New Constitution and Gender Quotas in Zimbabwe

Today, President Robert Mugabe signed into law the new Constitution of Zimbabwe.  10-years in the making, the document replaces the country’s original constitution, dating back to the British colonial era.  Among other changes, the new constitution makes strides to improve the gender equality and the role of women in politics.

In the draft document (Jan 2013), the word “women” is mentioned 21 times, female 4 times, and gender 43 times.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Gender balance is mentioned as a national objective and a founding value, with 50/50 being the goal for “all institutions and agencies of government at every level” (Chapter 2: Article 17)
  • Establishes a nine-member National Gender Commission with various research, advising, oversight, and investigative privileges (Part 4)
  • Judicial appointments should reflect the “gender composition of Zimbabwe” (Part 2, Article 184).
  • Calls for gender balancing and equality in the allocation of property and land, employment, treatment, remittances, and custody of children (Chapter 2; Part 3: Article 80).
  • Parliamentary committees should reflect the gender composition of the Parliament (Part 7: Article 139(4))
  • National Senate and Provincial Council elections will be conducted with a “zebra list” system (men and women alternating) and with women at the top of all lists (Part 3, Article 120).
  • For the first two Parliaments under the new Constitution, there will be 6 reserved seats for women from every district (60 total seats) allocated proportionally to party vote share in the district (Part 4, Article 124).

Gender Quotas

Most (28 out of 49) countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have some sort of quota for women.  Like Zimbabwe, nine of these either directly elect, appoint, or proportionally allocate reserved seats for the lower house.  Seven legally require a certain percentage of party lists to be female.  By large, though, the most common type of quota is the voluntary party quota.  Twelve countries, including Zimbabwe, had party quotas in their most recent elections.

Quotas and Women’s Representation in sub-Saharan Africa

Country Quota Year Last Election % Women in Lower House
Rwanda Reserved Seats 2003 2008 56.25
South Africa Voluntary Party 2009 2009 49.24
Senegal Legislative 2010 2012 42.67
Mozambique Voluntary Party 1994 2009 39.2
Tanzania, United Rep. Reserved Seats 1985 2010 36
Uganda Reserved Seats 1995 2011 34.93
Angola Legislative 2005 2012 34.09
Burundi Legislative 2004 2010 32.1
Ethiopia Voluntary Party 2010 27.79
Lesotho Voluntary Party 2012 25
Sudan Reserved Seats 2008 2010 24.58
Namibia Voluntary Party 1997 2009 24.36
Mauritania Legislative 2006 2010 22.1
Malawi Voluntary Party 2009 21.24
Cape Verde Legislative 2010 2011 20.83
Kenya Reserved Seats 1997 2013 18.57
Burkina Faso Legislative 2009 2012 15.75
Zimbabwe Voluntary Party 2005 2005 15.24
Cameroon Voluntary Party 1996 2007 13.9
Djibouti Reserved Seats 2002 2008 13.85
Niger Legislative 2002 2011 13.27
Sierra Leone Voluntary Party 2002 2012 12.4
Côte d’Ivoire Voluntary Party 2009 2011 11.03
Mali Voluntary Party 2007 10.2
Botswana Voluntary Party 2009 7.9

Transition States

Eritrea Reserved Seats 1994 22
South Sudan Reserved Seats 2010 26.51
Somalia Reserved Seats 2011 13.82
Sources: IPU (2013); Nunley (2013); Paxton et al. (2003); Quota Project (2013).

Gender quotas have had variable effects on women’s representation across the continent (for example: Tripp and Kang 2008).  While leaders who encouraged and endorsed them often saw these as a mixture of goodwill to the women’s movement and international donors, they also tended to see quotas as temporary affirmative action measures that would eventually become unnecessary.  Zimbabwe’s leaders have taken this one step further by legislating the evanescence of the quota for the lower house.

At present, women hold 15% of the seats in the lower house of Zimbabwe.  Under the new Constitution, the lower house will hold 270 seats; approximately 22% of those will be reserved for women for the first two parliaments.  Presumably, then, after the first two parliaments, the body will be reduced to 210 seats and women will have to win in open contest.  The new constitution does not make any requirements for parties to run female candidates in the lower house.

Women's Representation in Zimbabwe

Based on the lower house quota, we can expect approximately 25% of the seats in the lower house to be held by women in the next election, perhaps more if women presently holding open seats are able to hold onto them and do not opt for the easier reserved seats.

In contrast, the expected outcomes for women in the upper house, where they presently hold 24% of the seats, are a bit more uncertain.  The zebra list with women at the top seems to position the house for gender parity.  However, it remains to be seen if the Zimbabwe High Court and Electoral Commission will require the full implementation of this provision for the upcoming, yet TBD election, or, if like Kenya, the requirement will be postponed until subsequent elections.

Regardless, as it appears, Zimbabwe is attempting great strides to institutionalize gender equality through its highest law.  The inclusion of alternating party list placement mandates, reserved seats, and widespread equality provisions like land ownership and child custody are radical.  The constitution could be the most progressive for women in the world.


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