Demo Finland’s partner organisation Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL) organised the Annual National Conference for Female Councillors in Lusaka, Zambia on 26–27th September. The theme of the conference was “Uniting Women Councillors from Different Political Parties for Effective Participation in Local Government”. The conference was opened by the Minister of Gender and Child Development, Inonge Wina, the Minister of Local Government and Housing, Emerine Kabanshi as well as the Finnish Ambassador to Zambia, Pertti Anttinen.
The conference addressed the current status of female councillors in Zambia, the day-to-day work of the representatives as well as women’s participation and effective influence. Almost 140 people attended the event, including 74 out of the 84 female councillors in Zambia. The others were representatives from the women’s wings of political parties and ZNWL’s local and international partners and members. The conference offered the women politicians an opportunity to discuss challenges they are facing, to find solutions and to share experiences with fellow councillors.
The importance of women’s participation and collaboration
Women’s voice is barely heard at the local government level in Zambia, since they currently constitute only 6% of councillors. Minister Inonge Wina, however, reminded the audience that men’s right to political leadership and women’s second place should not be accepted, because this poses serious consequences for poverty reduction and women’s empowerment. Many of the speeches echoed the message that, firstly, councillors are not at the bottom of governance, but close to people and deciding on many critical issues. Secondly, it was highlighted that women are in a better position to understand the challenges faced by women and children but also everyday issues in general. Women should therefore be in a key position in local governance, since this has positive impact on community development and services. Juliet Chibuta, ZNWL Executive Director, also noted that women’s participation is not only important for taking different kinds of needs into consideration, but for the realisation of democracy and women’s rights.
Ambassador Pertti Anttinen gave the participants inspiring examples of the history and current state of women’s political participation in Finland. He emphasised that cross-party cooperation has worked well in Finland, so why not also in Zambia. The significance of women’s collaboration with each other received special attention in the other presentations and discussions as well. The councillors themselves also noted there to be urgent need for cooperation between parties, districts and across the country. In some wards, there are only one or two female representatives, and for them to make their voices heard in a male-dominated environment, they should confidently come out together as women irrespective of their party allegiances.
The challenges of female representatives
The female councillors spoke of the challenges affecting their political participation. These include not only the low number of female representatives and the lack of collaboration between them, but also opposition by their husbands, the complex candidate adoption process of parties as well as discrimination, intimidation and opposition by male councillors. When women get involved in politics, they are also expected to focus on so-called women’s issues, such as healthcare and education, and not to interfere in men’s spheres, such as budgets and infrastructure.
The female councillors attending the conference, however, proved that they are able – as Minister Emerine Kabanshi called them to do – to show their potential, fulfil their promises, and thereby inspire and lead by their own example. Lydia Mpepo was the first female councillor in her area and currently acts as the Deputy Mayor of Chililabombwe. Her initiatives have, for example, led to installing more street lights and establishing a new minibus route in the city. Councillor Grace K. Chitakwa said that she has faced a lot of jealousy during her duties, but her hard work and willingness to help others has also enabled her to support the construction of a school and several wells.
Many female politicians, including Mpepo and Chitakwa, come from politically active families or are retired teachers. Some of the representatives are, however, ordinary community members. Central goals of ZNWL and the conference include building the capacity of current female councillors, but also supporting aspiring women and girls to participate in politics irrespective of their background. The objective is to increase women’s representation in the local elections of 2016, a programme supported by Demo Finland. For this purpose, ZNWL has also just launched the Women Campaign Support Fund. This conference was considered to play a part in reaching these objectives through its capacity building, networking and peer sharing opportunities.
The conference was organised by the Zambia National Women’s Lobby and supported by Demo Finland, Norwegian Church Aid, Action Aid and the Embassy of Sweden in Lusaka.