In August 2021, Zambia’s opposition party, under the leadership of Hakainde Hichilema, secured a historic victory over the authoritarian ruling party. In the African context where elections are often fraught with rigging and voter suppression, this gave regional democracy an important shot in the arm. In power, the main priority of Hichilema’s “new dawn government” is economic stability and development, raising hope that change can be achieved in areas such as poverty and inequality, and for groups such as women who have tended to be left behind in socio-economic processes.
Through the inception of various programs, President Hichilema has demonstrated his commitment to promoting gender equality. In October 2022 for instance, he met with survivors of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and instructed the Cabinet Office to provide support to the Gender Division in the development of a 5-year national action plan on GBV prevention and response.
However, not all of the signs have been positive: while some action is being taken, with less women elected to political positions and the dissolution of the Ministry of Gender and its replacement with the more centralized Gender Division, it remains to be seen whether the new government will walk-the-walk when it comes to protecting and promoting gender equality across different socio- economic priority areas.
This is an important question because gender equality is not only important for women. Strengthening the position of women can promote economic stability, stimulate economic growth, boost private and public sector participation and reduce income inequalities. It is therefore critical that any progress made under Hichilema is inclusive progress.
So what does the evidence tell us so far?
Starting from a low base
Having inherited a failing economy and debt, the government has made some notable progress. This includes the introduction of free education, a reduction in inflation from 24.4% in August 2021 to 9.7% in June 2022, the recruitment of 30,000 teachers and 11,200 health care staff, securing a debt restructuring program with the IMF, and increasing funding for the Constituency Development Fund.
But Zambia has a very long way to go when it comes to gender equality.
The country has historically been associated with patriarchal societal norms that tend to privilege men over women in human and economic development. This has been entrenched by the low number of women in high profile political roles. Including women in policy making processes leads to more equal and holistic policymaking. Some argue that women bring unique qualities and perspectives to the political arena. A study by the Inter Parliamentary Union, found that male and female parliamentarians from across the globe believe that women prioritize different policy issues than men. They are often more likely, for example, to favour funding issues such as childcare, parental leave and poverty alleviation.
It is therefore deeply problematic that women are still heavily underrepresented globally. This is not lost on Zambia’s new president. In a speech delivered during the 76th session of United Nations General Assembly, President Hichilema noted that despite global recognition that women’s full and equal participation in all areas of life leads to prosperity, women are still not included in public life and decision making.
So what has the new government done to reverse this trend?
Walking the walk?
Unfortunately, the ruling party has failed to establish gender balance in the administration. Only 4 out of 25 cabinet ministers are women. There is better representation when it comes to Permanent Secretary appointments, but even here the proportion of women falls below 50%. President Hichilema has defended his decisions by stating that the worsening of the gender balance is purely circumstantial due to the lower number of females that were elected in the 2021 election.
In particular, the fact that lower representation was accompanied by the dissolution of the Ministry of Gender has raised concerns.
The new Gender Division that replaces the Ministry operates under the Office of the President, generating a more centralised model. It is responsible for coordinating and monitoring the implementation of gender policies. The Division is officially committed to protecting and promoting women’s rights by developing and implementing legislation that prioritizes the advancement of women and strengthens their capacity to influence and participate in decision making at the highest level.
In this sense, the mandate of the division is in line with the president’s pledge in his inaugural speech that his administration will create a united and prosperous Zambia “with equal opportunities across ethnic, religious and gender considerations.”
Indeed, while the removal of the Ministry raised alarm among some activists, it is important to note that the Ministry of Gender had poor capacity to function and implement lasting change. Staff members from the ministry were absent at provincial and district levels, while Gender Focal Point Persons appointed to sit at each ministry lacked decision making power and knowledge of gender issues. In this context, it is worth remembering that the development community encourages the mainstreaming of gender which entails incorporating gender perspectives in all areas of development. Although the Ministry of Gender represented an effort to do this, the cause of gender equality may benefit from being centralised and linked to the executive.
Put another way, locating the Gender Division within the office of the president allows for the implementation of gender equitable interventions and policies to be driven from the highest level. Decisions made in this way can create an enabling political, economic and legislative environment that furthers the rights of women. The new model also strengthens accountability, because it makes it clear that the buck ultimately stops with the president himself.
Looking to the future
It is too early to fully determine whether the new administration is succeeding at improving gender parity. The governments heavy focus on economic development has the potential to improve women’s participation and standard of living through different sectors. For now, President Hichilema may have the benefit of the doubt regarding the reason there are so few women in the cabinet. The ruling party, however, has the responsibility to ensure that all elections encourage the participation of more female candidates. Similarly, the new Gender Division has the potential to influence policymaking at the highest level. If it does not do so, however, its connection to the executive will place an even greater spotlight on the decisions made by the ruling party and the role of the executive itself.
Zangose Tembo is a development consultant who lives and works in Lusaka, Zambia.