It Started in a Garden
In the year 2000, Zimbabwean feminists sat down in a garden in Harare and had a conversation around women’s participation in the political processes that were taking place at the time, as well as women’s engagement in Parliament. For the first time in Zimbabwe, there were women in Parliament from across the political divide. Therefore women from various political parties, representing diverse communities and political ideologies were sharing political and governance spaces within Zimbabwe as women. It was clear to them that there was need to facilitate spaces to address women’s political participation in the broadest sense. In envisioning this space, whatever entity would emerge, feminists sought to ensure that “this women’s political space” would be a space where women who where Members of Parliament (MP’s) would be able to come in and find available a host of facilities and services to support their work both as political players and MPs.
As a result of this and a flurry of subsequent conversations, in April 2001, Women in Parliament Support Unit (WiPSU) was officially registered as a Trust under Zimbabwean Law. The Trustees were, and remain to this day, vibrant feminists and women’s rights activists with experience in working with women’s rights, governance and law reform, institutional and policy development. In 2001 and in the ensuing years, WiPSU’s primarily sought to engage and support women MPs to facilitate the broader women right movement goals towards a society in which women exercise and enjoy their human rights and participate as equals in all political processes with full citizenship rights. WiPSU, therefore, by virtue its vision, exists to strengthen democracy and governance practises through the effective participation of women in political office and as political constituents.
As, WiPSU interacted and built relationship with women in Parliament and in their individual capacities as political players across the political divide, worked with women through constituency effectiveness programs and various capacity building initiatives, it clearly emerged that women faced a myriad of political and governance related challenges in being representatives of constituencies and political parties in seeking to lead and engage in a manner that facilitated greater rights realisation for women. And so, in 2001, WiPSU initiated a conversation on setting up of a Women’s Caucus in the Parliament of Zimbabwe. Women MP’s responded positively and ran with the concept leading to the establishment of the Zimbabwe Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (ZWPC) in 2001 which met and duly elected Hon. Flora Bhuka as its first Chairperson, and proceeded to develop a Constitution to guide its operations. WiPSU become an ex officio member of the Caucus, as a result of its instrumentality in its formation.
In 2002, in recognition and in response to the broader roles and contexts that women in parliament and governance held, the name of the organisation was changed to Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU) to adequately respond to needs and processes of women engaged in politics and decision-making holistically. WiPSU institutionally reorganised to facilitate directed engagements and support to women MPs in Parliament, women councillors in Zimbabwean’s local government authorities, women in political spaces and political parties. In recognition of the dynamics of political engagement, initiatives responding to women political candidature and candidates aspiring to leadership within political parties, local and national governance, became central areas of WiPSU engagement.
In 2003, WiPSU established its first large scale advocacy campaign which became the now iconic “Vote for a Woman Campaign” for the 2003 Urban Councils Elections. The campaign, directly sought to encourage the electorate to positively consider voting and actively supporting women’s political candidature for the women candidates. The campaign, in response to Zimbabwe’s deeply embedded socio-political patriarchy in women’s political and electoral participation, also sought to level the playing field for women’s political candidature by providing women candidates with the necessary tools and skills to enhance their engagement in electoral campaigns. The success of the Vote For a Woman Campaign in 2003 meant in 2005, in line with the 2005 Parliamentary Elections, WiPSU undertook it’s Vote for Women Campaign, in an intensified manner as the campaign was now infused with the successes and lessons learnt from the 2003 Urban Councils Elections.
Of particular note, was that the lessons learnt in 2003 empowered the women in parliament and political parties with the support of WiPSU to engage their respective parties and seek to ensure their political parties adopted voluntary party quotas to address the glaring gender imbalances within their parties which were exacerbated during electoral contestations. However, only one (1) Political Party adopted a gender quota for candidates, ZANU (PF) adopted a 30% provincial quota for women candidates in the 2005 elections. The positioning of women within political parties which held a strong influence over women positioning and ability to lead or engage in elected office and governance was therefore clearly precarious. WIPSU documented the 2005 Parliamentary Elections dynamics in the publication “Unmasking Politics: Women’s Experiences with Elections”; documenting experiences of nine women candidates in the 2005 election. This also spurned the WiPSU first major large scale Political Parties Gender Audit which is and continues to be undertaken within every electoral cycle.
WiPSU advocacy received a significant boot when the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development was adopted in Zimbabwe in November 2009. This became a useful platform to leverage WiPSU’s work and national dialogue on gender equality contexts began its work around regional advocacy and engagement on women’s participation in politics by convening the Regional Conference on Enhancing Women’s Participation in Politics in 2003. The Conference drew together women MPs from the SADC region, women’s organisations, activists and human rights organisations from 11 of the 13 SADC countries. The Conference resolved to form a regional platform where women could lobby and advocate at regional level [for their respective countries] to put in place mechanisms that would facilitate women’s increased representation.
As a result of this and other regional engagement initiatives, WiPSU would later join the Southern African Gender Protocol Alliance and be part of engagements around the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development and the subsequent SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Through the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe of which WiPSU is a member, WiPSU is part of the SADC Gender Alliance as led in Zimbabwe by the National Focal organisation WCOZ and the current Chair of the SADC Gender Alliance’s cluster on Governance.
Inspired by the successes and challenges of pursuing voluntary party quotas in Zimbabwe and hopeful that regional advocacy on women’s political participation could strengthen local lobby and advocacy initiatives in this regard, WiPSU launched its ”50/50” campaign on the 16th November 2006 targeting a cross political increase in women’s political candidature, motivating and facilitating for women not just to vote but also to stand for political office and thereby move Zimbabwe towards the attainment of the benchmarks set by key regional and international human rights instruments.
Today WiPSU continues to provide support to women in Parliament, Local Government and political spaces in Zimbabwe aiming to increase women’s qualitative and quantitative participation and influence in policy and decision making.