Voices of women and of persons with disabilities are not heard in politics

In Zambia, women’s participation in politics is low: only 17% of the Members of Parliament and 9% local councillors are women. Zambia has been a multi-party democracy since 1991, but the political field is dominated by one party at a time. Women’s participation in politics is hindered by prevailing patriarchal attitudes and strict hierarchies within political parties. The electoral system doesn’t support equal representation either. After the general elections in 2016 the relationship between the ruling party and the opposition have become tense and election violence has been common during by-elections. The threat of violence also weakens women’s political participation. The tense situation has narrowed the political space. 

Before the 2016 elections, an amendment to the constitution ruled that all candidates must have studied for 12 years and prove this with a Grade 12 certificate. This hindered possibilities to stand as candidates especially for women in rural areas. Another factor that affected the number of candidates was raising the election fees for candidates. The fees ranged from 75 dollars to as high as 750 dollars for parliamentary candidates. Although patriarchal attitudes and prejudices still hinder women’s participation in politics, more supporting attitudes are emerging. 

General elections are planned to be held in Zambia in August 2021. According to the World Health Organization estimates, there are about 2 million persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Zambia. Zambia has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2010 and has since then included PWDs in various policies and laws (e.g. the Constitution and Persons with Disabilities Act, 2012). These promote the participation of PWDs with equal opportunities in the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. In addition, Zambia’s National Policy on Disability (2014) recognises that persons with disabilities are entitled to enjoy their human rights on an equal basis with others. Despite these progressive elements, PWDs are often an invisible and discriminated group in Zambia. In particular, the conditions for their political participation have been poorly realised and the participation of PWDs in doing and delivering politics is still low. This is partly due to the fact that political parties have not had the will or sufficient expertise to strengthen the inclusion of PWDs in their own operations. 

Our work in Zambia

In Zambia Demo Finland has been working to strengthen women’s participation in local level politics since 2013. With our local partner, Zambia National Women’s Lobby, we train female politicians and support their co-operation and networking across party lines. The aim of the programme is to build their capacities for effective participation in politics. The current programme (2018–2021) works in three districts (Kaoma, Kapiri Mposhi and Lusaka) and at the national level. 

The programme builds the capacities and leaderships skills of local female councillors. Political parties are the gatekeepers for women’s political participation, and therefore the programme also trains parties on the importance of women’s participation for democracy and supports them in drafting their own gender action plans. The programme also supports and builds the capacities of the parties’ women’s wings on the local and national level. 

In addition, Demo Finland also supports multi-party co-operation of female politicians, so they can better advocate for issues important to them. Multi-party dialogue forums have been set up and operate on the national as well as the local levels and provide a safe space for the female politicians to co-operate across party lines. 

In August 2020, Demo Finland started a new two-year project, which is implemented by the Zambia National Women’s Lobby and Disability Rights Watch. The main objective of the project is to strengthen the inclusive multi-party system and in particular the equal opportunities for persons with disabilities (PWDs) in politics. The project activities focus on building the capacities of political parties on disability inclusive measures and support political parties in developing strategies, guidelines and/or action plans which better reflect the inclusion of PWDs. One of the training programs within the project enhances the political participation of persons with disabilities in the coming elections 2021. Besides the training and advocacy activities, the creation of a ‘PWDs in politics network’ is supported. The network will offer an opportunity for PWDs to share experiences, build a stronger movement and raise jointly identified issues of common interest in politics, across party lines. The project also supports inter-party cooperation and peer learning in relation to disability inclusion. 

Results of our work

  • Nine parties are preparing gender action plans for their own party. The programme monitors their implementation. 
  • The capacities of female politicians (both local councillors and candidates) have been built. At the local level hundreds of female politicians and at the national level all female councillors have taken part in the trainings throughout the years. Prior to the elections also heads of campaigns were trained. 
  • The women’s wings of the political parties have created a national multi-party dialogue forum (National Women in Politics Platform) and three local level forums (Local Women in Politics Platform). This has been very important for strengthening co-operation across party lines: a neutral space for dialogue has increased trust between the female politicians and helped in overcoming prejudice against representatives of other political parties. 
  • The dialogue platforms have succeeded in functioning in a co-operative manner despite the tensions between the ruling and opposition parties. 
  • The dialogue platforms have created a safe space for female politicians to share ideas on how to support women’s participation in politics and advocate for gender equality. The dialogue platforms have produced joint statements and organised several activities on national and local levels.

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