‘Level playing field and let women compete for leadership positions’

Sunday March 8 2020

Prof Ruth Meena speaks during an interview with

Prof Ruth Meena speaks during an interview with The Citizen in Dar es Salaam this week. PHOTO | Ericky Boniface 

By Khalifa Said @ThatBoyKhalifax news@thecitizen.co.tz

A scholar and famous gender and women’s rights activist, Prof Ruth Meena, thinks women’s participation in decision-making should not be limited to their presence in the Parliament, but in all institutions, including the political parties, whose activities affect people’s day-to-day lives.

In the following interview with The Citizen Reporter, Khalifa Said, the chairperson of Women Fund Tanzania, known to be one of Tanzania’s active voices in gender issues, broadly shares what it takes for the country to bridge the gender gap for better and prosperous lives of its citizens. Excepts...

As we are heading to the general election later this year, what are your thoughts as far as women’s participation is concerned? Are you convinced the election will make any difference?

Maybe we shouldn’t start with the women’s participation in this year’s election. Let’s go back a little bit. There has been an increase in the number of women in the parliament. For example, in 2010 there were only 75 female lawmakers countrywide, but currently we have 145 lawmakers!

But if you analyse that number, you’ll find that the increase was mainly due to the Special Seats positions. You’ll understand that we made, I think it was in 2007, a minor amendment into our Constitution by inserting a special article, I think it is 61, because of the absence of gender parity in the political leadership of this country.

We are not the only country which did that, and in any country where the system was introduced, it was thought to be one of the ways to fill the gender gap in political leadership. But this was supposed to be a temporary solution. While this solution was being implemented, the playing field should be levelled so that in the end women will be able to compete with their male counterparts.

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If you look at the current situation, and the past decade, the trend has been that more and more women enter the Parliament through Special Seats and the number of women who are voted-for has almost stagnated. In 2005 and 2010 we had only 20 voted-for lawmakers which increased to only 25 in the 2015 General Election. This pace of growth, really, is very low.

What does this mean? Simply, it means that the playing field is yet to be levelled. There are still some practices that make women, even those most capable, to run for the Special Seats.

But Special Seats are problematic. Special Seats were introduced as an affirmative action to correct the existed gender segregation in political leadership. Still a woman who enters the parliament through Special Seats is segregated. She is seen as a second-class representative. A lawmaker who does not deserve a fund entitlement for her constituency. And this is not limited to MPs but also to councillors.

That is a segregation. If a woman is an MP, she should be treated thus. Her constituency are women, she entered in parliament to represent them.

So she deserves all rights reserved to her fellow MPs. Not only that, but also Special Seats MPs cannot be elected to sensitive position such as that of Premiership. That is segregation. At the level of councillorship, Special Seats councillors cannot be elected mayors or chairman of a municipality. This is an open segregation, treating them as second-class representatives. The reason given is that they do not have a constituency.

The constituency is not a geographical area. Constituency is people. And if a lawmaker enters a parliament through women her constituency is thus women.

It is important that you brought up the question of Special Seats positions. Now, a lot have been said about these positions. And I would like to find out from you as a person who has been at the centre of women’s liberation movement in this country.

Do you regard these positions a blessing or curse?

It was an obligation. It was neither a blessing nor a curse. It was totally an obligation in the sense that there has been a gender gap in political representation and how will this gap be filled? We decided (as a country) that we introduce the Special Seats arrangement.

Meanwhile, there should be mechanisms which would ultimately enable women to stand shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts in competing for political leadership. I, for one, would not like to say this was a blessing or a curse.

What I am saying is that women have the right to participate in political leadership. If there is a gap then ways, both short-term and long-term, must be found to fill that gap. Introduction of Special seats falls in the category of short-term arrangement.

Now, there must be an arrangement that will enable these short-term means to graduate to long-term solutions. But you do not just graduate by reducing the number of women political leaders but by enabling more and more women to take up political leadership by being voted for. This has not happened.

You said the Special Seats were introduced as an interim arrangement to get more women in political leadership. Do you think Tanzania has graduated to a next level that it can do away with seats?

I am saying interim in the sense that this arrangement (Special Seats) is not being treated as a permanent way through which women become political leaders. Alongside it, efforts to correct the structural flaws in our political systems must be carried out so that more women can be elected to political leadership.

The playing field must be civilised, where people will compete each other through arguments and all hindrances against one sex be removed. There must be conditions that campaigns should be agenda-based. Not insults and abuse.

But some people are suggesting that the Special Seats arrangement should be discarded if Tanzania is to increase the number of women in political leadership?

They think the arrangement does not work. Many contest for positions through this arrangement than face men in battlefields.

We should be careful that we do not abandon it arbitrarily. Abandon it in a way that no woman will be left behind in the participation of this country’s political leadership. Let us abandon while we have levelled the playing field...if we have put in place systems which will enable a woman who enters the field to have confidence that she is going to win through debates and arguments.

Is there something that you think has not been done so far?

Yes, it is.

What are the greatest lessons you have learnt throughout your career in fighting for social justice and women’s liberation in this country?

That is a very difficult question because it is like asking a septuagenarian to give you a recap of her life (she bursts in laughter). There are many lessons, really. The first lesson is for women. They (women) must be united and act in solidarity. When we joined forces during the constitutional review process, it paid off handsomely.

But the second lesson is about men and their shrewdness to divide women. You know when I go at any meeting and hear a speaker saying, “The enemy of a woman is a woman,” and I seat there thinking it is not women who fight to the extent of gorging each other eyes out. In our whole life, we would not be here if there has not been a woman behind us.

But why having more women in decision-making positions matter?

I will start to respond to that by posing a question to you: ‘if a father would be the only one who makes decision, maybe by seating with you men, how would the family look like?

It would be chaotic, I guess.

Do you see? You have the answer already. It means men and women are both development stakeholders. Their needs are different. A woman conceives, give birth. A person who understands what is needed to make sure that the pregnancy grows is a woman, not a man.

It is a woman who feeds a household. When you seat at a table making decisions and decide what should be the priorities you will see men’s and women’s priorities diverge. Look at all the countries that have been able to fix the gender gap in as far as the political leadership of that country is concerned. The life quality of their people is excellent. These are countries which have reached a stage where one’s sex does not determine one’s job.

If you compare the quality of life between the people of the United States and those of Scandinavian countries you’ll see that the later lives better and longer life than the former.

If you are asked to recommend one approach through which Tanzania can bridge the gender gap in political leadership, what would that be?

I think the most important approach is to change men’s mindsets. That they need to see the advantages of having more women in decision-making positions. That patriarchy neither benefits him nor none in his family. That thinking is amiss in most men in this country. So it is not even a women’s problem, it is men’s problem, isn’t it?

The main problem is men. So if we will be able to change that mindset, that will be a landmark step toward women’s liberation.

Do you think the forthcoming general election will make any difference compared to the past ones in as far as women’s participation in political leadership is concerned?

Honestly, the way the conditions on the ground appear, I don’t think I can expect any miracles. As women, we are preparing our manifesto, and we will share it with all key stakeholders in that election. Now, to what extent will our call be heeded, I cannot speculate.

But maybe I should briefly talk about your role as the media. It is very unfortunate that the media have swallowed the ideology of patriarchy. During elections, women do not make news. Rarely do they make headlines. And when they do, the portrayal is usually negative.

I think the media have a significant role to play in changing social mindsets. I would really wish to see the media change on that.