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Part One: Explaining Zimbabwean women’s low social status

There is no greater betrayal than that of Zimbabwean women by the political elite; the 1980 independence was supposed to usher in a new socioeconomic dispensation for all Zimbabweans but, what is there for women to celebrate? How independent economically, politically and socially are women today?

Women today are no less oppressed as they were pre-independence. In fact social tolerance of violence against wives remains disturbingly high; worryingly, even some women still believe there are cases of justifiable violence against wives!

Economically, women are outnumbered by men in formal employment; their significant presence is in the often less secure informal sector. Admittedly, some women have made significant socioeconomic progress; regrettably, these only constitute a tiny minority. Why after almost 30 years of independence has the social status of women not improved?

This article discusses some possible causes of the apparent low status of women in Zimbabwean society. Here, social status is defined as the social estimation of prestige or respect accorded to groups within a community. It is a group’s worth as perceived by other members of the community; the perception can either be positive or negative and earned or ascribed. I question the role of the potentially outdated traditional practice of paying a bride price (lobola) in the status and abuse of women in Zimbabwe. For purposes of my argument I will focus my attention mainly on those repressive norms and values that negate the pursuit for gender parity.

The low status of Zimbabwean women is best understood as part of a patriarchal social system that subordinates women through social norms that define their place and guide their conduct. Children are highly valued in Zimbabwe but some more than others; boys have a higher status in a society that is inherently male controlled. Ridiculous as it sounds, girls are (in some families) viewed as temporary residents who will one day leave when they get married while boys retain the family name. A further devastating consequence is that it is becomes logical for parents not to invest on girls’ education.

At an early age the male repression of females can be seen in young men assuming self-designated vigilante roles in which they ‘protect’ their sisters and young women in the community thereby effectively defining and limiting young women’s social sphere. Not only that, young men become self-appointed fashion judges approving and disapproving young women’s attire.

In many Zimbabwean towns and cities young women wearing mini-skirts/dresses, tight dresses and trousers risk being harassed by bare-chested young men in jeans that hardly cover their backsides! The standards set by men for women are not necessarily expected for males. While the female fashion victims receive limited sympathy from law enforcement agents, the male aggressors often go unpunished: the presage for relentless violence in marriages.

The division of labour is highly gendered: women’s work is often within the vicinity of the family home while men’s socioeconomic web seems boundless. It can be argued that in this scenario women are handicapped by default as their economic choices are limited, therein starts the economic dominance of men who have a broader scope of economic activities to choose from.

Worse still, most of the work done by women is not considered as employment hence is unpaid. The work done by women within the household is viewed as part of the wider matrimonial duties. I am not about to suggest that husbands have to pay their wives a monthly salary. I will instead point that wives have a legitimate claim for equal say in how their husbands’ earnings from paid work are used.

In practice, men appropriate women’s labour. Now how does this happen? The unpaid household and social welfare work performed by women (which includes cleaning, tidying the house and surroundings, taking care of children, ensuring the safety of property, attending important local development and political meetings ‘and reporting to the husband’, caring for the elderly parents of the husband among other roles associated with women) frees up men to take up paid jobs. The work done by wives is not regarded in terms of hours worked thus, no man bothers to calculate the monetary value, albeit invisible income, of women’s contribution in the households.

Since men do not openly acknowledge the economic contribution of women’s work, husbands do not consider their unemployed wives as having a legitimate claim to part of their (men’s) earnings. Perhaps if men took their children to paid nurseries, dirty clothes to the launderette and hired cleaners and security personnel they would appreciate the real value of women’s work. It is in this regard that I argue that women should have an equal say in the way the disposable household income is used.

The financial dominance of men within most households is clearly reflected on the imbalance of household expenditure; men’s priorities are catered for first; whenever there are budget cutbacks within the family, girls’ and wives’ interests are the first to be hit: daughter withdrawn from school for instance, which on its own is a major factor in the women’s failure to break the chain of dependence and the consequent control by man.


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