Women in Politics Do the right thing or stay in office?

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The 1950’s saw the emergence of indigenous voices on the political platform of the then Tanganyika, though the voices were predominantly male which were occasionally interspersed with a few women’s voices like that of the legendary Bibi Titi Mohamed and that of Lucy Lameck.

In the photo, Bibi Titi Mohamed is seen campaigning for Independence

The struggle for Independence was able to build up a strong corps of indigenous leaders, who were strong, vocal and committed to the struggle for self-governance.

The advent of Independence in 1961 brought those leaders to the fore in governance though again, those leaders were predominantly male moreover those very same leaders were carrying the baggage of tradition, prejudice and the legacy of colonial structures.

The Umoja wa Wanawake Tanzania UWT was formed as a women’s political wing in TANU, the then ruling party, and though the UWT was able to provide a platform for women to take part in the decision making process, it lacked the status and the political muscle to be a viable forum for advocacy for women’s rights.
Bibi Titi Mohamed in the center.

It was not treated with respect by the male leaders who viewed it as a nest for intrigue and backbiting among women. It was also not taken seriously.

Though to be fair, the UWT was able to foster women’s political talent.

Among the UWT’s most notable contributions were the lobby for, and the enactment of the Law of Marriage Act in 1971, quite a revolutionary piece of legislation at the time!

Various women have held political office at the level of Cabinet Ministers right down to local council in the last 40 years. However, the male to female ratio in political leadership has been at best, unfair and at worst, just a façade because at a glance, women MPs have not been able to fill the quota required by the national consensus on affirmative action. Neither have women’s political voices been given a solid platform in terms of political muscle, for influencing change.

The majority of women politicians have to bow down to Party dictum, the Parties which have given them political visibility and positions, to the extent that when it comes to gender issues, they would rather stick to the prevailing Party attitude than risk being alienated from the body politic.

In the words of the late John F. Kennedy
“Politics is a jungle, a struggle between doing the right thing and staying in office”.

Fear of rejection by their political parties, fear that they would not be selected in the next primary elections fear that they would be viewed as pariahs has forced many a woman politician to suppress activism in favor of staying in office.

As a result, the women constituency has been feeling short changed. The question among gender right activists is “If women politicians are supposed to be representing our interests, then how come they are more focused on holding on to their political office rather than on campaigning strategically and actively for our interests?”

To be fair to them, women politicians have tried to push the gender agenda onto the political agenda and various successes have been documented, but this has happened because of the NGO movement which has been acting as a lobby and advocacy platform and which from time to time has been calling on politicians, women politicians included, to account.Bibi Titi Mohamed in the center.

In the photo are Mama Sophia Kawawa and Mama Fatma Karume who were strong activists for women’s Rights

Most notable successes like law reform have been accomplished by forming coalitions between the NGO movement and the government.  Voices from opposition parties have added an impetus to such campaigns.

 

As a corps, women politicians are not very strong.  Neither are they very vocal.  They only become strong and vocal when the agenda under review is consonant with Party policy.

However, that particular Party policy may not be development oriented in lieu of the interests of the women constituency.

Gender rights activists have criticized women politicians especially those elected for special seats for forgetting that they hold office through popular mandate.

Lack of a cohesive union among women politicians who belong to different political parties has to a large extent, marginalized the interests of women constituents.

This has led to the fragmentation of women’s political strength and the voices that come out are dissonant.

Multiparty democracy and the proliferation of newspapers and radio stations has served to make Tanzanian constituents politically aware.

Human rights education and voters’ education programs which have been conducted by NGOs have helped raise the level of awareness among Tanzanian voters.

Though the so-called political maturity styled along Western lines has not yet been attained, more and more voices are heard from the public through the media, and through direct contact with members of parliament and local council leaders.

This dialogue needs to be strengthened so that public voices would become amplified.

The media has been acting as a powerful tool for lobby and advocacy in Tanzania.  It has been a tool for change in attitude towards gender stereotypes.

The media has provided a forum for peoples’ voices to be heard.

Moreover, the media has succeeded to a large extent on public education programs vis-à-vis legal literacy, voters’ education and human rights awareness.

Going back in history from the time of the campaign for UHURU to current times should debated on the role of women on the political platform which debate it is hoped, would pave the way for more participation of women on the political platform both in the role of political leaders as well as in the role of voters/constituents.

Research has not yet been conducted on the women electorate who prefer to vote for male politicians but rumors are the women electorate is more favorably disposed towards male politicians than towards women politicians.

Until a structured survey is made, we can give the only explanation that for centuries men have been the symbol of authority therefore, are able sway electorate opinion in their favor.

Also, male politicians receive more support from their political parties.  They have more money for campaigns.  They are not modest to list their achievements and they have an Old Boys’ network from which they can draw support.

Women on the other hand not only operate within patriarchal structures after they are elected, but they also have to deal with prejudice and tradition from among their potential voters, while they are campaigning.

This has served as a handicap and most women politicians prefer getting elected through the special seats forum rather than through electoral constituencies.

The outcome of such a strategy makes women politicians prone to emotional blackmail from their political parties.

In turn, they suppress their activism, sometimes supporting policies and action which are detrimental to women, because the alternative would be alienation, and a no-vote next time.

There should be public debate on the following:

The issue of power vis-à-vis responsibility

 

  •  More women to campaign for office at constituency level
  •  Make visible the issue of loyalty and responsibility to women among politicians elected for special seats.
  •  Forum for discussion by different stake-holders on the electoral process
  •  Discussion on the need for policy review and reform at the level of political parties to include more comprehensive strategies and plans for gender balance and development
  •  Historical analysis of women on the political platform – where we come from and where are going
  •  Provoke a change in the process of selection at the primary election level so that leaders are selected on the basis of commitment to the development process rather than on the basis of popularity at Party level.
  •  Provoke public debate on the issue of ownership of the development process that the elected leaders are only custodians of the process with ownership belonging to the constituents.
  •  The issue of accountability between both parties i.e. the leadership and the electorate should be discussed and each party should be called to account.

 

“Together We Can Make it Happen”

Leila Sheikh