A new nation's lingering problem.; Zimbabwe is free, but its women are not

''What I understand about being a woman is that I should be free. I should be able to have my own rights.''

That comment from a woman in rural Zimbabwe highlights the problem facing Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's two year-old government in its goal of achieving equal opportunities for all Zimbabweans.

Not only must the government reverse the effects of the discriminatory laws of the white minority government that ruled this country under its former name of Rhodesia, it must also end the subjugation of women found in most traditional African societies.

The peasant woman's comment comes from a recently published report on the status of rural women by the Zimbabwe Women's Bureau, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to improve the condition of women in the country. The report presents rural women's views of themselves in response to questions from the bureau.

''It's good to be a woman but I am oppressed,'' another woman told an interviewer. ''I am always kicked, as though I am still a child, because women are not yet independent.''

Discrimination against women in Zimbabwe is worse than in many other African countries because the former government gave it the force of law. The white government decreed that African women remain legal minors all their lives, depriving them of property ownership and even a say in their children's upbringing.

The white government's laws made more rigid the traditional subjugation of Zimbabwe's women. African society enforces such customs as polygamy and the payment of bride price.

''My husband is in charge of everything that I do or can make with my hands, which is so . . . cruel,'' said one woman quoted in the report. ''He says that the labola (bride price) that he paid to my parents means that he bought me. So I have to follow his orders and work for him and his family.''

The report is the result of a three-month survey in mid-1981 that conducted interviews with more than 2,800 women in 17 rural areas across Zimbabwe.

It makes seven recommendations to improve the status of rural women. Three of these seek to improve women's ability to earn money by increasing their access to land, jobs, and education.

''Without (money-making skills), all talk of emancipation is a legal nicety, '' said Kate McCalman, the bureau's information officer, who compiled the report.

Other recommendations call for improved health care for rural women and for more communication between women and those agencies, governmental and voluntary, that are active in rural development. The final two recommendations seek changes in laws that discriminate against women and an increase in women's participation in the political process.

The report notes that in recent local government elections, only 22 of 1,204 elected officials were women. To correct this imbalance, some local council seats should be reserved for women, the report suggests.

Samuel Agere, deputy-secretary for community development in the Ministry of Community Development and Women's Affairs, said the recommendations are consistent with the new government's goals.

''We feel that all those discriminatory laws against women that we inherited from the previous government have to go,'' Dr. Agere said when asked to comment on the report. The ministry also wants ''to identify those discriminatory practices that act as barriers to women's development.''

The ministry has just completed its own study of women's position, due to be issued in late February. The government plans to proceed with a mixture of educational programs and legislation to improve conditions for women, Agere says.

Some legislation, such as the removal of the law on the permanent minority status of women, can be expected, Agere says. He is more dubious of the government heeding proposals such as as the allocation of councillor seats for women.

''That may be one way to go,'' he says. ''Another . . . is to educate women. After all, it's the women who are electing the men.''

Any rural development programs will help women, he added, because 80 percent of Zimbabwe's peasants are women.

Mugabe's government has acted with deliberation in changing the old order. Some comments from the rural study indicate women's patience may be running out.

Women made a vital contribution to the seven-year guerrilla war that brought independence to this country, from soldiering to providing supplies to acting as ''the eyes and ears'' of the guerrillas, Kate McCalman's says. They are eager to see the rewards for their sacrifice.

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