabwe).
The decades-old economic crisis has left women vulnerable and out of employment, and feminists say this has partly been due to their absence in decision-making positions both in the public and private sector.
“We need other strategies to get women into decision-making positions. Do the political parties themselves have a clear stance on women’s participation in their parties? It determines the number of women who get into parliament,” Chirawu told IPS.
In a gender audit report of political parties that form Zimbabwe’s unity government last year, the Women in Politics Support Unit lamented that despite Zimbabwe being a signatory of the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the coalition government had, by not ensuring gender parity in government, failed the country’s women.
Yet the fight for political equality remains a tough one in this largely patriarchal nation where women remain stereotyped as “homemakers,” says Abigail Shuma, a gender activist in Bulawayo.
“Women are yet to come out of the closet as leaders in their own right not by mere appointment and that has been the nature of our national politics that women only participate and become very visible only as supporters and so-called party bulwarks. That’s how their role in politics has been defined,” Shuma told IPS.
“There is still a long way to go before ordinary women aspire to higher political office in this country.”
However, Chirawu believes new strategies must be adopted for women’s presence to be felt.
“We need to address issues that hinder women’s effective participation in politics starting from the home upwards,” Chirawu told IPS. She said this included addressing, among other issues: the lack of knowledge on laws and policies; gender inequalities; patriarchy; negative stereotypes; and lack of access to resources.
“The legislated quota system will only work if those who get in through this system have real power, so we look at the motive: is it just window dressing or is it meant to give the women real power as decision makers?” she asked.