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Zambian female politicians sitting in a confrence room

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

In Zambia, women’s representation in politics is low: only 15% of the Members of Parliament and 8% of 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.

In the run-up to the general elections in 2021 the relationship between the ruling party and the opposition was tense. The elections were held as political polarisation deepened and the democratic space narrowed. According to the V-Dem Institute, Zambia was one of the world’s fastest deteriorating democracies in 2020. In 2021, economic difficulties, restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of speech, the excessive use of force by the police against the opposition, and the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to further deterioration of the political climate. Despite this, the turnout in the 2021 elections rose to a record 70% and there was a peaceful transfer of power.

Although the peaceful transfer of power has been celebrated for a reason, the election result was not very promising in terms of the representativeness of democracy. 53% of the registered voters were women, but the number of elected women dropped. The representation of persons with disabilities (PWDs) was also not encouraging in the 2021 elections: only three persons with disabilities were elected to the municipal councils and none to the Parliament. In particular, the political participation of PWDs was hampered by the threat of violence, and the authorities had not received adequate training in the implementation of political rights of PWDs.

According to the World Health Organization estimates, there are about 2 million 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. During 2022, the focus is on reinforcing the sustainability of results before the project ends at the end of the year.

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

In addition, Demo Finland has also supported 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.

Since August 2020, Demo Finland, together with ZNWL and Disability Rights Watch (DRW), has strengthened 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. 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

  • Six parties are preparing internal gender action plans. 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 increased cross-party co-operation and trust among women politicians and their members have gained more influential positions in their 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.
  • Networks for politicians with disabilities have been founded in two municipalities.
  • Accessibility reviews were conducted in the premises of 5 parties, and 5 parties have begun drafting their disability inclusion plans.
  • In the 2021 elections, 3 parties nominated altogether 13 persons with disabilities as candidates, 8 of which at the local and 5 at the national level.

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