Source: The Independent
THE inauguration of the Government of Nation Unity (GNU) in early 2009 raised expectations regarding the role of women in Zimbabwe's new political dispensation. With women comprising more than 52% of the population

and with the Global Political Agreement (GPA) containing a clear commitment to gender parity, in particular the need to appoint women to strategic cabinet posts, hopes were high that women would finally be given a major role which reflected their critical participation in Zimbabwe's struggles.

However, more than two years into the life of the GNU, these hopes have not been realised.

The coalition government has failed to appoint a significant number of women to cabinet and other influential positions and has also failed to enhance the rights of women more generally. Indeed, what has happened since 2009 calls to mind the still unfulfilled promises that were made during the war of liberation concerning the emancipation of women.

Accounts of the liberation war are replete with the contradictions that confronted women — even during the process of fighting for black people's emancipation.

For instance, while male politicians stressed the glamour of men and women wielding guns and fighting side by side during the war, the reality was that women were highly oppressed and had no say in matters that directly impacted on their lives. Women remained in "feminised" spaces during the war, "serving as auxiliaries and as women" (Nhongo-Simbanegavi, in Zambezia, 2005: 97).

Meanwhile, the men proceeded to "tougher" zones to earn their military colours as "real men," fighting a "real war." Therefore, it was men who confronted the enemy, men who made decisions, regardless of their impact on women and men who wielded real military -- and later political — power.

It is unfortunate that this state of affairs has continued into the post-independence and post-GPA eras, despite official rhetoric to the contrary. Commenting on the continued sidelining of women after more than 20 years of political independence, S J Ndlovu-Gatsheni (Zambezia, 2003:238) made this important observation:

"What Zimbabwean women are failing to understand is that the notion of gender equality may well have been a liberation myth, popularised only to mobilise women into the nationalist struggle. The male-dominated leadership of Zimbabwe can no longer perpetuate this myth of equality between men and women, as it is no longer politically necessary in order to appease women. The men have now safely entrenched themselves into power."

This has come as a rude awakening to women who actively supported the war, since the liberation struggle was only successful because of the mass support of women who provided food and shelter for the guerrillas, smuggled and hid equipment and weapons, and also acted as crucial lookouts and messengers (chimbwidos) for the guerrillas.

Coming almost 30 years after independence, the GPA gave the political leadership a golden opportunity to redress past imbalances, whose roots lie in colonial history and culture. It is a fact that colonialism reinforced African patriarchal values and in some cases "invented" its own, which it ascribed to African culture, resulting in a severe distortion of the position and condition of African women.

It is sad to note that the GNU has failed to seize the opportunity presented by the GPA to redress these colonial distortions and promote genuine equality. As the Financial Gazette highlighted in 2010, out of 50 cabinet posts, a mere eight are occupied by women. Equally disturbing is the fact that few of the women who are in government are situated in centres of political influence. Apart from Joice Mujuru (one of the two Vice Presidents) and Thokozani Khupe (one of the two Deputy Prime Ministers), only Theresa.

As observed by Jealous Mawarire (quoted by Njabulo Ncube in Financial Gazette, 2010), the Ministry of Gender is headed by Dr Olivia Muchena as if to say gender issues are "better administered by women." And as for Misihairabwi-Mushonga's post as Minister of Regional Integration and International Cooperation, Mawarire posits that she was hired to "give a beautiful face to an ugly government" in an attempt to "lure international partners."

Women have only a minimal say in ministries that design policies that directly impact their livelihoods and wellbeing. Their views are not likely to be heard when tough political and socio-economic issues are debated and decisions are taken, because these key spheres of influence remain the preserve of men. It is also worth noting that the poor representation of women at cabinet level is also observable at parliamentary and local government levels. Furthermore, permanent secretaries and ambassadors are still predominantly men. 

It is depressing and dispiriting to realise that women have gained so little under the GPA — and that there has not been even a basic apology from the system or from the political parties about their failure to fully implement the GPA's commitments to women.

Equally baffling is the fact that there does not seem to be — or have been — a sustained push by women themselves for real political empowerment. Women have neither effectively argued for nor lobbied for a meaningful quota of women in influential decision-making positions.

This state of affairs might be a result of the "diehard negative attitudes about women" that have been "acquired from centuries of tradition and practice, and continue to colour and cloud the thinking of many men as well as women themselves" (Made and Lagerstrom, in Stoneman, 1988: 159). It could also be a legacy of previously unfulfilled promises to women. But whatever the reason, the lack of effective action by women points to the unfortunate complicity of women in their own marginalisation.

The situation goes against current thinking among prominent African women theorists, like Clenora Hudson Weems, whose Africana Womanism theory, unlike western feminism, is rooted in African history and culture. She advocates for a concerted struggle by African men, women and children "for human parity".

This illustrates the need for Zimbabwean men and women to work together for the common good of society, since it is only by waging a male-female collective struggle that Zimbabweans can make meaningful strides towards a positive transformation of their lives.

It calls for a holistic approach to the empowerment of women, as opposed to a dualistic one, because it is the responsibility of both men and women to ensure that their society survives.

It is important to conclude that the continued marginalisation of women is bound to have a negative impact on women's efforts to cultivate positive self-esteem, a sense of self-worth, and self-confidence.

That is why it is important for government, political parties and society at large to ensure that the issue of women's participation in decision-making and their political empowerment goes beyond lip service and tokenism. For their part, women should not fashion their empowerment after Eurocentric feminism, but after the historic role played by the triumphant women of Africa, since, throughout Africa, women have been a force to reckon with in national affairs.

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