WOMEN in Zimbabwe continue to suffer from historical marginalisation and structural inequalities that exist in the political, social and economic spheres. Historically, colonisers made sure that women stayed in rural areas, while men were in towns or mines working, and that strengthened the patriarchal system and gender inequalities prescribed by some cultural, religious and traditional norms.
guest column: Linda Masarira
The structural deformities in our society have subjected women to societal discrimination whenever they want to participate in politics or challenge anyone masculine, in particular in the political arena. In our culture, a proper Zimbabwean woman is expected to be married, submissive, dependant, enduring and hard working. The moment a woman becomes aggressive, independent, ambitious and economically empowered, a lot of tags are attached on her. Most women who have tried to venture into politics have suffered from negative stereotyping, name calling and had their images tarnished by men in politics, who feel intimidated by powerful women. The first question any woman seeking to run for public office in Zimbabwe faces is: “Is she married?” This is as if marriage is a qualification for leadership.
In religious spheres, men continue to dominate while women are expected to submit to church leadership, obey every instruction and to be passive and to serve the church.
Biblical verses have often been used as religious barriers to discourage women from playing active roles in politics. Women are accused of defying the natural order in religious teachings. Very few churches have managed to break the barrier of stereotyping women and embracing them as leaders.
Women also face patriarchal barriers in efforts to enter into mainstream politics. In rural areas, young girls are married off at a very tender age due to poverty or religious beliefs which automatically disenfranchises them of their right to education and freedom of conscience. Inadequate financial resources to run an election campaign is a major challenge to most women. Access to information is a major challenge as well to grassroot organic women participation in politics as those in rural areas hardly have access to newspapers or radios. About 37% of women in Zimbabwe have no access to media. Young women living in rural areas are further marginalised because of lack of access to information. Greater family responsibilities pose a big challenge for women to dedicate themselves to political careers. Women spend more time doing unpaid chores.
The formal male-dominated economy has shrunk, leaving a lot of women vulnerable to poverty and pushing them into the informal sector for survival. Government has not done enough to ensure that there are policies in place which benefit the informal and communal sectors where most women are located. Fiscal and monetary policies being implemented by the government continue to relegate the masses and as long as they fail to have pro-poor and inclusive strategies to deal with economic empowerment of women, feminisation of poverty will be further entrenched.
Women in rural areas have remained economically disenfranchised. Most of them survive on subsistence farming, they have no viable markets and hardly handle any money. Instead of nurturing grassroot and organic leadership for local governance political participation, the rich, well-connected and perennial bootlickers always find themselves winning primaries and running as councillors in areas they don’t stay.
Having more women in local governance will help in tackling major issues that affect women, from poor service delivery, under-equipped clinics and council schools, including accessibility to clinics in rural areas. The burden of poverty has a heavier weight on a woman and it’s high time women start amplifying their own struggle so that they occupy governance positions at every level. Gender-based barriers inhibit women from accessing socio-economic resources. Access to information with regard to economic opportunities, especially to women living in rural areas, is scarce.
Political violence is the major inhibitor of women participation in politics. Women living with disability had shown a keenness to run for public office this year, but later withdrew because of the harassment and polarisation. People living with disability should be given preferential treatment and financial support when they aspire to lead and make a difference in their communities. Disability doesn’t mean inability and they deserve our support as individuals, political parties and government policies which are inclusive and supportive of their governance aspirations and empowerment drive.
Young women have raised various opinions on why they shy away from political participation on a number of platforms I have attended. Issues raised include sexual harassment in political parties, where they fail to make into the structures if they haven’t provided sexual favours, being elbowed out by the older women in the parties, patronage and lack of internal democracy in political parties’ rank and file. Tenets of good governance are not being applied in Zimbabwe, whether at political party or national governance levels.
Young women are not confident of the leadership in Zimbabwe, they feel marginalised by political leaders who are preoccupied with getting power at all costs or maintaining power without addressing the problems they face in tertiary institutions, political and economic spheres. In student unions, young women always have the vice-president seat reserved for them and the secretary for gender, which clearly shows how patriarchy is deeply entrenched. We are going to be working with young female students to empower them to run for those powerful positions and to lead at every level in our society. It is important for all political parties to have a gender sensitive youth agenda. Instead of being apathetic, I urge young women to actively engage in politics and governance at all levels in order to influence the change they desire.
The strongman syndrome is very evident in Zimbabwe’s political culture. It is much harder for women to emerge as political leaders on our political terrain which is personality-based and not value system-based. We need a new culture of doing politics which is inclusive and political structures which will ensure recognition and realisation of women’s rights to participate fully and equally in politics. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal’s number five is articulate on the importance of gender equality and inclusion of women.
The Constitution of Zimbabwe states that there should be equality of men and women at all levels of society. I have been told plenty of times that advocacy for gender equality is a feminist agenda, which is a false narrative. Gender equality is a constitutional provision and should be adhered to by every Zimbabwean. Women in Zimbabwe constitute 54%, yet matters of importance are not taken seriously at local and national governance levels. This is, indeed, worrisome.
Men always argue that there aren’t enough qualified women, yet most public office positions are taken by mediocre men.
Women’s priorities are different from men’s and that is why it is critically important to ensure that the Constitution is adhered to so that women bring in their values and concepts into politics. Inclusion of women is key to ensure gender parity and diversity, as the country is not made up entirely of men. It is only folly to expect men to make decisions on behalf of women who are more than half of the population. Women’s issues are human rights issues and can only be dealt with by women or men who understand the quagmire women in Zimbabwe are facing.
Government has failed to influence change in social, religious and cultural attitudes. Women continue to suffer discrimination, yet we have a law in section 56 of the Constitution which prohibits discrimination. It is imperative for the gender commission to recommend to Parliament strict penalties on any individual, political party or institution that violates sections 17, 56, 80 and 104 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The legislators should ensure that elections-related legislation does not indirectly disadvantage women and to consider legislation for political parties to adopt democratic procedures in compliance with constitutional provisions in regard to equality. Media should provide gender-sensitive coverage of elections, avoid negative stereotypes as well as present positive images of women as leaders. Civic society organisations should support women willing to run for public office and provide capacity building and advocate for improved media coverage of women’s issues and women candidates. All political parties should ensure that all are fully represented in all party structures and policy committees.
The academic curriculum needs an extensive review to incorporate gender mainstreaming; teaching the harmful effects of discrimination against women as well as deal with issues of defined gender roles. Charity begins at home, and we can only change some of these gender perceptions if we start socialising our children in a gender balanced way. If we teach our children equality and to respect each other as equal human beings, it will manifest into the next generation. No one is more Zimbabwean than the other. We can only build a better Zimbabwe by appreciating each other in our diversity and imparting knowledge to the grassroots.
In conclusion, it’s time that women from all walks of life, political parties and churches converge and start addressing issues of gender equality, discrimination, abuse, sexual harassment and women empowerment. The Ministry of Women Affairs should also consider allocating land to women so that they can generate their own income. Time and again, we hear that Zimbabwe is not producing. How does it produce when women are being denied land and it’s still being allocated on partisan lines. Every Zimbabwean has a right to land and women in Zimbabwe are hard workers and can do wonders with the vast hectares of land lying idle. The State has an obligation to champion social policies that free women from any form of injustice. I envision a just Zimbabwe where women as individuals and communities enjoy their freedoms and rights through a thriving constitutional democracy.
Linda Tsungirirai Masarira is director of Zimbabwe Women in Politics Alliance andwrites in her personal capacity