The Zimbabwean obtaining socio-economic situation is segregatory and pathetic in nature. Wanton price hikes of basic commodities and services that is going unabated is reminiscent of the hyperinflation of 2008 and that leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, the trauma of 2008 is still hovering and it seems we are plunging into another dark zone, which has further worsened the psychosocial suffering of ordinary people on the prospects of following the Zim- dollar experiences for the second time in life. The general populace has been rendered destitute over night by the soaring prices of commodities like groceries, fuel, medication, inflation, bus fares among others. The deepening Zimbabwe crisis has had a hidden demographic and gender perspective. The hardest hit groups have been the vulnerable: youth; children; differently-abled persons; women and girls. Rights of the said groups are in jeopardy as they are exposed to the vagaries of poverty and deprivation, thus undermining their protection. This piece specifically reflects on the lived experiences of Zimbabwean women and their hidden gender dimensions, in particular how the deepening crisis is fast eroding their rights.
Women constitute a vital constituency in the Zimbabwean society, hence reflecting on their experiences and status, 38 years after Zimbabwe gained its independence and 62 years after Africa gained its first independent country is a worthy cause. According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat), women constitute 52% of 13.5 million total population of the country. In terms of settlement distribution, they make up 53% of the urban population and 51% of rural folks. Given such statistics, any administration that fails to harness this constituency in its development endeavours is doomed to fail as it will be promoting minority interest and the expense of the majority. Therefore, promoting the rights of women and their empowerment is not a matter of charity but an imperative of national development. It then follows that, empowering women would obviously transcend to national development and disempowering them will proportionally do the same to development and the economy. From a governance perspective, such a constituency needs to be highly involved in decision making and their experiences can be a yardstick to measure the progress that Zimbabwe and Africa has made ever since the coming of independence.
Unpaid care and domestic work
The Zimbabwean society, using culturally and religiously determined gender roles mostly tends to allocate responsibility for preparing food for the family and any domestic chores to women. This has placed women at the core of experiencing the crisis on a day to day basis and most of them are finding it hard to cope with the situation. Preparing budgets for food, bus fares for kids, school fees, rentals among the many other mundane and routine expenses of everyday life, all remain the baby of women in a family set up. Given the galloping inflation, budgets are no longer balancing and the hard-done group is women as the responsibility to prepare for the family weighs heavily on them directly. Given that situation women life in Zimbabwe is under threat as the structural violence takes toll on them. If the situation continues to unfold unabated more women are likely to be under severe pressure and strain, thus making them potential candidates for being diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and stroke among other chronic ailments due to exposure to structural violence that strains them so much. From a human rights perspective this is some form of clear abuse of the rights of a vulnerable group, since this crisis is man-made and the government seems oblivious and is fast immersing women into enclaves of destitution. The government seems to be failing to realise that its main task is to address the economic malaise. It appears they are in relaxed mode, yet the majority of women are being impoverished and enjoying less and less of their rights because of this crisis.
Can the leaders learn?
The prices of basic commodities have been characterised by high volatility and instability, now beyond the reach of many, a clear pointer to a failed government as it is one of its key responsibilities to provide a stable macro-economic environment. Once they are beyond the reach of many, yet the “many” here are women who constitute the largest part of the population. The Zimbabwean government under Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa has lived to the true meaning of his name: Dambudzo (a problem) and indeed a big one of Zimbabwe. Instead, of ameliorating the situation for the benefit of the public, President Mnangagwa has been at the center of the crisis, off setting the tone for price hiking when he announced fuel price increases in January 2019, yet at the same time wants to play innocent and describe the price increase trends in the aftermath as price madness. Surely, one would not be mistaken to think that it is government officials who are mad and not the prices. It seems history wants to repeat itself and teach us a lesson. In 1870 Louis XVI of France did the same when his country was in doldrums, he failed to abet the economic decline which later led to his disposal by Napoleon Bonaparte. The averment is not meant to wish bad omen to Mr. Mnangagwa, but lessons have to be learnt as they are. At the end of the day, in the midst of this hullabaloo and melee, women continue to suffer as basic goods prices are pegged on a three-tier pricing system which officials in the ministry of finance continuously deny for reasons best known to themselves, but obviously it seems only an exercise in saving their faces.
The hidden gender costs of the crisis
The transport crisis, especially on urban commuters has of late exposed government’s incapability to deal with the current crisis. This has meant further oppression and disempowering of women. The Zupco buses which government has released to carry people on subsidized basis are insufficient to service all the locations in Harare. In other small towns the situation is the same, members of the public have to jostle to board the bus which is cheaper but with expensive and hidden consequences. The time spend whilst waiting for the bus is too long as it leads one to always arrive late at work. When the time comes to go back home after knocking off, it becomes worse because everyone will be fighting to get back home early. Under those circumstances, where the Hobbesian state of nature and Darwinian laws of jungle apply, it is only men who would get the chance to board first. It is a survival of the fittest affair where masculinity becomes a useful currency as the men will be pushing and shoving in a way that women cannot match. The muscle power demanded to get in the bus favours the men. In some few exceptions, there are some women have braved the stampedes of getting into the bus they have ended up being sexually assaulted. Women get molested and fondled on these packed buses, undermining their rights and dignity, thereby exposing them to forms of gender-based violence. These are the un-said and seemingly petty realities of the urban commuter transport crisis in Zimbabwe, but the truth is women’s bodies continue to be violated invisibly.
The molestation of women on public transport has made some of them become shy to join the pushing and squeezing for space, resulting in getting home late. This is a situation again that has created its own complexities, as some spouses are failing to understand the far-reaching consequences of the crisis. In some instances, given the strong patriarchal and traditional nature of our societies that impose silent curfews on women’s time to be home, domestic violence has ensued as husbands begin to suspect their wives of taking transport problems as an opportunity to engage in unfaithful activities. As a result, domestic fights are breaking out in different locations due to delays of women getting to their homes from work. These are the hidden gender costs of the public transport crisis and women’s rights are being fast eroded under the Mnangagwa administration. The transport situation is being experienced by everyone but its impacts on women is more dire. The government needs to urgently work on the urban public transport system and ensure that it becomes gender sensitive and a safe place for women. The current situation is untenable as women’s rights continue to be under threat.
Not yet Uhuru women of Zimbabwe and Africa!
In summation, Zimbabwean women are being denied their rights through structural means. As a matter of fact, Most of Zimbabwean women are being subjected to disempowerment due to gender-based violence which is indirectly perpetrated against them through inflation and price hikes which deny them an opportunity to access basic goods and services. They are no longer able to look after their families, save their interests and are subjected to different forms of abuse by the unfolding comatose socio-economic situation. It seems, there is no political will to resolve the situation as there are those benefitting out of the system through corruption. However, the hidden truth of this crisis is that women in Zimbabwe despite the 38 years of independence and Africa marking 62 years after the coming of first Uhuru (independence of Ghana) they are bearing the brunt of the crisis more. True to Salif Keita’s lyrics, “It is not yet Uhuru”! The struggle continues women of Zimbabwe and Africa.
Muzukuru waMbuya Nehanda is a gender activist. She writes from Harare