Lawyers’ group fights for women’s rights

Despite the strides made by some women in Zimbabwe, many of whom are still vulnerable to outdated traditional beliefs, HIV/AIDS and marginalisation, much remains to be done to meet humanitarian and development goals set by world bodies.

Charity Dhliwayo – any custom that is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience should be thrown away.
Charity Dhliwayo – any custom that is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience should be thrown away.

Such is the conclusion of a group of female lawyers from across Zimbabwe who have embarked on discussions around the barriers that get in the way of improving the welfare of women.

Since its creation a year ago, the Zimbabwe Federation of Female Lawyers (ZIDA) has concentrated on tackling the challenges facing lawmakers and society in protecting the rights of women.

Evelyn Borerwe, the ZIDA president who was in Mutare last week on a national tour, told The Zimbabwean that advocacy alone was not producing the expected results.

“The millennium development goals that relate to women in most countries are the ones that are yet to be attained, and there is no likelihood of them being attained,” she said.

“Maternal mortality statistics are disastrous in Zimbabwe. And so beyond the advocacy, what else do we do to ensure that we make progress? And, more importantly, that we change the statistics that relate to women in politics, in business, in government, wherever it is, to ensure that women’s status is better?” asked Borerwe.

Around 10 women die every day of pregnancy related complications in Zimbabwe – three times higher than the global average, the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey says in its latest report. The figure is almost 50 per cent higher than the Sub-Saharan Africa average.

The latest survey (2010-2011) shows that the country’s maternal mortality ratio is now at 960 deaths per 100,000 live births. This is three times more than the global average of 287.

Borerwe said female lawyers were devising ways to change strategy as they fought for more attention to be given to women in Zimbabwe, where they say traditional practices still hinder progress.

They intend to pay more attention to cases filed in courts concerning human rights abuses affecting girls and women.

Charity Dhliwayo, one of ZIDA’s vice presidents, said the focus would be on fighting harmful African traditional practices, like early marriages and the belief that woman should play only secondary roles in society.

“Custom that is good should be kept. Any that is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience should be thrown away,” Dhliwayo said.

In Zimbabwe, she said, there were people who still firmly believed that, no matter how educated a woman, her role should be exclusively caring for the home and family.

Traditionalists told The Zimbabwean that they inherited such practices from their ancestors and would not let them go.

Akisai Zimunya, a member of the Zimunya traditional family under Chief Zimunya in Mutare South, said that, in his area, a woman could not become a chief.

“A woman is there to organise the family, the royal family. Feeding, entertaining visitors, organising the chief’s many wives and his many children,” he said. “So a woman is actually a wonderful partner of the chief,” said Zimunya.

The women lawyers, however, said they would advocate for more women to make significant gains in political and legislative roles in Zimbabwe.

Catherine Dube, a lawyer, said: “Women make up the majority of the population in Zimbabwe and, therefore, we think they should be capable of using their strength in numbers in democratic processes.”

Dube blamed the slow progress and limited opportunities for women on the widespread illiteracy of women in Zimbabwe.

“If a boy child has an opportunity to go to school, let the girl child also have that same opportunity to go to school. If a man has an opportunity to do night work, a woman should also have an opportunity to do that night work because that may be the only vacancy that she may fit into. We are talking about substantial equality; we are not talking about competition with males,” Dube explained.

The lawyers said they were expecting a Zimbabwe that offered equal opportunity for men and women. Lawyer Barbara Hlonzi said that, even if it took a long time, progress in rights for women would eventually happen.

“We are dreaming of women who are independent, who are economically strong, who can take decision in the public sphere, who can rule the world,” Hlonzi said.

Borerwe said the aim of the group, which has 160 members countrywide, was to champion the rights of women and promote their socio-economic well-being by creating and raising legal awareness.

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