Zimbabwean rights groups are pleased with improved gender rights included in new draft constitution.
Harsh deterrence methods, including police brutality and detainment, have done little to kill of the spirit of women's rights groups in Zimbabwe. And recently, their determination has started to pay dividends. A milestone has been reached as vital clauses that seek to liberate women from patriarchal dominance have been included in the country's draft constitution.
Flaws in the current constitution
During one of the many meetings by women’s pressure groups, Jessie Majome, Deputy Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, complained that Zimbabwe has one of the worst constitutions in the world in terms of women’s rights:
“First, the Zimbabwean constitution gives a licence to discriminate, because the constitution states that the grounds for non-discrimination do not apply to matters of personal law; and secondly, the constitution does not enshrine gender equality and equity through a clause that specifically outlines the principle of equality between men and women,” the Deputy Minister said. The constitution also, Majome argued, permits discrimination in “qualifications for public office” and makes it “permissible to discriminate in the allocation of public resources.”
“A modern constitution should leave no room for doubts about the equality of men and women. The constitution should contain an equality clause in the Bill of Rights and in the preamble of the constitution,” she said.
Regional statutory clauses, such as the 2008 SADC Protocol on gender and development, have provided a stimulus for broader change. When the coalition government came into effect in 2009, it endorsed the protocol, which calls for the repealing of all discriminatory laws by the end of 2015.
Though the constitution draft became, to some extent, a bargaining document between the three principal parties, the MDC-T, MDC-M and ZANU-PF, none of the political parties questioned the level-footing it offers women.
Power of women in the draft
Under Section 23 of the current constitution, customs and tradition suppress certain freedoms of women. But from the first chapter to the last of the draft constitution, legalised forms of discrimination against women are eliminated and affirmative action is endorsed.
One of the primary breakthroughs suggested by the draft concerns women’s access to their children. Current Zimbabwean law and tradition gives men the first right to guardianship of their offspring. The new draft does away with this, declaring equal access to children for men and women. Inheritance laws that currently relegate a woman's rights to her husband’s estate to behind her in-laws is also reformed.
Moreover, the draft constitution proposes that there should be more women active in politics and that representation in parliament, the senate and cabinet should be even. There is a provision that 60 (of 303) seats be reserved for female politicians in parliament, although only for two parliamentary terms.
With a nationwide membership of more than 100,000 women, the lobby group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) has been instrumental in these proposed constitutional changes. The interaction of WOZA and other lobby groups with the public includes staging workshops, releasing press statements, distributing fliers and marches. These collective demonstrations have not gone unnoticed.
“Our demonstrations are our main tool. We tried to make the political leaders know what we expect from them without fear,” said Jennifer Williams, director of WOZA.
Williams, a figurehead of the equal rights movement in Zimbabwe, has a pending case of alleged kidnap and theft charges. In February 2012 she faced charges of being a “criminal nuisance”. Her fight gave other protest groups the courage to forge ahead with their struggle for women’s rights.
“We will continue with our protests as long as it takes to keep our leaders in check. We are not alone in the fight for women’s rights in the constitution; there are many other groups that we are involved with. But the constitution is just a piece of paper. Unless and until attitudes on the ground change then we have a long way to go,” she added.
The draft constitution was further debated between Zimbabwe's political parties at the second stakeholders conference last week and will have to pass in parliament before it goes to a referendum. Women's movements are hoping the equality clauses survive the negotiations.
By Vladimir Mzaca
Pic: Sean Comiskey
Source: Think Africa Press