Why women political roles matter in democratic space

Saturday July 30 2022
Women ministers

From left: Dr Stergomena Tax, Defence minister, Amb Liberator Mulamula, Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation minister and Dr Ashatu Kijaji, Industry, Trade and Investments minister. PHOTO | FILE

By Dr Victoria Lihiru

Tanzania is celebrating three decades since multiparty democracy was re-introduced in 1992. Great strides have been registered with regard to women participation in political and decision-making processes in Tanzania Mainland. Two arms of the State are headed by women, namely President Samia Suluhu Hassan, the head of the Executive and Dr Tulia Ackson, the second female Speaker of the National Assembly. Women have occupied key ministries including ministries of Foreign Affairs, Investment and Trade, and Defence. The women special seats system, which was first introduced and set at 15 percent in 1985 was increased to 20, 30 and 40 percent in 2000, 2005 and 2015 respectively.

Consequently, the number of women in Parliament has increased by 20 percent, from 16 percent in 1995 to 36.8 percent after the 2020 general election. The number of women directly elected from constituencies has also increased, from 8 women in 1995 to 26 women after the 2020 general election. Despite the persisting challenges, women parliamentarians and councilors have contributed to legislation of gender sensitive laws and bylaws particularly in areas related to land, sexual offences, violence against women, labor matters, education and leadership, just to mention a few.

Despite the highlighted successes, the commemoration of 30 years of multiparty democracy reminds us that the road to meaningful participation of women in political and decision-making processes in Tanzania Mainland is still faced with complex challenges.

There have been few women vying in elections. For example, in the 2020 general election, women made 9.2 percent of the all candidates vying for presidential, parliamentary and councilor positions. Also, the number of women elected directly from constituencies, wards, streets, villages and hamlets remain few. Among the 264 directly elected Members of Parliament, only 26 are women (9.8 per cent). The additional 113 women MPs were obtained through the special seats system. At ward level, women make 29.24 per cent of councilors with only 6.5 per cent of women councilors being directly elected from wards. Women make 2.1 per cent, 12.6 per cent and 6.7 of the village, streets and hamlets chairpersons respectively.

At 30 years of multiparty democracy, challenges associated with the implementation of women special seats and the applicable electoral system explains the unsatisfactory progress for women’s access to political and decision-making positions in Tanzania.


Despite its huge contribution towards raising the number of women vying, elected and nominated to positions of power, the women special seats system is tainted with challenges that hinder the realisation of its objectives. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) has not put in place uniform procedure to guide political parties’ selection of women for special seats as required under Article 81 of the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania. Consequently, the seats are tainted with manipulation, conflicts, corruption and nepotism affecting the quality of women occupying the seats. Also, a prime minister cannot be appointed from among the special seats lawmakers and women under special seats do not qualify for constituency funds. In some local government authorities special seats holders cannot chair ward development committees and they may not qualify to be mayors and or council chairpersons.

Often, the women serving under special seats need to ask permission from the respective elected MP, councilor and chairperson before undertaking any development or social-related activity in the constituencies, wards, streets, villages and hamlets. Also, some women are discouraged from competing in constituencies and in wards with a promise that they would be considered for special seats. Further, the special seats system benefits few women due to absence of term limits which in turn allows only a few to occupy seats for long periods of time. There is also the question as to whomt these holders of special seats represent, whose interests they serve, why they are selected by their respective political parties and why they are not voted for by the citizens?

Electoral systems

Another challenge contributing to low participation of women in political processes and decision-making structures centers on the applicable electoral system in Tanzania Mainland. Predominantly, the country uses First Past the Post Electoral (FPTP) System as the main electoral system supplemented by Proportional Representation (PR) Electoral System which is applied in obtaining women for special seats.

Despite that FPTP electoral system generally allowing both men and women to vie for elected seats, a body of research points to its unfriendliness in terms of enabling women to vie and win elections. Under FPTP one candidate must win, pushing the political parties to field the most safe and mainstream candidate who would appeal to the wide range of voters.

Under such circumstances, women are perceived as riskier and an unpopular choice. In the 2020 general election, 90.8 per cent of the candidates fielded by the political parties were males and only 9.2 per cent of candidates were female. FPTP promotes violent and antagonistic politics leading to among other things violence against women in politics and in elections including online and sexual harassment. Also, in the FPTP system, both men and women are viewed as enjoying the same political parties’ and voters’ privileges and acceptance. The system takes no efforts to address historical injustices and other disadvantages that naturally accrue to special interest groups, including women.

Since the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in 1992, Tanzania has not introduced specific thresholds for female candidates. The Political Parties Amendment Act, 2019 requires political parties to take into account gender and social inclusion threshold in fielding candidates, but is silent on the actual number or percentage to guide compliance by the parties. Political parties whose majority of its leaders are men are left to apply discretion on the extent of compliance to gender and social inclusion principle.

Effective women participation

As the country kick starts a new decade under multiparty politics, meaningful and effective participation of women will be obtained through pursuing a number of interventions.

The best bet will be to transition from First-Past-the-Post to Equality-Based Proportional Representation electoral system. Studies show that women and other vulnerable groups are three to four times likely to vie and be elected under Proportional Representation Electoral System.

There are, however, fewer discussions on electoral systems in Tanzania and their implication on wider democracy and on the representation of vulnerable groups. It will be ideal for the current efforts to review the political and election related laws to explore the possibility for Tanzania to transition from FPTP to PR electoral system in the election of parliamentarians, councilors and chairpersons.

The adopted PR electoral system needs to be accompanied with the zebra system, to ensure equal representation and probability of winning by both men and women in the political parties’ lists.

In case FPTP electoral system is embraced and continues to apply in the country, there is a need to upgrade it into equality-based FPTP electoral system. With this proposal, the ongoing appetite for political and electoral reforms should consider introducing a plan where there will be two representatives (a male and a female) in each constituency, ward, street, village and hamlet. In order to avoid doubling of the current number of MPS, councilors and chairpersons, there is a need to change the current constituency configuration (turn districts and councils into constituencies), and consider combining two wards, streets, villages and hamlets into one.

With this option, political parties will place two candidates in each level (a male and a female) and voters will have vote for a male and a female representative.

This option will automatically bring to an end the special seats system in Tanzania and yield equal numbers of men and women in all elected positions.

On the other hand, if the status quo remains, where the FPTP electoral system and the special seats system continue to apply, a number of measures have to be been taken to ensure the implementation of special seats is in line with the international and regional standards.

Three decades and half since the introduction of special seats system in Tanzania calls for the system to be nationally evaluated to determine progress, challenges, and what is needed to enable the seats to yield the desired results. The evaluation should also look at the suitability of the name special seats and change it to a less stereotyping name.

International standards

The international standards require countries to adhere to the terminology “temporary special measures” to avoid confusion, live up to the expected objectives and results, and to keep actors alert on the temporary nature of the measure.

Further, the evaluation should look on the suitability of NEC to manage women special seats. The international standards advise that the responsibility for designing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, and enforcing any form of temporary special measures is to be vested in the national institutions, such as women’s ministries or presidential offices.

NEC’s massive and complex responsibility to manage the elections has unfortunately not availed it with adequate time and interest to effectively manage the women special seats system. Thirty-six years since its establishment, NEC has not developed uniform guidelines for implementation of special seats by political parties against the requirement of article 81 of the Constitution, nor has it undertaken comprehensive review of the seats to track progress, challenges, and necessary realignment.

After the evaluation process, a framework for implementation of special seats system should be created. The framework should encompass common guidelines for selection of women special seats by political parties in line with Article 81 of the 1977 Constitution requirements.

The common guidelines should provide guidance on uniform per centage of women special seats from national to local government levels, term-limits for serving under special seats, diversity of women selected for special seats, geographical locations women special seats will represent, citizens involvement in voting for the women special seats, and the country’s long-term plans to level the political playfield for both men and women to equally participate and win elections.

The framework must as well portray linkages and relationship between the special seats system and the country’s long-term plans to level the political playfield to eventually enable women to contest and win elections.

The long-term plans should include reforming the constitution, laws governing political parties and electoral laws to allow independent candidates as per the directive from the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights; adoption of equality-based FPTP and/or transitioning from FPTP electoral system to Equality-Based PR electoral system.

President’s appointing powers

Finally, there is a need to remove or reduce the presidential appointing powers and ensure any appointing powers that the president would remain with are guided by a clearly stipulated gender and social inclusion threshold to ensure both men and women are appointed in those positions. Gender and social inclusion principles should as well govern the administrative and technical work of the NEC, Office of the Registrar of Political Parties and other political and electoral stakeholders.

Dr Victoria Lihiru is lecturer of Law at the Open University of Tanzania, and a consultant on Inclusive & Democratic Governance. She can be reached via Email: [email protected]mail.com