How can anyone justify the irony that women who form the majority of voters and of the population do not constitute the majority of MPs and councillors?

What measures should be adopted to ensure the equitable participation of women in the 2011 elections?

The number of women in Parliament and councils in Zambia is one of the lowest in the SADC region.

Regrettably, this situation reveals that Zambia is one of the poorest performers on affirmative action in SADC. There are only 22 women MPs in a Parliament of 158.

Is this the achievement after 46 years of independence! Yet countries like South Africa and Mozambique are close to 50 per cent of women representation in Parliament.

In the 2006 elections, there were only 103 women candidates compared to 606 men which represented 15 per cent of the candidates.

Only 10 per cent of candidates at the council level were female.

This was lower than number of female candidates in 2001 which stood at 17 per cent of the candidates.

For the councils, they were only 387 out of 3, 708 candidates.

In that year, 198 women ran for Parliament and only 19 were elected. A total of 24 women stood as independents.

It is also significant to point out that two women contested the presidential election in 2001 out of a total of 11 presidential candidates and none in 2006.

The figures above are far too low and they fall short of even the then 30 per cent target set by SADC in 1997.

They are also far below the current threshold of 50 per cent set by SADC (2008) and the Africa Union.

The challenge of improving women's participation in elections, especially as candidates, rests first with the women themselves and then with the political parties that adopt candidates.

Civil society and cooperating partners who also support women candidates also have a role.

Deliberate affirmative action decisions must be made at different levels if the required thresholds are to be reached.

Reasons for the full participation of women do not require to be repeated here suffice to point out that without the full participation of women, there can be no democratic governance and development as it has been in the past decades.

Low participation of women is of course a denial of rights of women which are human rights.

It is not too late for women to come forward to run as candidates at all levels of the tripartite elections.

Civil society, especially the women's movement should also step forward in advance to inform the women about how they could be assisted both financially and materially.

In the past election in Malawi, several women came forward when it was known how much support they could get from CSOs and cooperating partners regardless of party.

Confidence building and role-model meetings are urgently needed to be organised down to districts by the women's movement and women's regional organisations like the Regional Women's Parliamentary Caucus of the SADC Parliamentary Forum.

By far the most important gates that must be opened are by political parties since most candidates contest on party tickets given the unfavourable climate for independent candidates, especially in a heavily-contested election as is anticipated this year.

Parties are urged to adopt affirmative policies and actions that will give chances and space to women candidates.

This will not be a favour.

Time has come for parties to appreciate that if they do not adopt adequate number of women and based on gender equality policies, women may not vote for them.

There must be a cost and a penalty for those who are gender-blind in this 21st century.

Also gone are the days when women were presumed to be weak candidates.

This fallacy was put to rest when in the 2006 elections several women candidates defeated "political heavy weights" in that election.

A sitting Republican Vice-President was defeated by a female candidate in the Northern Province.

In Lusaka, women candidates trounced well-known and well-resourced male candidates. It thus pays to adopt women for all the good reasons.

Zambia's development and governance agenda would drastically change for the better if more women were adopted as candidates and more importantly, if many women would win so that Zambia can move forward faster.

Many election observer missions of late do asses issues of gender equity as one of the benchmarks for democratic elections.

It is regrettable that on average only 20 per cent of women who apply and train to run for elections have been adopted by political parties since the 1996 election.

The SADC Parliamentary Forum Observer Mission has an elaborate "Gender checklist for free and fair elections" at all stages of elections.

This would start with the right to be registered as a voter which does not disadvantage women.

Other considerations are the placement of polling stations; having separate queues for men and women; the right of women to present themselves as candidates; party manifestos on gender equality; whether civic education is gender balanced; fair coverage of women issues in the media; and hate or degrading speech against women in codes of conduct; etc.

Peaceful elections are a pre-requisite for the full participation of women in elections. Women are not expected to carry knobkerries!

To this end, all Zambians should be involved in building, establishing and demanding conditions for peaceful elections.

It is not enough to just wish for peace but equally important is to work for peace.

The women's movement - our mothers also have a big role in building sustainable peace.

The media also has a crucial role in peace building.