To improve the status of women: Reflections from the 51st CEDAW Session #2

The overarching or should I say recurring theme during the review process of  Zimbabwe by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the CEDAW Committee) was that the process was a constructive dialogue with the state in order to assess the extent of the improvement of the status of women in Zimbabwe. The review was hence a process to know the challenges, successes and future plans that the state has in store for the improvement of the status of women in Zimbabwe. Wow, interesting choice of words.

I clung on to the phrase improving the status of women. This got me thinking that when we talk of improving there is an underlying assumption that the current status is not as good as it should be. And so in my observations this was one of the things I kept my eyes on. Would the review establish what is wrong with the current status of Zimbabwean women.

Indeed it did. So maybe you are asking; what is wrong with the status of women in Zimbabwe? A lot really!

Women in Zimbabwe are discriminated against by their own constitution, the supreme law of the land. The Constitution allows women to be treated differently to their prejudice and detriment in matters of personal law or custom. This means that when it comes to questions of inheritance, guardianship, custody of children, divorce, marriage and other cultural practices, women can be discriminated against and the law will not be available to protect them.

Women in Zimbabwe make up 51% of the population yet not even 10% of them own the means of production such as land. In particular the communal land tenure system only gives rights of ownership of land to males hence women are responsible for more than 70% of the nation’s agricultural produce yet they do not own the land they toil on and till.

Women in Zimbabwe are exposed to all forms of violence such as political violence, rape, domestic violence, economic deprivation, human trafficking, sexual harassment, child marriages, pledging of virgins, polygamy, and wife inheritance among others. The patriarchal nature of the society oppresses them and they continue to suffer the yoke of a paternalistic state.

Women in Zimbabwe are predominantly the caregivers of HIV/AIDS patients yet their work is unremunerated. They are also housewives, maintaining their homes and raising their children yet this contribution is often considered negligible and insignificant when it comes to division of matrimonial property or inheritance. I could go on forever, listing the things that are wrong with the current status of Zimbabwean women but this article wishes to illustrate how the CEDAW review process sought to transform the status of women in Zimbabwe.

The CEDAW Committee inspired me with confidence that they are a group of experts dedicated through their valiant efforts to understand the Zimbabwean context including the politics, the law, the culture, religion, economy as well as the intersectional impact of all these factors on women. They thoroughly analysed the state report, civil society’s report as well as both stakeholders’ written and oral submissions during the session. They also conducted their own independent research to best assess the status of women in Zimbabwe. I heard the Committee members asking questions’ relating to programmes that I had no idea existed in Zimbabwe. I watched the Committee members keep their cool in the face of evasive and sometimes insulting (to their intelligence) responses by the state and just probe further. One of my favourite lines was when a Committee member would say ” I asked the state delegation … and you said…I would still like to know…Can you provide me with more concrete details on that issue.”

Thorough, well informed, professional, calm and composed-those are the words I would use to describe the Committee if anyone asked for my opinion. Since this is my space, I will tell it to you anyway. Having seen the concluding observations of the CEDAW Committee, they reflect the views of civil society and predominantly carry specific recommendations that, if implemented fully will vastly improve the status of women in Zimbabwe. The concluding observations are available here.

Sadly, the Secretary of the CEDAW Committee, who deals with these issues on a day to day basis because that is his job, did not inspire the same level of confidence in me. First I asked myself how come a man was Secretary of CEDAW. Then I admonished myself by saying, he must be gender sensitive and of course gender sensitive men may even be more committed to improving the status of women than women who do not have an appreciation of the issues. But alas my fears were confirmed when I interacted with him. He had no idea what issues affect women in Zimbabwe. He had no idea what the current context in Zimbabwe means for the women in my country. But of course he knew a lot about the issues in Algeria and Jordan. Oh well, when it turned out that he is American, I related to this fact-most Americans are preoccupied, no- the right word is obsessed with the Middle East so it is no wonder they have an appreciation of Middle Eastern issues. Many Americans also have very little knowledge of Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa hence his cluelessness about the things happening in my part of dark, poor and underdeveloped Africa-or so the stereotype says. Frankly for me that was unforgivable but I hope he reads this blog and redeems himself by familiarising himself with the issues in all countries coming for review at the CEDAW Committee whose day to day runnings he supervises. Maybe I am sounding too harsh but would anyone forgive Ban Ki Moon for failing to know that there is conflict in Syria?

I was quite impressed with the Zimbabwean delegation present at the Session. Undoubtedly some of their responses were bogus, evasive and plain ridiculous. For instance when asked what the state is doing to give police proper training in human rights and gender sensitivity, the state responded by saying that the police were being trained by SAHRIT. Excuse me! That non-governmental organisation closed more than 5 years ago. Clearly the government was lying to the Committee. There was no human rights training of police going on. No wonder the high levels of police brutality!

Asked when the state plans to ratify the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in persons, the state evasively responded by saying they are currently reviewing the current list of ratified treaties and only after that review will they think of ratifying new ones. Asked what they are doing to ensure the non-recurrence of political violence, the state responded saying that they have always thoroughly investigated, prosecuted and convicted perpetrators of violence. When the CEDAW Committee further probed asking for statistics of those convicted, the state had none- of course they had no statistics because zero perpetrators of political violence have been prosecuted.

However, the approach of the head of the delegation, Minister of Women Affairs, Olivia Muchena was commendable. Unlike the Ministry of Justice which goes for its Universal Periodic Review and such other processes prepared to defend their deplorable behavior at all costs, she was more pliable to engaging in constructive dialogue with the CEDAW Committee. She was not on the defensive, and she sought guidance from the CEDAW Committee in certain aspects. She made several commitments to the CEDAW Committee on behalf of Zimbabwean women. For instance, she assured the CEDAW Committee that Section 23(3) of the Constitution which discriminates women would not be part of the new constitution. She also uncategorically committed to improve the economic status of women by providing them with land, credit facilities and other financial support as she found women’s economic disempowerment one of the main causes of violence in the homes which then feeds the continuum of violence from the home into the community. My fear is that although her promises may be carried through, the beneficiaries will be ZANU-PF women as the polarisation of community empowerment programmes along party politics has been the trend in the past.

Now that the concluding observations of the CEDAW Committee have been published, we are geared to continue working towards the improvement of the status of women in Zimbabwe.

2 thoughts on “To improve the status of women: Reflections from the 51st CEDAW Session #2

  1. Thanks Judy for reading and yes, that exactly was my problem with the whole scenario. Surely as the Secretary of CEDAW he should show more interest in knowing the issues affecting women globally and especially if the country concerned is under review. I was perplexed to discover that he did not know that political violence against women is a huge problem in Zimbabwe. Geez!!! I do hope the next time Zimbabwe is under review he will be more up to date with all the issues raised.

  2. Wow – Another eye opener for me! Like most Americans. I had NO IDEA of the situation facing women in Zimabawe. I suppose mt ignorance is somewhat understandable given thelitle information that comes to us on the minstram media. But what about the secretary of CEDAW?? What is his excuse???? Your work is clearly to raise awareness of the su=ituation so that presure can be cought to bear for change. Thanks!!!!

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