LUSAKA, Zambia (WOMENSENEWS)–Ruth Zozi, 47, dreams of becoming a member of parliament. But she says her dream will never come true because she is illiterate, poor and a woman.
Zozi says she has searched for someone to connect her with women already in politics who could help mentor her, but her efforts have been in vain. So every day she leaves her home in Chawama, a compound of Lusaka, the capital here, early in the morning to sell her fish at the market for $1, $2 and $5.20.
"There are women like us who really would love to join politics, but because there is no one to support us, we fail," she says. "I am [illiterate], poor and, above all, a woman. I don’t think anyone would support me."
She says women’s participation is limited to voting and dancing and singing songs of praise for the president at the airport and political rallies.
"It’s always sad to see women dancing at the airports and voting in large number[s], but not much is done to support these women," she says.
She says that increasing the number of female politicians is the solution.
"We want change, and it is by putting women in powerful political positions that we can have such change," she says.
Of the 158 MPs here, just 22 are women. With women representing just 14 percent of parliament, Zambia is one of the poorest performers on affirmative action for female politicians in the South African Development Community, SADC, a regional interparliamentary body made up of 15 member countries.
Zambia will hold its presidential and legislative elections in October. The Regional Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, a policy organ of the SADC, has set a goal for women to make up half of Zambia’s parliament after these elections.
‘The Place of a Man’
But not all women here support that goal.
"A woman loses respect and dignity if she engages in politics, and I don’t see the reason for her participating in politics," says Karen Mbuji, 19, a nursing student. "How can a woman gain respect when she takes the place of a man?"
Katie Nachaba, a housewife and a student, says men are leaders and should participate in politics; not women.
"As women we have been brought up believing that men are our leaders," she says. "I don’t expect a woman to engage in political issues."
She says women who participate in politics risk being associated with prostitution.
Mumbi Phiri, 42, a member of parliament for the Patriotic Front party, says political aspirants have to put up with attitudes like that.
"As women, we tend to be harassed," says Phiri, a mother of seven.
But she says women shouldn’t be discouraged.
"Let’s go in as women and fight," she says. "Let us prove ourselves, stand up and be counted."
Phiri says she tries to prove women’s capabilities. She has improved access to clean water and machines to grind maize in her constituency and was behind the construction of a bridge to prevent children from drowning and a maternity wing at a local clinic.
Nelson Banda, coordinator and information officer for the Zambia National Women’s Lobby, a nongovernmental organization that promotes the representation and participation of women at all levels of decision-making, says no society can develop without women. If women can manage a home, what can stop them from managing the country, he asks.
"We have represented our women very well," he says. "I am willing to help any woman. Those planning to join politics, [I] am willing to mentor them."
Victor Banda, a local resident, says he supports women’s political participation – to an extent.
"Women do not support each other here," he says. "In as much as we may have women MPs, ministers [who are] women, we cannot have a woman president to rule us because women are not strong."
He says women in politics face economic, cultural and legal barriers, as well as politically motivated violence.
"We do not have a good constitution and political will to engage more women in politics," he says.
Christian M. Chilufya, a councilor from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy party for the Mpima ward in Kabwe, a district in Zambia’s central province, says there is something good for women in the new draft constitution.
Article 183 of a 2010 amendment to the Zambian Constitution sets a 30-percent minimum for women and men in the National Assembly, according to the Zambian Economist, an online platform run by economist Chola Mukanga. But the constitution hasn’t been approved yet.
Chilufya, a retired teacher, says she joined politics because of an eagerness to see development occur in her area. She says her husband is supportive and her political life doesn’t interfere with taking care of her six children.
She says the government supports women’s participation in politics and developmental activities to benefit them, such as providing them farming input loans.
Both Banda of Zambia National Women’s Lobby and Phiri say they have prepared women to participate in this year’s general election.
"We have trained aspiring candidates, and so far the response is good," Banda says.
Phiri predicts an increase in the number of women in parliament.
"We are prepared as women," she says. "Just watch what happens!"
Waving flies from her fish, Zozi says women in politics must look out for women once elected.
"Women should remember us in parliament," she says. "When elected, they should represent us well and also include us in their plans because they, the women, [understand] our problems [more] than men."
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Dando Mweetwa reports for Global Press Institute’s Zambia News Desk. She aims for her stories to be a voice for the voiceless and generate positive change in her community.