The pitfalls of our national gender equality consciousness.*
By Takura Zhangazha^
It is a given in democratic societies, or at least those that aspire to be so, that all men and women are treated and respected as equal citizens with an equal enjoyment of human rights, protection of the law, social welfare and social and economic justice.
In Zimbabwe’s case we generally do not have a celebrated democratic record of actively seeking to promote equal opportunities between our male and female citizens. This is not to argue that our liberation struggle or post independence government or its attendant institutions have deliberately ignored gender equality, but that, thus far, they have not done enough. However it is also not meant to imply that once we have a female deputy President or deputy Prime Minister, as is the case in Zimbabwe,we have arrived at gender equality.
Moreover, the recent and ongoing case of alleged ‘female rapists’ (with an alleged male accomplice) do make one pause for thought on the matter.
Put together with statements wrongly attributed to a female cabinet minister, but said by a national leader of a political party's women's assembly, concerning a rather political but distasteful request that males withdraw sexual services to their female counterparts if they refuse to register to vote it becomes important that the matter be debated and reassessed.
This is because both incidents indicate that it is continual importance that the country re-examines the issue of gender and gender equality much more holistically and with a greater sense of urgency.
It is however the case of the alleged ‘female rapists’ that is particularly telling. This is because there has been a lot of public debate on the same said case, and it has become a bit of a phenomenon particularly on the basis that it is generally difficult for many Zimbabweans to imagine women as not only able to allegedly ‘rape’ men and collect their victims’ semen, but to do so serially and in allegedly criminally daring circumstances.
The public debate in response to this much publicized case has however been very speculative as to what may cause such behavior by anyone, particularly if they are female.
One of the popular reasons given is that the alleged perpetrators of such an act are involved in acts that are related to witchcraft and other superstitious assumptions of a co-relation between reproductive fluids and the acquisition of wealth in small-scale businesses such as cross border trading. For students of sociology this reason would be a gem of a case study for a doctorate.
For the majority of Zimbabwean women this speculative reason should trigger serious cause for concern, primarily because it indicates the continued economic troubles that women face in the country and the now even more general but false assumption that ‘rape’ by women is now as much a danger to society as that done by men.
It was also to be publicly found in the activism that was spawned by the University of Zimbabwe female students who protested in the late 1980s against the sexual harassment of one of their own by their fellow male student colleagues and in part, the then ‘emergency taxi’ operators.
All of these brave, but at that time limited in national scope, interventions by activists, students and organizations in pursuit of gender equality saw the advent of the coming into political understanding of the ‘equal’ Zimbabwean female. By ‘equal’, I would be referring to the female who would eventually come to embrace the globally accepted understanding of equality between men and women not just as citizens who share the right to vote but as individuals with the right to lead their lives with equal and undemocratically unmitigated access to the state and the equal enjoyment of universally accepted and accorded human rights.
This level of consciousness and interaction on matters related to gender equality has contributed significantly to contemporary progressive discourse on issues of pursuing societal, legal and political parity between men and women. It has however not been as successful in changing the lot of a majority of Zimbabwean women for the better.
And the examples to show for this are many. They include issues to do with our still undemocratic components of our inheritance law, lack of affirmative action in education, inadequate access to medical treatment (not only for maternal health), unemployment and the very real ‘glass ceiling’ in various professions and corporate institutions.
The social effects of these continuing challenges have been the hidden cultural coercion of women into early marriages, lack of higher levels of education among young females, commercial sex work, and of late, the involvement of young women in what can only be considered ‘superstitious’ assumptions around sex and sexual fluids in relation to the acquisition of wealth.
All in all, these issues point to the truth there is a new vulnerability of the female Zimbabwean citizen in a society that is struggling to emerge from a catastrophic economic crisis between 2000 to present day . It is a ‘vulnerability’ that can no longer addressed in relation to focusing only on maternal or reproductive health but all aspects that relate to the broad aspirations of Zimbabwe’s women.
It must now be part of the complete national agenda and the root causes must be identified without quick and easy recourse to merely addressing the symptoms. And these root causes reside in a society that due to the ravages of our economic and political crisis, we have forgotten the commonly held democratic principle that men and women are equals in our society.
It is therefore necessary that we all start a new conversation on gender equality. One that is characterized by knowledge of the necessity of expanding state/societal assistance to women not only in matters relating to reproductive health but also to issues of a social welfare grant for them, access to education, tackling the ‘glass ceiling’, improving rural livelihoods through the provision of water, expanding state and local council clinic medical services and ensuring adequate nutrition to vulnerable female headed households, establishing democratic marriage laws and stemming the causes that have been leading more women into commercial sex work.
* The title for this blog is adapted from Franz Fanon's phenomenal chapter 'The Pitfalls of National Consciousness' in the Wretched of the Earth.
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