Youngest Woman in Zimbabwe’s Parliament Works to Boost Youths’ Civic Engagement

Barely more than one-third of the members of Zimbabwe’s Parliament are women, and the average age of past election candidates has been over 50. That’s part of what makes Joanah Mamombe, the 25-year-old woman who represents Harare West, exceptional – and her work with young people is already beginning to draw attention in her district.

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Youngest Woman in Zimbabwe’s Parliament Works to Boost Youths’ Civic Engagement

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Joanah Mamombe (center), a member of Zimbabwe’s Parliament, talks with Louisa Phiri (left) and Veronica Gomo (right) about the challenges that female informal vendors deal with on a day-to-day basis. Mamombe is mobilizing a team of small businesspeople to help come up with solutions to the economic challenges that her constituents face.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Boosting young people’s participation in local decision-making is one of the many things that Joanah Mamombe, the youngest female member of Zimbabwe’s Parliament, has promised members of her community that she’ll accomplish in the coming years.

Since she was elected to Parliament in the country’s historic July 30 general elections, the first without former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot, the 25-year-old has been meeting with and mentoring some of the most enterprising young adults in Harare West, the constituency where she garnered a majority of votes.

Mamombe, who is a member of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, a group of political parties, is pushing for economic development in Harare West by engaging with students and young people.

While there was an overwhelming voter turnout in this year’s elections, local political analysts have cited Mugabe’s 37-year rule as a major reason for citizens’ lack of trust in public institutions and for the low political participation by young people in previous years.

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Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Joanah Mamombe (center), a member of Zimbabwe’s Parliament, meets with her supporters in Mabelreign, a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

In the country’s 1985 general elections, 84 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls, a 2013 Zimbabwe Election Support Network report reveals. Five years later, less than 50 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the general elections. Just 52 percent of registered voters made it to the polls for the 2000 general elections.

When Zimbabwe held elections in 2013 to select a president and members of Parliament, people between the ages of 18 and 25 accounted for 4.5 percent of the 6.4 million people who were registered to vote, while the average age of those running for public office was 55, says Lawrence Mhandara, a political analyst.

The minimum age limit to run for a seat in Parliament is 21. Mamombe says low political engagement among young people persists, especially young women. Not many women hold public office, she adds. Of the 350 seats in Parliament, women occupy 120, even though the country’s Constitution calls for gender balance within government.

“It’s a male-dominated environment,” Mamombe says of Zimbabwe’s political landscape. Despite this reality, she says she remains fearless. She also says she was fortunate to receive support from her party.

“The good thing about my political party is that it has policies that protect young people and advance the interests of women, such as the quota system we have in the party,” she says.

Mamombe kicked off her political career in 2011, while she was still a first-year student at Chinhoyi University of Technology. Samson Zinaka, who attended the same school, says Mamombe rose to renown through student activism. Mamombe was once suspended after staging a demonstration against an increase in tuition at the university, Zinaka recalls.

“She has such good leadership qualities and is a listening leader who is always seeking to make decisions in consultation with those she leads,” he says.

Only 4.5 percent of Zimbabweans ages 18 to 25 registered to vote in the 2013 elections, the last with former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot.

In 2011, Mamombe joined the Movement for Democratic Change, the largest opposition party at the time, as the secretary for the party’s Harare District youth wing. She met Zimukai Ratisai, who was also advocating for the rights of young people in her community.

“My first impression was her being the odd one out in those structures. There were not many female university students choosing to be involved in this,” Ratisai says, adding that Mamombe quickly became her role model.

Mamombe says her experience in local politics has taught her a lot, so she’s decided to mentor young adults to help them develop leadership skills.

Netsai Marova is one of them. The two got to know each other at Chinhoyi University of Technology.

“She mainly mentors me in matters to do with student academic freedom, young women in leadership and humanitarian work,” Marova says.

The mentoring relationship has led Marova to provide the same support to young girls in Mabvuku, a high-density suburb of Harare.

Precious Moyo, who lives in Harare West, says she hadn’t heard of Mamombe before the election but decided to vote for her anyway. Mamombe’s mentoring of girls is reassuring, Moyo says.

“The problem with some members of Parliament we have had, is that they seek to enrich themselves rather than the people they represent,” she says. “l hope she will bring the plights of people in Harare West to the forefront.”

Moyo says some of the people living in Harare West don’t have access to basic amenities. She also says it’s also been difficult for her to start a business.

Mamombe has also started building a constituency development committee made up of workers from the informal sector. The committee will devise a strategic plan to boost economic activity in Harare West.

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.