Ambitious but Marginalised
Women's Desks and Ministries
The restricted nature of political participation for women opened up through the 1980s with the establishment of national machinery for the advancement of women. Ranging from women's desks over departments to ministries and including statutory bodies outside government, these structures were meant to act as catalysts for the inclusion of women's concerns in government policy and as watchdogs over the implementation of gender equity policies and adherence to international conventions. In the mid-1990s, when gender mainstreaming gained in prominence, national machinery was to coordinate the efforts of line ministries. Located within governments national machinery was often headed by political appointees loyal to the ruling party and/or its women's wing, but they were staffed by civil servants and thus created some space for professional women to apply themselves to acquiring influence within government but outside party politics.
Initially women's national machinery was identified as the most promising possibility to influence government policy implementation from a centralised position. But all too often, the institutions that made up national machinery wielded too little power and expertise to influence and create policy, or to oversee governments, and instead ended up as implementers of government policy and donor agencies. Small government budgets and staff complements and dependency on donor funds led to a piecemeal project approach which brought the machinery into competition with the NGO sector, thus creating tensions.
Relationships between autonomous women's movements and national machinery led to questions being raised regarding the democratic practice of machinery on the one hand and the integrity of the NGOs on the other (Tsikata 2001). In addition, national machinery has often lacked clear guidelines defining functions so that it “could never be expected to implement [them] in the light of their structure and power”. Thus “structure, functions and powers of national machinery rarely ever matched” (Tsikata 2001).
Zimbabwe had offered a good example to other countries in the region when a year after independence in 1981, four years before national machinery for women's advancement was endorsed by the UN Decade of Women Conference in Nairobi, the government established a Ministry of Community Development and Women's Affairs. Initially the work of the ministry was very promising as it quickly moved to successfully push for laws in favour of women, some of which were progressive enough to outdo those in many developed countries. But legal reforms remained isolated from inequalities in the household and divorced