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Women participation and democracy: The Case of Zambia’s 2021 elections

Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP

By Sitabile Dewa; WALPE Executive Director and Observer to the Zambian election\

On 12 August 2021, the people of Zambia came out in their numbers to vote for the President, 156 Members of Parliament and mayors of major towns and cities as well as council chairs and councillors of local authorities.

On 16 August 2021, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) announced the election results in favour of the opposition party candidate Hakainde Hichilema who won the Presidency with 59, 02% of the votes cast to 38, 71% of the incumbent Edgar Lungu.

Hichilema’s party, the United Party for National Development (UPND) Alliance, also gained 82 seats in the National Assembly making the party the largest party in parliament.

I had the privilege of being part of the Zimbabwean Civil Society delegation to the Zambian elections. During the period I was in Zambia, I was able to learn a number of issues pertaining to women participation and democracy in Zambia and it is my considered view that some of the lessons can be applied in Zimbabwe and the rest of the SADC region.

Women are still underrepresented in leadership

A total of 16 Presidential candidates were on the ballot of which only one was a woman. The situation is also the same in Parliament and councils where women are underrepresented and there is little progress in attaining gender equality and balance which is envisaged by regional and international instruments. This is the same situation that Zimbabwean women find themselves in when it comes to directly elected seats. For example in the 2018 elections, only 26 women were directly elected from 210 constituencies. Therefore, both Zimbabwe and Zambia political actors and governments must work towards addressing the underrepresentation of women in political leadership. Speaking to women rights activists and even the Presidential running mate for UPND, Ms. Mutale Nalumango, they all bemoaned lack of parity in key leadership positions. I also discussed with them the possibility of developing a movement of women leaders from below across the SADC region as part of unlocking agency for change.

Running mate clause is a potential game-changer

Zambian legislative framework on elections provides for a running mate in the Presidential election. Five out of 16 Presidential candidates had their running mates being a woman which saw Mutale Nalumango eventually emerging as the Vice President of Zambia alongside President Hakainde Hichilema. This was made possible because of the running mate clause which in Zimbabwe was scrapped by the controversial Constitutional Amendment No. 2. The Zambian experience shows that the existence of a running mate clause is a potential game-changer for women participation in political leadership and in Zimbabwe, we must organize to vigorously campaign for its reinstatement in the supreme law of the country. In my conversation with the new Vice President Nalumango, she underscored her commitment to addressing gender parity issues using her leverage from the running mate clause.

A peaceful environment promotes women participation

Throughout the election, Zambia was largely peaceful thanks in part to the tremendous work gender justice organizations such as the Non-Governmental Gender Organizations’ Coordinating Council (NGOCC) had done to build peace in communities. There was also restraint from state security apparatus even when the sitting President had alleged ‘rigging’ of the votes ahead of the final announcement of results. This generally peaceful environment saw women and young women registering to vote and voting in their numbers. As Zimbabwe heads towards the 2023 polls, it is crucial that we in the women’s movement begin to advocate for peace, social cohesion and conflict resolution ahead of the polls. The security of women who participate in elections is just as important as the security of the vote itself.

Young women played a pivotal role

While the mainstream media celebrated high voter turnout among the youths in the Zambian election, little credit was given to the role that young women played in this historic feat. Speaking to activists and leaders of a civil society organisation, Young Women in Action, I learnt with awe how young women in various communities across Zambia had diligently worked to register as many people as possible in just two weeks and also to urge people to go out to vote. For us, in the women’s movement in Zimbabwe, it is important that we locate young women in the mobilization and organizing matrix of communities, especially young women leading community-based organizations. These young women have a direct touch with communities and this places them in the best position to implement localized voter registration, go vote campaigns and securing the vote.

Resilience and dedication are the oil of the struggle for democracy

I had the opportunity to drive in and around Lusaka on voting day and also followed voting elsewhere across Zambia on different channels. What I witnessed was both astounding and inspiring. Voters, including women with babies on their backs, stood in voting queues for long periods of time just to cast their votes. Even before voting, the women’s movement in Zambia had been part of the process to mobilize some 7 million Zambians to register to vote in just 37 days, itself a historic achievement. So many would have thought they would be fatigued to queue again and cast their vote but some women voters queued as early as 0100hrs and as late as 2000hrs. This resilience and dedication is the oil for the democratization struggle and has no replacement. For us, in the women’s movement in Zimbabwe, we must embolden this culture of resilience and dedication in all our interventions as we head towards 2023.

There are many lessons we can draw from the Zambian election of August 2021 and I have highlighted some of the above. At a personal level, my most touching lesson was that democracy is about people and if you mobilise the majority, which are women in our case, then the democratic transition can be secured.


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