Harare, Zimbabwe – On March 16, Thokozile Dube was attacked by a gang of assailants who stormed her yard at dusk in Mawabeni community in Matabeleland South province, 480km (300 miles) away from the capital, Harare.
It was 10 days to the Zimbabwean parliamentary and local government by-elections in which she was representing the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) in a race for a council seat, the 61-year-old farmer said.
The men numbered almost 40 and arrived in two vehicles reportedly belonging to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) candidate vying for the same position, she said.
“They parked just outside the gate and forced their way into my yard carrying stones and shouting obscenities,” Dube told Al Jazeera. “My tormentors were mostly youths under the orders of Silibaziso Nkala and other leaders in their party.”
It was a continuation of a pattern of intimidation, she said, from “the local ZANU-PF leadership, which had constantly dissuaded me from contesting in the polls”.
Towards gender parity
Zimbabwe, a deeply conservative country, has always recorded a lower percentage of women participating as candidates in elections since independence in 1980 compared with men, despite constituting more than half of the electorate and of the total 15 million people in the country.
Interestingly, in 2013, the Southern African country adopted a pro-gender equality constitution that stipulated the reservation of 60 seats from the current 270 in parliament. The seats are distributed among parties on proportional representation. But after next year’s general elections, the quota will officially expire and parliament will have only 210 seats.
Despite this quota system, an attempt to achieve equality and encourage women’s participation in national decision-making platforms, female participation in politics remains low.
Various stereotypes have been used to undermine their ability to be active in politics, analysts say. When not deemed too weak to lead, women are often presented as having loose morals or as mercenaries for the governing party or opposition.
Earlier this month, CCC spokeswoman Fadzayi Mahere approached the courts suing writer Edmund Kudzayi for alleging that she had been involved in an affair with a married man resulting in the breakdown of his marriage. Mahere is demanding $100,000 in damages.
Beyond cyberbullying, there have also been cases of physical intimidation of female politicians.
In the March 26 parliamentary by-elections, only 16 female candidates participated out of 118 candidates vying for 28 seats in the National Assembly. The local government polls saw 76 female candidates contest against 291 males for 118 seats. Only five female candidates won parliamentary seats while 18 made it to their respective councils.
And during the by-elections, at least six women were reportedly hurt or harassed.
Such incidents hinder women’s representation in politics, according to Sitabile Dewa, executive director of Harare-based Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE), which helps prepare women to run for public office.
“The reoccurrence of violence during elections has continuous negative ripple effects to the participation of women in electoral processes as the assumptions of an election being violent and intolerant of women are always evident,” Dewa, told Al Jazeera.
According to her, women have largely been on the receiving end of the political antagonism, which has seen a drop in their interest to participate actively in electoral processes.
From 2018 to date, WALPE recorded 37 cases of women reportedly threatened, tortured and even killed for political reasons.
In 2019, local comedian Samantha Kureya, popularly known as Gonyeti, was abducted and tortured by masked gunmen over her political satire. The next year, Joanna Mamombe, a sitting member of parliament, was arrested while protesting alongside youth leaders Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, all of the CCC, before resurfacing tortured and disoriented after two days.
“Women are largely known for peace and unity so when a certain field, be it political or at home becomes violent they usually shy away,” says Linda Masarira, political activist and president of opposition Labor Economists and African Democrats (LEAD) party.
Masarira attributes the continuous significant decline in the number of women vying for seats at different levels in politics to various forms of violence, including cyberbullying.
Despite her vast experience in politics, the former trade unionist and human rights defender who landed behind bars for her role in the 2016 protests, says the attacks can be unbearable.
“As women, we go through body shaming, interrogation of our sexual lives among other forms of violence and we hardly see that happening to the male counterparts,” she said. “At some point, the physical attacks started affecting me to an extent that I actually had to have personal security moving with me.”
But not all female politicians, especially those in rural Zimbabwe, can afford to do that.
Prior to the attack on Dube, her homestead, tucked within the rocky valleys and thorny bushes of Mawabeni, had been a safe haven. But nowadays, when the entire estate becomes enveloped by the quiet after sunset, the widow and her two granddaughters – aged eight and 12 – go into panic mode. And there are nightmares too.
She remembers squatting next to the door before it was kicked open and being the only woman in the midst of men baying for her blood.
“They vandalized my property and said I was contaminating the community. I was numb the entire time,” she said, adding that they “promised to cut my throat”. That warning haunts her daily.
Dube reported the incident to the police but complained that they had been “dragging their feet” under the pretext of conducting investigations. A group of human rights lawyers has also taken the issue to the courts.
Women groups which have long been calling for true equality in all spheres of life in the country are once again asking for true safe spaces for women to exercise their civic rights. According to Dewa, mechanisms like the quota system have been mere appeasement for those loyal to male leadership instead of creating a nontoxic space for women to compete fairly.
“In order to increase the number of women participating in politics it is important that a safe environment be created for women to participate freely in democratic processes,” she said.
Jestina Mukoko, the director of Zimbabwe Peace Project – a local human rights monitoring group, agrees.
“The system is built to support men at the expense of women and this will continue unless practical action is taken to punish perpetrators,” she said. “There should be steps that deter people from repeating the perpetration of violence [but] the challenge that we have in our country is that those who perpetrate violence are actually rewarded at times.”
Mukoko, a victim of political violence, underwent psychosocial support for years since 2009 to manage the trauma but by her own admission such a “scar will never be erased”.
For Dube, the horror lingers but she has hope, albeit thin, that justice will take its course before her 2023 election campaign gets into motion.
“It would make me feel better if those criminals account for their actions because if not they might repeat it next year,” said Dube who is confident of winning her seat and bringing an end to the injustice in her community.