guest column:Miriam Tose Majome
ARE Zimbabwean men falling into legal obscurity or perhaps they already have? There was a time when men were indispensible in the legal lives of women, but many things have changed and continue to. This is confusing to a lot of men who feel and complain that women are becoming too powerful and eating into ‘their’ space. They complain that their rights as men are being taken away unfairly because women are getting too many legal concessions and rights — far more than they should, it is believed. These gripes are the expressed grief and powerlessness of losing grip on long held cultural and social privileges which have traditionally given men power over women. It must be stated that giving rights to women so that they have power to decide and chart their own lives is not the same thing as taking men’s rights away. Taking privileges away or indeed according the same privileges to women is not the same thing as taking men’s rights away.
The conversation obviously goes deeper than Zimbabwe’s own legal development. It began with the women’s suffrage movement in the Victorian era when women began fighting for political rights and for equal access or even just some access to things they were deprived of like employment, remuneration, birth control and rights to determine choices for themselves and their own bodies.
So much has been fought for in Zimbabwe over the years culminating in Sections 17, 56 and 80 of the 2013 Constitution which buttress and cement the equal status of women in all spheres of life. All forms of discrimination against women are now illegal and criminal offences under Zimbabwe law.
It is the law that at least half of all public sector posts have to be occupied by women. Only that the political will is lacking, so there is still more fighting ahead to achieve this objective. When this parity is finally achieved, men will feel aggrieved yet all that will have happened is that women will have taken up their rightful share formerly occupied by men.
It is very easy to forget and take basic women’ rights for granted yet there was a time women did not have them. The rights women enjoy now were not given on a silver platter, but thanks to the many forgotten pioneer and present Zimbabwean women’s rights activists ordinary women now enjoy them to the point of taking them for granted.
The civil rights movement in America in the 60’s to a smaller extent, and to a greater extent the Pan African nationalist movements on the continent greatly influenced the status and future of black Zimbabweans, the women not excluded. Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 and black majority rule were preceded by a protracted guerrilla war in which black women had fought and struggled alongside men in the same if not worse horrendous conditions in the trenches of Mozambique and Tanzania and the rough backwoods of Zimbabwe.
At independence, it was ridiculous and just not feasible to return women to the pre-independence past where they were regarded as children and relegated to domesticity and supportive menial roles. In keeping with this, the new government under the still sincerely Marxist Leninist Robert Mugabe quickly established a dedicated Women Affairs ministry under the helm of 25-year old war veteran Joice Mujuru. Two years later in 1982 the now repealed Legal Age of Majority Act was passed. For the first time in the country’s history, black women were deemed adults when they turned 18 and accorded all the rights and privileges of adults that only men had enjoyed.
Before the Act, black women had been legal perpetual minors like is still the case in ultra-conservative patriarchal countries where women have no legal status. Black women had required the services of male guardians like close male relatives — husbands, fathers or brothers or adult sons to perform legal acts they were forbidden to do on their own. Even today, women are still disadvantaged and discriminated against in many regards but the advances made must never be taken for granted because there was a time it was not dreamed possible to have them. The repealed Legal Age of Majority of Age Act enabled African women to get married without the consent of their fathers or male relatives. It has been possible since 1982 for black Zimbabwean women to enter into civil marriages without lobola being paid for them. There is nothing new that the proposed Marriage Act is seeking to introduce save that it will no longer be a requirement for marriage officers registering customary marriages to ask for proof that lobola and customary marriage rites were performed before issuing the customary marriage certificate.
Women no longer need male guardians to apply for passports and birth certificates for themselves and their children especially if the children are born out of wedlock. Women can acquire immovable or other substantial property in their own names. Women can choose traditionally male-associated careers and open bank accounts on their own etc. Not too long ago it was impossible for a married woman to file a police report against her husband for domestic violence.
If she was not laughed out of the police station for reporting a domestic issue, the best the police would do if they considered the beatings serious enough was to slap the husband on the wrist with a caution. The woman would be sent back home and advised to be nice and try not to upset their husband so much all the time.
Women today can to a large extent wear whatever they want with the relative security of knowing they are protected by the law.
Young women will not believe that there was time even as late as the 90s when wearing trousers in public was deemed scandalous and would often lead to some form of sexual harassment.
Today women can have children out of wedlock and still claim maintenance from the fathers and compel them to pay it whether they acknowledge the paternity or not. Married women can borrow money from banks or sell and acquire their own separate property. Today women have political rights and can vote and participate in all political processes including standing for office. Today women can enter into all legal transactions without requiring the permission or signature or physical presence of a man somewhere.
Today women no longer need men for the custody and guardianship of children born out of wedlock or upon dissolution of a marriage. Unmarried mothers are the sole custodians and guardians of their minor children and upon divorce women can be granted sole custody and guardianship if it is in the best interests of the children. Formerly only fathers had rights of guardianship. It is not a legal requirement for married women to assume their husband’s surnames or even relinquish them after divorce. Women, whether married or not, can apply for passports for their children and travel with them without the father’s consent. However, it is getting more difficult to do because of international child trafficking best practices if the father is named on the birth certificate. However, this is not a legal requirement in Zimbabwe and mothers can freely travel in and out of the country with their children if the father is not named on the birth certificate.
So in a word unless women are entering into legal contracts with men such as marriage or other agreements the relevance of men in women’s legal lives has receded to small pockets of optional or forced cultural and social spaces.