Bulawayo — “Women in Zimbabwe are largely seen as a huge demographic to be exploited by politicians who seek our support,” says Ntombikayise Mswela. “But when we take to the streets to demand respect and our rights from the same government we are thrown into prison.
“We are yet to see any sincerity in protecting our rights,” the Bulawayo-based gender rights activist told IPS. “We see it with government-organised initiatives like the latest efforts to collect signatures for the anti-sanctions petition.”
In early March, an anti-sanctions drive was launched by President Mugabe, aimed at gathering two million signatures to pressure the European Union and United States, to remove what Mugabe calls “illegal sanctions on the people of Zimbabwe”.
Women have anchored that campaign, but amidst a crackdown on pro-democracy and women’s rights activists, many are becoming disillusioned with politicians and policy makers who claim to have women’s best interests at heart.
Activists argue that politicians and “political correctness” have hijacked women’s push for equal opportunities. This, they say, has pushed to the periphery or even outlawed gender activism, save for the daredevils who tackle government head-on.
“Just look at how many women have ended up behind bars in the past few years for daring to take to the streets and speak out about the violation of their rights,” Thelma Dube told IPS. Dube spoke in the wake of nationwide police bans on street marches planned for this year’s commemoration of International Women’s Day.
Women like Dube – a gender activist with a Masters degree – are now afraid to identify themselves as “feminist activists” because, she says, of the “backlash” this has invited from men.
“I do not see many women, educated or not, coming out in their numbers carrying banners and demanding to be heard even with this talk in government about respecting women’s rights,” Dube said.
In February, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) activists were arrested in Bulawayo before they even took to the streets, while others were arrested alongside prominent pro-democracy activist Munyaradzi Gwisai for treason early this month, allegedly for being part of a group that was plotting “Egypt-style” street protests.
According to a Mar. 1 WOZA statement, the women arrested in Bulawayo were held under appalling conditions with the rights group alleging that their arrested members were subjected to torture by the police.
“Everyone knows here that you can only speak in the public about issues that are in congruence with the thinking of some political parties. Once you raise your head, you are quickly labeled an activist or advocate of some anti-Establishment agenda. It is that bad,” a gender expert at one of the country’s state universities told IPS.
“In the end women just decide to silently fend for their families.”
The gender scholar spoke to IPS on condition that her real name was not used for fear of reprisals – one of many examples of the lack of academic freedom – among other freedoms – women here continue being denied, she says.
Although the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development has been at the forefront of pushing for women’s economic empowerment and constitutional guarantees for gender equality, rights groups like WOZA say this is not enough.
“It is difficult for some of to digest such messages as we are always arrested for marching and campaigning for the right to feed our children and send them to school,” said a WOZA activist who also asked that her name not be used. She has already been arrested on several occasions in Bulawayo.
“Marches that are pro-government are allowed but not ours, which are basically apolitical, so it is difficult to take the gender affairs ministry seriously,” she said.
The activist is one of many ordinary women here who say they have lost interest in politics, a situation that could derail efforts to increase the numbers of women in political decision-making.
“Women in Bulawayo generally have a distrust of politicians especially from the former ruling party as they have been silent about the ill-treatment by the police of women who do not belong to their party,” she complained.
Zimbabwe currently has just 15 percent of women in the parliament against a SADC regional average of just under 24 percent percent, according to Inter-Parliamentary Union October 2010 figures.
If more women, like Dube, opt out of politics as voters and potential candidates, there is a good chance the figure will drop further in coming elections unless constitutional provisions are put in place to achieve parity in political decision-making.