Friday, August 28, 2009

ZIMBABWE:Women’s Rights Activists Lobby to 'Engender' Constitution

HARARE, Aug 27 (IPS) - Zimbabwe’s latest constitutional reform process has generated strong interest among activists in strengthening protection for women's rights. The early signs are that the drafting of a new constitution will not prioritise correcting legal, social and economic discrimination against women.

A key demand is better socio-economic rights for women, including the right to shelter, housing, health, food security and employment.

At a constitutional meeting in Goromonzi, a rural community 30 kilometres southeast of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, in July, for example, delegates of the Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU) demanded the inclusion of the right to potable water in the constitution.

In rural Zimbabwe, women, who are traditionally responsible for fetching clean water, have to walk several kilometres each day to the nearest water source and carry the water in buckets on their heads back to their homesteads.

"Some women here travel for over seven kilometres in search of water. But that is child’s play compared to the long distances they travel in search of firewood," confirmed Goromonzi councillor Enoch Banyure.

But women’s rights activists are worried that the constitutional reform will not address their concerns, because only nine of the 25 members of the Select Committee, tasked in mid-July with drafting the constitution, are women. All three co-chairs are male, and only when gender activists pushed for gender equity, did the committee appoint three female deputy chairs.

Select Committee member Jessie Majome, who is also deputy Minister of Justice, is optimistic, saying she has faith that women's concerns will be taken on board. "This is a platform women must not miss. While it might not be a panacea to women’s problems, it will assist," she said.

But others remain sceptical of the political commitment to engender the constitution. Women and Law Southern Africa (WLSA) national coordinator Slyvia Chirawu says the absence of a gender commission to help push for women's rights is a clear drawback and slap in women’s face.

She explains that one of the key stumbling blocks to women’s rights is Zimbabwe’s customary law that continues to take precedence over common law, despite the bill of rights enshrined in the current constitution.

"Section 23 customary law remains a thorn in the side for women’s rights as it takes precedence in death, divorce, inheritance, custody of children and maintenance," explained Chirawu.

The recent Magaya vs Magaya court case, for instance, is a poignant example of how customary law discriminates againt women, according to WLSA. After the death of her husband, Venia Magaya was disinherited and lost her home to a male heir, her half-brother. She is now destitute.

"The Supreme Court ruled it was not discrimination for a male heir instead of female to inherit property," lamented Chirawu.

Although the Magaya case applies to estates of persons who died before Nov. 1, 1997, because the law was amended to make surviving wives and husbands the major beneficiaries to a deceased estate, prior cases still stand prejudiced.

WLSA also believes that the Communal Lands Act discriminates against women in making the residency of women dependent on the customs and practices of the area. "Our research showed that women have been chased from communal land upon divorce or death of a husband," noted Chirawu.

Another hurdle to gender equality is the absence of the right to education in the constitution. "The results of this have been that the boy child gets preference to attend school over the girl," said WiPSU director Cleopatra Ndlovu, because many poor parents don’t have the money to pay school fees for all of their children. This means that girls are disadvantaged from very early on in their lives.

Women also complain that they don’t have equal right to guardianship of their children, because they may only exercise their custodial rights through their husbands. If married under general law, women cannot obtain documents like birth certificates or passports for their children without their husbands' written consent, for example.

"Trying to access travel documents or identity cards without the man's written consent is a nightmare. Several women have gone to the Supreme Court challenging this and have won but still, the registrar-general demands written consent from the men," said Chirawu.

Women’s rights activists feel particularly bitter about the lack of concern for gender quality in the constitution because Zimbabwe is signatory to a number of international human rights instruments that are aimed at guaranteeing women’s rights. For example, Zimbabwe has signed and ratified like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

But such treaties are do not automatically become Zimbabwean law and have to be enacted through an Act of Parliament, complains Emilia Muchawa, director of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA). "Section 111B (of the common law) prevents the automatic application of international human rights treaties like CEDAW," she explained.

"While the courts can, through judicial activism, apply international human rights instruments in their judgments, non-domestication means there is generally no benefit for women to be derived from these," Chirawu noted.

Nyarai Kachere


No comments:

Post a Comment