ZIMBABWE : Democracy in the Eyes of Women in Zimbabwe

Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Fellowship of Reconcilliation
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Zimbabwe is a fragile state. The whole country has been plunged into a humanitarian crisis and all social, economic, and political fundamentals are deteriorating faster than they would in a country at war.

Women constitute 52% of the population of Zimbabwe, yet we have never defined democracy for ourselves. Democracy has been strictly defined for us by political parties, governments, civic groups, the international community, and church groups. All these institutions are male-dominated, and have therefore defined democracy according to their own patriarchal notions. Yet women have our own unique requirements for democracy. Our country needs to pay attention to us.

Democracy for women in Zimbabwe can be summarized in two key capacities: participation in decision-making at all levels, and equal access to resources.

Participation in Decision-Making

Ever since independence from colonial rule in 1980, the ruling party and government have determined what democracy can be in Zimbabwe. In the pre-independence period, democracy was simply defined as “one man, one vote.” The issue of gender parity in decision-making was never on the agenda, and women were not organized in those days. After independence, the government and ruling party redefined democracy to mean the participation of more than one party in periodic elections. However the government has worked to predetermine the results of these elections by putting in place partisan electoral management boards and limiting the operating space for political parties and civil society.

All elections since 1985 have been marred by violence at the community and national levels. The situation has deteriorated with each election. The 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2005 elections were marred by political violence, and this resulted in some deaths and serious injury of some party supporters. Social and political space has gradually been limited through legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which requires political parties and civil society to inform police of any political gathering with more than three people. The police have abused this law to demand notification of routine civil society and political party meetings. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) demands registration of newspapers; three major independent papers have therefore been shut down. The Broadcast Services Act has also given the government a monopoly in radio and electronic broadcasting.

This situation is called democracy. Yet for women, there can be no democracy without free participation. Participation has to start at the basic unit of society, the family, for it to be meaningful. This principle has far-reaching consequences for women's lives.

Our observation has shown that in the majority of cases there is no separation of powers in a household where there is a marital union between a man and a woman. Men are defined as the heads of families. They make decisions that affect women and children without consulting with us and seeking our opinions. Such decisions can include whether a woman gets employed and where she is employed, where she travels, whether there will be further studies for the woman, and the kind of car she can drive! This can only be termed dictatorship, and many women are forced to live in such a situation.

This lack of democracy at the family level is mirrored in public spheres, including the community and national levels.

The same scenario plays out at the community level, where there is gross male dictatorship rather than even a semblance of democracy. Men are the ordained village heads and they are also traditionally the chiefs in various districts. In many villages and districts, the term “elders” refers to male elders, and women are sidelined in decision-making.

In church communities, the leadership is overwhelmingly male. Some denominations have gone as far as determining the level of education that the girls in the community may attain. Some girls only go as far as primary school, after which they are forced to marry elder men in the church. One leader admitted that this was a policy to keep the women ignorant and easy to control and dictate to. Most of the irrational commands are passed on as messages from God by the self-ordained male prophets in the church. The mainstream churches are almost the same, with the extreme being the Roman Catholic Church, where women cannot be ordained as priests.

340 Women of Zimbabwe Arise bannerParticipation of women at the national level, either in government or in political parties, remains a challenge. The agenda of political parties is largely shaped by male leadership, and women usually just toe the line. Many political parties remain male-dominated and many policies to accommodate women remain merely cosmetic. In 2005, one of the parties in Zimbabwe suddenly announced that it was going to ask women to stand for election in 30% of the constituencies. However the women were carefully handpicked by the male leadership, and then were allocated constituencies where that political party had traditionally lost.

The result is that women have ended up with only 11% of the positions in the Zimbabwean parliament. The figure has improved significantly in our senate, where women hold 20% of constituencies. The ruling party (ZANU-PF) has a quota system for women. None of the opposition political parties have a gender policy or quota system for women.

The systems of domination practiced at the family level are carried into the public arena and public institutions like the parliament. A male member of parliament was rebuked recently for implying that women caused rape. He also asked all single women in parliament to marry so that they could become “decent.” Another example was that of two female members of parliament, in the opposition, who were assaulted by young male supporters of their parties. This is evidence of family-level gender relations playing out in the public arena. In marital relations, men beat up so-called “loud-mouthed women,” and this is also happening in the public sphere.

Both houses of parliament trivialize issues of women's human rights and access to basic commodities. A case in point is the jeering of MP Priscilla Misihairambwi for bringing up the unaffordable high cost of sanitary supplies. A male MP asked her to demonstrate how women used these, amid jeers from other male MPs.

Access to Resources

Another critical term for women in the democracy discourse is the issue of access to resources. In the traditional cultures of Zimbabwe, women did not own the primary resource, land. Land was transferred from father to son; women and girls were left out. Women have access to land only as daughters or wives. Our rights were therefore very limited and could be withdrawn
by the owner, who is male in almost all cases. This is not democracy according to women.

Women's organizations in Zimbabwe, including Women Peacemakers Programme and those grouped under the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe, have failed to operate effectively due to
lack of resources.

The international community, including funding agencies, has redefined democracy in Zimbabwe as strictly governance and political work. Funding has therefore been allocated to civic organizations working on governance issues such as a new constitution, political violence, torture, and issues of political rights.

This redefinition of democracy has resulted in the sidelining of important issues that affect the majority of women. The first is the legal framework for women, starting with the constitution of Zimbabwe, which allows discrimination based on sex. Other critical issues affecting women include unfair marriage and inheritance laws, HIV/AIDS, access to health services, gender-based violence, participation of women in politics, food security, and the high inflation rate. International funding agencies have been unwilling to support and fund related efforts, since they have defined these as “soft” issues. Recently the Global Health Fund declined to fund Zimbabwe for a national HIV/AIDS program since they did not deem it a priority.

In a democracy, women should be able to participate in decision-making and have access to resources at the different levels of society, from the domestic to the national. Patriarchal notions of male superiority have denied women access at all these levels. Women need to make our voices louder and clearer for our issues to be defined as “hard” issues. Democracy can only happen for all if women are equally represented and allowed to make decisions about our lives, our communities, and our country. Such democracy would give all people basic human rights and allow meaningful participation of women and men alike in decisions that affect us all.

Netsai Mushonga is a peace and women's rights activist who serves as deputy chairperson of Fellowship of Reconciliation Zimbabwe and coordinator of the Women Peacemakers Programme in Zimbabwe. She has also served on the international committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR).