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Women's emancipation meaningless without addressing cultural issues

Many cultural practices impinge human rights in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular. Violation of women rights is on the increase regardless of well-crafted and well-intended pieces of legislation. In Zimbabwe, 2013 adopted constitution sections 17 and 80 accord women their full rights to gender equality, property ownership, health, education and empowerment amongst others. However, in many instances, the law fails to achieve its intended aims and objectives owing to the disjuncture between law and culture within which it is being implemented. The patriarchal nature of society impedes women to fully realise their rights hence in as much as the International Day for Women was set aside it is commemorated with mixed feelings.

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 policy that discriminates this constituency is doomed to fail as it will be promoting minority interest leaving the majority outside hence abuse of human rights and jeopardising women empowerment. It then follows that empowering women would transcend to national development and disempowering them will proportionally do the same to development and the economy. Women’s full social, economic and political empowerment remains a mammoth task as their hands are tied up by cultural practices that hinder them to take up opportunities due to fear of going against what is subscribed to by the society. As a result, most women are shy to be seen rubbing shoulders with men competing for empowerment opportunities and their constitutional right to empowerment would go untapped due to the cultural barrier.

Access to resources such as land, credit and other productive resources by women is still a challenge in Zimbabwe. Most people in Zimbabwe live in communal lands as peasants or smallholder farmers. Customary law governs this land. The practice in customary law is for traditional authorities to give rights of use of land to adult males. Women’s rights to land are therefore often indirect i.e. through their male relatives. They obtain their land rights through their roles as daughters, sisters or wives. This does not give as much control over land as is given to men which works to the advantage of men and the disadvantage of women. Given that scenario, culture is a stumbling block to the realisation of women’s right to empowerment as enunciated in the national constitution.

Pursuant to that, inheritance laws and practices dispossess widows of their marital property. Notwithstanding well-crafted laws that allow women to have entitlements to estate most of the women in the rural areas suffer due to customary law. Customary laws and practices ensure that women remain subordinates. This is made worse by the existence of dual legal systems, both customary and statutory, that exist which in the event of the conflict between the two the former will prevail rather than the latter. Customary law, for the most part, favours men. It often applies to matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and property ownership in all areas both urban and rural except to a few elites. Interestingly, when it comes to the distribution of the estate most men have the habit of using masculine power to intimidate women so that they can take a lion’s share. Women in fear of isolation give in.

The gendered nature of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has become clearer as the incidence and prevalence are higher among women than men. According to UNAIDS, in sub-Saharan Africa 58% of infected adults aged between 15-49 are women and the highest number of new cases are among girls aged between 15-19. In Zimbabwe, the problem is prevalent due to poverty which is caused by the poor economy. Some of the women and young girls are forced to indulge early sexual activities to earn a living where they will be having little or no right to make decisions to their sexual or reproductive health. Cases in point are areas like Chipinge, Muzarabani, Rushinga, Banquet and Hopley Park where high cases of early marriages and infections have been reported. In those marriages, women have no decision to make regarding safe sex as it is a taboo in Zimbabwean culture for a woman to make a suggestion. If a woman insists that would lead to infidelity accusations and gender-based violence.

In education, girls’ progression rate is worse than boys because of high drop-out rates due to pregnancies, lack of school fees, and family-related crises. The customary practices often determine that when family resources are limited and choices have to be made between sending girls or boys to school, the choice will often be in favour of boys. Most of the marginalized areas in Zimbabwe undergo that very same arrangement which is a direct attack on the emancipation of women as enshrined in the national constitution.

Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in the world today. It is a major obstacle to the fulfilment of women’s and girls’ human rights and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Guided by the various international and regional instruments to which it is party, Zimbabwe has committed to the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Central to this is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Armed with all these international instruments women’s rights in Zimbabwe remain in doldrums due to the heavy effects of culture. In addition to that, the 1980 World Conference on Women that was held in Copenhagen resolved that there was supposed to be equal employment opportunities for women, equal access to health and education facilities. It emphasizes ensuring that women have the right to own and control the property.

The Zimbabwean situation is indicating right but turning left or in fact, it is not turning at all despite indicating in as far as women rights are concerned as there is a lot to be desired. Women continue to suffer despite well-laid resolutions which should be a panacea to the emancipation of women. Consequently, the commemoration of International Women’s Day will be meaningless if cultural issues that hinder the full realisation of women rights are not decisively dealt with. The conflict between culture and law in Zimbabwe is a cause for concern particularly when culture always takes precedence over the law. Government and opinion leaders in communities should scale up efforts to fight all harmful cultural practices to create a conducive environment for women to fully realise their rights as espoused in the national constitution and international conventions.

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