HARARE, Zimbabwe (WOMENSENEWS)--As Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has sped across this troubled Southern African country drumming up support for his party in recent days he has been singing the praises of women. Women helped liberate the country from colonialism, he has proclaimed, and women will be rewarded.
"Our sisters used spears against bullets," he told a crowd of thousands Tuesday, as groups of women wrapped in cloth bearing his face whistled and sang his name. "We are now raising the welfare of women."
In the run-up to Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections being held today, Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front--the ZANU-PF--has been out wooing female voters.
In December the party appointed Joyce Mujuru as the first female vice president of both the country and party. It also set aside 30 electoral districts, out of a total of 120 across the country, for female candidates, in what it says is an attempt to meet regional goals for 30-percent female participation in politics.
But in a country where politics are surrounded by widespread state-sponsored intimidation and repressive laws restricting free speech and debate, plenty of critics view the party's attention to women's rights as an election-year strategy by an authoritarian party desperate to remain in power.
"ZANU-PF has been around for 25 years," said Paurina Mpariwa, a member of parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, referring to 1980, the year Mugabe and his followers wrested independence from the United Kingdom. "They only came up with the women's issue yesterday with the appointment of the vice president. It's the joke of the year."
"They want to attract women, but they have done nothing for us," said Muchafara Mavengahama, a 38-year-old mother of three. "We want our children to go to school, free clinics, food. Women just want to be free to live."
Change Called a Slow Process
The ruling party says that change has been slow because it has been difficult to educate ordinary people about the importance of women's rights. "In our culture, men are the head of the family," said Ephraim Masawi, deputy director of information for ZANU-PF. "It's hard to convince the electorate that men and women are equal."
With violence against opposition supporters down in recent weeks, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party is increasingly optimistic that it will surprise the ruling party. In 2000, the party won 57 seats and in 2002 nearly seized the presidency in an election that many international observers said was deeply flawed.
According to official statistics, women comprise about 51 percent of Zimbabwe's almost 12 million people. But with the recent migration of some 3 million Zimbabweans in recent years, many of them young men, women's electoral power may be even greater.
Once one of Africa's post-colonial success stories, for the past five years Zimbabwe has been in political and economic crisis, triggered by a violent and disruptive land-reform program during which white-owned farms were seized for redistribution to landless blacks. Women were promised--but did not receive--a significant percentage of that seized land.
Land Reform Led to Food Crisis
In 2000 and 2002, Mugabe and his party campaigned on the issue of land, promising to finish the revolution by returning land stolen by colonialists to the people. But the reform program is now complete and Zimbabweans are facing a major food crisis. Millions are hungry, the economy is in disarray--the gross domestic product, a measure of a country's total production, has shrunk by between 30 percent and 35 percent in the last five years --and state services such as health and education have crumbled.
The government blames the food shortages on a four-year drought, but independent economists blame the land-reform program, which destroyed the commercial agriculture sector, for many of the Zimbabwe's economic problems.
Brian Kagoro, chair of a coalition of nongovernmental organizations--including many women's groups--that are critical of the government, said the recent appointments of women were little more than "tokenism" that will do little to reform the party's deeply patriarchal culture.
"There has not been a reformation. There has not been any education," he said. "The process of politics in ZANU has not been genderized. The thinking is still in the mainstream patriarchal."
Skeptics here say that the ZANU party's recent attention to women's rights and female voters provides a convenient way to side-line a faction in the party.
Mujuru, a former revolutionary and long-time Zimbabwean cabinet member was a surprise candidate for the position and her appointment was controversial even within ZANU-PF. The post has long been seen as a stepping stone to the presidency.
Internal Party Politics
Observers of Zimbabwean politics say her choice had less to do with her personal merits than with stopping the rise of the country's powerful speaker of parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a member of a rival ethnic clan, favored for the position by many in the party.
Many of the newly appointed female parliamentary candidates conveniently replaced other dissidents within the party.
Many female party members, nonetheless, are overjoyed by the appointments.
"She's a good woman, a good and peaceful woman," Phillipa Madziwa, a toothless 79-year-old ZANU-PF member and member of the party's women league said of Mujuru. "I am proud that a woman is so powerful now."
For many ordinary Zimbabwean women, however, everyday issues of hunger and poverty leave them little time to worry about gender equity in politics. In urban areas, the price of staple foods has risen so high that people have begun cultivating open land between roads and even in cemeteries.
"Things are very tough now," said Tendai Chizhongo, 35, as she made her way home from selling popsicles on the street from a battered Styrofoam cooler. The price of a small bag of corn meal, Zimbabwe's staple food, is the same as 35 of her popsicles. "We are hungry and poor. I don't care if our leader is a man or a woman, as long as they bring change."
Nicole Itano is a Johannesburg-based reporter who has covered Zimbabwe since 2001.
For more information:
Despite Promises, Zimbabwean Women Not Given Land:
Sex Assault Now a Political Act in Zimbabwe: