Elizabeth Phiri was so incensed when she was overlooked as a parliamentary candidate for the Patriotic Front in a 2008 by-election on the basis of her gender that she quit the party. Four years on, she has rejoined the party but remains pessimistic - but other women politicians see reasons to hope the 2011 elections will be different.
Edith Nakawi is the leader of the opposition Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD), and she acknowledges a common tendency by men to "bring women contenders down".
"The men always find ways of bringing women contenders down but their [men's] days are numbered," warned Nakawi, who has led her party since 2005. Nakawi made history by becoming Zambia’s first elected female president of a political party. Prior to that, she had broken another record of becoming Zambia and Southern Africa’s first female finance minister in 1998. She also served in various ministerial portfolios between 1992 and 2001.
Male dominance over?
The days when only men contested for the position of president in Zambia are over. When the dates for this year’s tripartite elections are announced, Nakawi will throw her name in the hat, along with others who want to preside over the affairs of Zambia for the next five years.
After the last tripartite elections in 2006, there was an outcry mostly from civil society over the low levels of women's representation. "But not this year," says Nakawi. She believes this year more women will make it into elected offices.
Currently, there are just 24 members of parliament (MPs) out of a total 150. In cabinet there are five female ministers out of a total of 21. There are only six female deputy ministers out of a total of 20.
According to the Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL), women constitute half of the voting population, and yet, they accounted for less than 15 percent of candidates and elected officials in parliament and local government institutions, according to their analysis of the last elections in 2006.
Zambia holds tripartite elections for president, national assembly representatives and local councillors every five years. Nakawi believes it is possible for women to make a bigger mark in the forthcoming elections.
"I am going to stand for election as president this year," said Nakawi. "In the past women were not standing because of intolerance from men who are scared of women and want to stop them from participating in politics.
According to research undertaken by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, EISA, "[Zambia's] political parties have no quotas to ensure the representation of women in leadership positions within party structures but they note that there are some exceptions. The United Party for National Development, the leading member of the 2006 United Democratic Alliance electoral coalition, had provisions that ensured that at least 30 percent of its national management committee members were women".
However, Phiri, who was in December 2007 dropped from representing her party in a by-election in February 2008, believes there are deep-rooted stereotypes that will continue to work against women. She says some people in political structures still believe that the best place for women is to dance at rallies.
"As women we have taken ourselves into the political arena but the challenge is the adoption process. On adoption, most political parties don’t pick women because we do not have financial muscle. Women are just taken as dancers for male politicians but we want to contribute as well, as MPs or councillors."
Phiri said women were more than willing to stand for election as members of parliament and councilors, but the political parties were not giving them that opportunity.
More financial muscle needed
"As you know, men are usually the ones picking candidates, hence women are usually disadvantaged," she said. "Because of the greediness of the men, we are not attaining the 50-50 gender representation. It will take long for women and men to have equal representation in parliament because of this greediness among our men."
According to Phiri, women need a lot of moral and financial support to stand as candidates.
"Our morale has to be boosted and we need to be given opportunities. We need more women to be adopted this year. Actually once a female is adopted, they would receive a lot of support from their fellow women and the Zambia National Women’s Lobby."
The ZNWL has embarked on a programme to encourage and support women to contest in the next elections. And with women like Nakawi contesting the number one position, it sure will be an interesting contest.