Though significant developments have been achieved in the struggle for women’s equality, in reality women in Zimbabwe still suffer under race‚ class, gender, patriarchy, traditional and cultural based oppression. The gender social order still places women in lesser and subservient positions relative to their male counterparts, with their social reproductive work undervalued and unpaid. This is however set to change. In June this year the Supreme Court ruling conferred women as equal citizens in divorce cases. The ruling entitles married couples to an equal share of their property upon divorce. It awards women half of all movable and immovable properties upon divorce, regardless of their monetary contribution toward the purchase of those properties. Although Zimbabwe is signatory to various regional and international conventions, including the Constitution granting women the same rights as men, previous divorce laws did not recognise women’s non-financial contribution to the household1. The new law is therefore a welcome step towards equality, socio- economic rights as well as distributive justice, particularly recognizing women’s unpaid care work.
The legal statute gives power to women who find themselves forced to stay in unfulfilling and even abusive relationships out of fear of losing out on material and socio economic gains upon divorce. This, particularly in a Southern African context where gender inequality is persistent in virtually all spheres of life – from customary practices and labour market discrimination to unequal access to social services and economic resources such as land (Jauch and Muchena, 2011). This is reflected, for example, in the gendered impact of HIV/AIDS, which is still a major scourge in the region as well as ownership to socio-economic resources. And more recently the heightened gender discrimination and abuse of women following the COVID 19 outbreak. Statistics indicate that violence against women and girls shot up by 38,5% during the first two months of the lockdown (April to May) compared to the preceding two months before the national lockdown (February to March)2.
Furthermore, private relations between men and women are still largely shaped by notions of masculinity based on aggression and control, and again Covid 19 lock down seems to have a relational impact to the heightened increase in intimate partner violence. Statistics indicate intimate partner violence increased proportionally during lockdown relative to reports of non-partner violence when compared to data from the same period the previous year. They put the numbers at “about 71.1% compared to 68%”3.
The implications of the new legislation extends beyond the private domain. It has implications for public life too, including the Decent Work Agenda (DWA), social protection and social determinants to health. It addresses underlying systemic causes of inequality, which are given expression in the workplace as access to services such as health and sexual and reproductive health. Of importance as well is the shift of country’s legal framework towards a feminist approach to citizenship. This approach, broadly revealing key relationships of power and authority that shape economic participation and social inequality as well as the very notion of the construction of citizenship. All of this would not have happened without the agency of women. It is the collective power and resistance of women to liberate themselves from oppression that the law came into fruition. Further, the new legislation is quite significant considering the over representation of women in precarious work and a poor social security framework.
Of course a feat like this does not come easy and would not have been a result of the work of one organisation. Women, feminist and labour rights organisations including FOS partners, the ZCTU and its affiliates in collaboration with other stakeholders such Emthonjeni Women’s Forum, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) and the Zimbabwe Women’s Lawyers Association (ZWLA) played a big role. The ZCTU and GAPWUZ’s gender programing adopts a conscious bias towards women; building critical consciousness and inculcating a value system of positive change within marginalised groups [women] who may have become accustomed to their exclusion and violation of their rights to the extent of accepting their existing on the margins of society as a normal part of their life. CWGH adopts a similar approach through its Women’s Forums. The Forums do not only strengthen the capacity of women to demand a dignified health care provision and other social determinants of health but are a space to articulate general societal concerns facing women. Marginalised communities can only be responsive to the exclusion when they are fully versed and appraised about the effects on their life chances.
The new legislation however does not extend to same sex couples as their unions are still not recognized by the law. Notwithstanding the fact, this is a welcome development especially following cabinet’s withdrawal of a clause in the Marriages Amendment Bill earlier this year which sought to provide for “civil partnership,” arguing that such a union was alien and not consistent with the country’s cultural and Christian values and sought to undermine the family unit and traditional marriage institution.4
Jauch, H. and Muchena, D. 2011. (Eds). ‘Tearing Us Apart: Inequalities in Southern Africa’. Journal of Social Development in Africa, 26 (2):189-192. Johannesburg: Open Society for Southern Arica