Saturday, March 21, 2015

Women and the Right to Vote and be Voted


Leila Sheikh

In the modern world voting is the guiding principle and the determining factor of democracy. That is why, for example, free and fair elections have always been emphasized by the international community to ensure that people use their democratic rights to choose people of their own choice.

All people who vote in an election are known as the electorate, the general term applied to all the eligible voters in a political democracy. Popularly, democracy is defined as a government of or by the people, that is, the citizens of a community.

But obviously all the people cannot vote for various reasons such as age, health, etc. If a substantial majority of eligible voters participate in the exercise, and if no compulsion or restraint is involved in voting, then that community is considered to have a democratic electorate.

That can only happen when women are included. Unfortunately until the end of the 18th century women were not allowed to vote to choose leaders of their own in their communities. It was in the late 19th century when the evolution of government in the Western world witnessed the struggle to expand the electorate to include women.

Following the wind of change in enfranchisement, women were allowed to (fully) vote in the United States in 1920 and in Great Britain in 1928. In Germany women were (totally) enfranchised in 1919 while the Soviet Union removed sex restrictions in elections after the Revolution of 1917.

There is evidence that the enfranchisement of women was not easy. It was a protracted struggle marshaled by vigilant women to win their basic rights. For example, in Italy and France the participation of women in the resistance movement against the Germans was an important factor in winning the franchise.

Women are part of a community. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people are equal and are entitled to all basic human rights without discrimination. It is against this background that women need to be sensitized that they have the trump card, the VOTE, and this trump card should be utilized with care and sobriety while electing leaders into office.

The right to vote enables people to elect leaders they want.  “They (women) have the right as human beings to vote and to be elected,” points out Mary Rusimbi, Chairperson of the Tanzania Gender Networking Program, TGNP.

She is supported by Nuru Hangachalo, Chairperson of the Traditional Healers’ Association, CHAWATIATA, who strongly defends the protection of the right to personal integrity, dignity and liberty of women in Tanzania.

In an effort to restore and put the status of women on equal footing with men, definitely women would have to involve themselves fully particularly in politics in order to gain full representation in decision-making bodies. And this can only be achieved through voting, which can be a tool for women to get their rights.

Speaking before the next General Elections scheduled for October this year, Usu Mallya, former ED of the TGNP and a Social Justice Defender warned that if women did not turn up to contest for various political representations they will continue to be marginalized in decision-making, adding that “women should also use the trump card, our vote as a way of bargaining for Social Justice”.

Unfortunately, women who get into office, for example, as Members of Parliament tend to forget that their real constituencies are the women of Tanzania, and not the political parties through which they got into office. “It is an attitude which if they do not overcome it will continue to cost them heavily, because once they get to be called Mheshimiwa with the large salaries and stipends that come with being in parliament they tend to forget us, but we remember them. We remember who showed concern for women’s welfare and those who totally ignored us. They might forget, but we remember and now they have started courting us again. They are shameless,” remarks Hadija Abdalla of Tandika, Dar es Salaam.

Emanuella Temu notes: “It is high time for women in Tanzania to start reorganizing ourselves to build solidarity and unity among us for our own benefits. And we can only do this by collectively using our right to vote to elect women of our own choice who can defend our rights.”

The right to vote is a yardstick for women to have leaders of their own choice who can defend their rights. “The women and the right to vote and to be voted for should be taken as a great challenge to women in advancing themselves,” says Ummy Mwinjuma, a woman food vendor (Mama Lishe).

Lack of courage among women to contest for representations in decision-making bodies has always been a stumbling block in the advancement of women. “For example, the personal lives of women are brought up during the primary elections in intra party politics, to the extent, questions like “Do you have a husband?” often make some women feel the entire system of primary voting is biased and gender regressive”, said a retired woman politician.

“If your personal life is taken through a biased and patriarchal microscope, if a woman is made to be on the defensive and to show lack of self-esteem, she is bound to come across as weak and insecure, which does not portray well while campaigning”, says Mama Jitto Ram, the retired woman politician.

It is for this very reason that women should be given training in leadership, in campaign strategy, in elocution and in communication. There is need for political parties to ‘invest’ in preparing women leaders so that come election time, they have a better chance at winning and of becoming capable leaders.

The advancement of women has been retarded by their position as women, reproducers and producers. In addition traditional and cultural norms have contributed to disparity between men and women and therefore inequity in all development sectors such as education, employment, health, their participation in decision-making, etc.

Women have to exercise the right to vote and be voted for, from grassroots to national level to elect leaders who can fight and raise women’s status through various means such as education and the scrapping of laws which discriminate and deny women of their rights.


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