By Denford Magora
WOMEN in Zimbabwe today are no better off than they were at the height of colonial oppression. This is despite the noises made by President Robert Mugabe and his party on the appointment of Joice Mujuru as vice-president.
To this day, wom
en are still victims of brutal and shocking violence in their own homes. Rapes are being reported almost as a daily occurrence in the media and nothing concrete is being done except the mouthing of platitudes and catch-phrases.
Donor money is also being pounced on with little to show for it on the ground. True, we still have excellent organisations and initiatives like the Musasa Project but their city-centric approach — perhaps a product of limited funding — means that they are only scratching the surface of the problem.
The difficulties facing our female population, in other words, have not and will not be made better by the appointment of a female vice-president or even president.
Ask any Zimbabwean women and they will tell you about a police force that still uses the phrases “civil matter” and “domestic dispute”.
When the domestic dispute finally escalates and ends in murder or rape, what do we get? “Police have urged people to settle their disputes amicably and not resort to violence.” It would be laughable were it not so sad.
The truth of the matter is that this government, as with everything else, is paying lip service to the empowerment of women. Our society is still one in which a chauvinist feels very much at ease.
Take the case of the woman who was beaten to death recently by her male relatives. Villagers who witnessed the incident did not bother reporting the matter to the police. Her ordeal only came to light when it was too late and that is why she is dead.
There are other silent cases in which husbands and fathers are bludgeoning women in their own homes. Most of the cases are settled through “family courts” whose only judgement is usually to tell the woman not to give up on her family and to “stick it out”. Some of these women end up committing suicide as the only way out.
Presented with these facts, there is no option but to conclude that our society has failed. It has failed our womenfolk and, as a result, discredited government pronouncements on empowering women.
For, what use is empowering a woman to start a business when her husband or brother or father can destroy that business in a heartbeat? What use is promoting a woman to a position of authority when she is not free in her own home? Yes, we may protect her financial assets and material security, but what use is that when we are failing to protect her life in her own home?
In countries that are serious about gender equality, the police are given resources to tackle these problems. For instance, we should have specially trained gender police whose job it is to deal with cases of domestic violence.
Their training will teach them to identify powder kegs before they explode. They would also be linked to well-publicised help lines. They will work hand-in-hand with shelters and will have the power to detain abusive spouses and relatives overnight in order to allow women to escape to safety.
On the other hand, all those women sitting in parliament should prove their usefulness and push for legislation that makes examples of these abusive men. Women’s organisations would also be emboldened by the enactment of these laws.
With enough resources, they could, for instance, name and shame abusive husbands and relatives. They would be able to publish not only their names but also even their pictures and pin them up on every available tree and lamppost. The current environment does not make this possible and it is the government that should shoulder the blame.
It is inevitable, I suppose, that this should be so. Our government has been preoccupied with consolidating power for so long that other concerns have suffered. Even before land reform, Zanu PF was intent on creating a de facto one-party state and women only featured when their formidable voting power was needed. Otherwise, traditional and oppressive mentalities were allowed to run riot in our society.
It is time that women’s organisations in this country used the power that their base has. They have more voting power than men or the youths. They are better at organisation and mobilisation.
Instead of using these powers to prop up a system that ignores them, they should make it impossible for any government to look the other way. They have the power and they should use it. They should not be led into believing the nonsense that their empowerment will fall in their laps from the government, which, as it happens, is also dominated by men, some of whom are known wife-beaters and chauvinists.
Despite talk of democracy and suchlike, men, who are the ones holding the levers of power at the moment, will not willingly let their power be eroded. Women have to take their freedom inch by inch, fighting tooth and nail. But if, as is happening now, women allow themselves to be silenced with sweets like children, no one is going to ever rise up on their behalf. Their destiny lies only in their hands.
The appointment of a woman vice-president will not stop spousal abuse. It will not make every woman feel safe in her own home.
It will not make men gain a sudden respect for the rights of their wives and sisters. If anything, some of them actually go out of their way to prove that as men they will remain in charge, no matter how high women rise in their jobs.
Chauvinistic men who have to report to women at work will go and take their frustrations out on their wives back home. They know they will get away with it because of the way gender issues are handled by the authorities. It is time for it to stop. And it is only the women themselves who can stop it.
* Denford Magora is a Harare-based marketing executive.