By Linda Masarira
International Women’s History Month is a month where we celebrate women’s achievements in all spheres of life. This year’s theme is a clarion call to all women to ensure that they play a participatory role in advocating for gender equality and ensuring the protection of women’s rights by challenging to choose. There is nothing for women without women and every woman’s hands should be on the deck to ensure that all women worldwide are treated as equals.
Women’s History Month is a global month were we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
In Zimbabwe women continue to be marginalized by structural deformities in our cultural, social, religious and political stereotypes. Women are still viewed as second class citizens which has stifled full realization of women’s rights on our country. Contrary to the assertion that we are making improvements in terms of gender equality in public elected offices, 2018 general elections showed a steep decline of women elected into public office compared to 2013 elections.
We are still struggling to attain gender diversity at the workplace and we need to push for gender equality to become a reality. Gender diversity produces real benefits. Several studies have shown that a gender-diverse workplace is good for financial returns, employee engagement, innovation and reducing turn over. We can only achieve gender parity when women start taking an active role in pushing for constitutionalism and protection of all gender related statutes.
Women in Zimbabwe continue to suffer from historical marginalization and structural inequalities that exist in the political, social and economic spheres. Historically, the colonizers made sure that women stayed in the rural areas whilst the men were in towns or mines working and that strengthened the patriarchal system and gender inequalities prescribed by cultural, religious and traditional norms.
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, financially independent and 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?” As if marriage is a qualification for leadership.
In religious spheres, men continue to dominate whilst women are expected to submit to church leadership, obey every instruction and are expected to be passive and to serve the church. Biblical verses have often been used as religious barriers to discourage women from plating 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 have embraced women leadership in the church.
Women also face patriarchal barriers 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 most women. Access to information is also a big 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 marginalized because of lack of access to information. Greater family responsibilities poses as a big challenge for women to dedicate themselves to political careers. Women spend more time doing unpaid social work.
The formal male dominated economy has shrunk leaving a lot of women vulnerable to poverty pushing most women into the informal sector for survival. Government has not done enough to ensure that there are policies in place which benefit the informal sector and communal sector were most women are located. Fiscal and monetary policies being implemented by the government of Zimbabwe continue to neglect the masses and as long as they fail to have pro-poor and inclusive strategies to deal with economic empowerment of women, feminization of poverty will be further entrenched.
Women in the 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. It is important to start empowering grassroot women to stand for themselves and occupy local governance public offices as they are the ones who know what they go through and the solutions thereof.
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 socioeconomic resources. Access to information is limited in regards to economic opportunities especially to women living in rural areas.
Political violence is the major inhibitor of women participation in politics. Women living with disability had shown keenness to run for public office in 2018 but later withdrew their intentions because of the harassment and polarization. People living with disability should be given preferential treatment and financial support when they aspire to lead and make a difference in the 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.
Young women have raised various opinions on why they shy away from political participation in a number of platforms I have attended. Issues raised include sexual harassment in political parties, were they fail to ascend in 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 level or national governance. Young women are not confident of the leadership in Zimbabwe, they feel marginalized by political leaders who are preoccupied with getting power at all cost or maintaining power without addressing the problems they face in tertiary institutions, political and economic challenges. 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 to influence the change they desire.
The strong man syndrome is very evident in our political culture in Zimbabwe. It is much harder for women to emerge as political leaders in 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 realization of women’s right to participate fully and equally in politics. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 5 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 which should be adhered to by every Zimbabwean. Women in Zimbabwe constitute 54% yet their matters of importance are not taken seriously at national and local governance levels which is indeed worrisome. Men always argue that there aren’t enough qualified women yet most public office positions are taken by mediocre men.
Womens priorities are different from men’s priorities 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. Womens 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 from discrimination yet we have a law in section 56 of the constitution which prohibits discrimination. It is imperative for the gender commission to put a recommendation to the Parliament to enact strict penalties on any individual, political party or institution that violates section 17, 56, 80 and 104 of the constitution of Zimbabwe. The legislators should ensure that election related legislation does not indirectly disadvantage women and to consider legislation for political parties to adopt democratic procedures in compliance with the constitutional provisions in regard to equality. Media should provide gender sensitive coverage of elections, avoiding negative stereotypes and it should also present positive images of women as leaders. Civic society organizations should support women willing to run for public office and provide capacity building and advocate for improved media coverage of Womens issues and women candidates. All political parties should ensure that women and young women are fully represented in all party structures and policy committees.
The academic curriculum
needs an extensive review to incorporate gender mainstreaming, the harmful effects of discrimination against women and to deal with issues of defined gender roles which continue to suppress women in our society. Charity begins at home, we can only change some of these gender perceptions if we start socializing 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 its 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 its 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 anhd rights through a thriving constitutional democracy.
I am bold for change and am very committed to ensure that gender equality becomes a reality in Zimbabwe. It is time for women to unite in their diversity and emancipate themselves from the clutches of inequality, injustice and violence. Together we can attain a womens revolution.
Happy womens month to all the lovely women in Zimbabwe. #Womandla
Linda Tsungirirai Masarira