HARARE, Zimbabwe – As Zimbabwe prepares for a general election in 2018, rights activists are criticizing the government’s decision to reintroduce a proof of residence requirement for voter registration, saying it disenfranchises a large number of potential voters – many of them women.
After proposals to relax the rules on proof of residence drew criticism from various political parties, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) in June reinstated the requirement that all voters must produce a document confirming their permanent address before they can register to vote. But activists say the move disqualifies anyone who doesn’t have a fixed address, doesn’t own property or simply can’t get hold of the necessary documentation.
That includes women like Agnes Moyo, who sits on a small bench next to her fruit and vegetable stand every day, waiting for passersby with money to spend. Neither Moyo nor her husband own the house they live in in the densely populated Harare suburb of Glen Norah. And her situation is not unique. The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol 2015 Barometer reveals that women’s access to, and ownership of, property and other productive resources in Zimbabwe is very low: Only 9 percent of women in the country own a house, and only 9 percent own a piece of land.
Even if she owned her home, Moyo says she would struggle to find the time and money to secure a notarized affidavit confirming her address, which can cost up to U.S. $1 per person. On a good day, she makes between $2 and $5, but good days are rare in Zimbabwe’s current harsh economic climate.
“Where will I find the money to buy an affidavit and have it signed by a commissioner of oaths?” she says.
Standing in a long, slow line at the Mbare Voter Registration Centre one morning recently, Naume Navaya, 35, a vegetable vendor from Epworth, says she had left work to come register. “I don’t think I will be registered today,” she says. “Considering I have lost a day’s income today, it will be difficult for me to come back again tomorrow.”
Easther Utete, 38, had come to the center earlier with only her national identity card, and was turned away. “I had to go and buy an affidavit at a police station in Mbare,” she says.
In a statement released when the rule was reinstated, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said that in the past, the “stringent requirements” of the proof of residence rule had “resulted in the disenfranchisement of significant numbers of voters.”
The group has since criticized the government for not doing enough to make sure everyone knows where their local registration center is, and what documents they need before they can register. It is also calling for the ZEC to post a commissioner of oaths at every registration center, to make it easier for people to get their proof of residence on the spot.
ZEC chairwoman Rita Makarau has said people can write their own affidavit and have it signed by a councillor, chief, headman or village head as proof of residence. But critics fear that citizens who support opposition parties may find community leaders refusing to sign their affidavits. And even with the right documentation in hand, many people never get the chance to vote because they can’t afford to wait all day in the long lines.
Lawyer and parliamentary candidate Jacqueline Sande sees these issues as calculated attempts to make it impossible for many people, particularly women, to vote.
“I foresee a situation where a lot of people are going to be turned away as voter education is poor, people are not aware of the required documents, and ZEC have kickstarted a process that needs 10,000 registration centers with only 63,” she says. “Women should mobilize themselves and use the power of numbers to fight against any wall that blocks their way to register and eventually vote next year.”
In an attempt to stop the new rule from discouraging potential voters, another candidate for parliament, Fadzai Mahere, launched the Yellow Campaign, mobilizing more than 20 young lawyers in several cities to help locals get the proof of residence they need, for free.
One of the volunteer lawyers, Priscilla Nyandoro, says she felt compelled to help women access the required documents and encourage them to register to vote. “As women, we face challenges because of our gender, and it’s worse when we are young,” she says. “The majority of us don’t have a home of our own. [And] it becomes a challenge to get the proof of residence, even when one is married.”
Mahere is determined to make sure nothing gets in the way of women participating in next year’s elections, both in the voting booth and on the ballot.
“I encourage women to vote and run for political office, to ensure we claim that space. Otherwise, if we continue to sit on the fringes, nothing will change,” she says. “When things go wrong, women bear the biggest brunt. So we need to take responsibility, get our act together, and go out there to exercise our right to vote.”