New Zimbabwean Constitution Gives Hope to Women and Girls

governance rights women constitution
Tuesday, 16 April, 2013 - 15:54

Zimbabwe’s new Constitution should give women and girls enough reason to celebrate, however, more needs to be done to ensure they enjoy their constitutional rights

Citizens eagerly await the announcement of the 2013 elections date along with the execution of the new constitution, which gender activists say contains 75 percent of the demands made by women.

Over three million citizens voted in favour of the Draft Constitution last month, closing the curtain on the arduous four-year long negotiations. The Constitution limits presidential terms to two, guarantees freedom of expression, protects citizens from all forms of violence and promises gender equality. Although positive, activists dub these gains ‘potential' given that rights and privileges on paper do not automatically translate into reality on the ground.

Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga the general secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) cautioned: "It is important that we celebrate the road that we have walked as women and the gains we have achieved, but we should realise that there is still work to be done to ensure that women enjoy their rights."

Echoing this sentiment, Netsai Mushonga, the national coordinator of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) says, "While we applaud the successful end to the constitution-making, this ushers in the more difficult exercise of constitution-building, ensuring that rights become reality for women."

The Final Draft Constitution recognises gender equality as one of the constitutional founding principles and outlaws discrimination. The former Lancaster House Constitution, which has to date co-existed with common law, saw many women and girls being discriminated against based on customary law and tradition, and in the private sphere this reigned supreme.

This prompted WCoZ to start a spirited campaign entitled ‘Ten Reasons Why Women should Vote Yes’. The campaign stated that the draft contained 75 percent of women's demands, namely; recognition of women as equal citizens, adoption of affirmative action, embraces equal property rights for women including rights to land, protection of women from all forms of violence, equal rights for women within marriage and divorce and increased protection for the girl child.

Article 124 of the new Constitution provides that for the life of the first two parliaments "An additional 60 women, six from each of the (10) provinces of Zimbabwe) shall be elected on a proportional representation (PR) basis to the 270 existing National Assembly seats, that are open to both women and men." This guarantees women 18 percent of the seats in parliament through the PR provision, with the possibility of additional seats through the openly contested elections.

The section of the Executive does not specifically guarantee a representation of women in the Presidium. The PR provision in the national assembly does not extend to local government. However, Article 17 b I - "Both genders are equally represented in all institutions and agencies of government at every level" - gives scope for this to be taken up in legislation.

Minister of Local Government Urban & Rural Development, Dr Ignatius Chombo, said at the SADC [Southern African Development Community] Gender Protocol Awards summit in late last month that the Ministry is amending its existing legislation to ensure compliance with that all aspects of the Constitution. He added that although the new Constitution does not guarantee the 50/50 ratio in terms of representation in local government, women councillors should be in a position to be re-elected.

Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Women Affairs Gender & Community Development, Dr Sylvia Utete Masango, noted that with one election to go before the 2015 deadline for gender parity, women need to strategise as ‘no voice means no choice’.

Rights within marriage and upon dissolution aim to protect women from dispossession during divorce or upon the death of their spouse. However, it will be interesting to see how these rights play out, since there were some disclaimers during the constitutional outreach, even by those in support of the 50/50 principle that these rights should only apply in the public sphere and not at family level.

Equal citizenship for women will also bring equal rights to guardianship of children. Currently, women struggle to get paternal relatives to approve applications for travel and identity documents for their children, especially when women are widowed or when couples are estranged.

However, the move to gradually abolish the death penalty curiously contradicts equal citizenship, since women, along with people under 21 and those over 70 are exempt from the penalty. Although this may appear positive for women and citizens in general, it has potential for social backlash due to its inconsistency with the equality principle.

By recognising sexual and reproductive health rights, the Constitution addresses a key challenge that has seen most women having no power of negotiation to determine the start and frequency of child bearing. This better enables women to assert their rights, reduces their vulnerability to HIV and AIDS, and increases access to employment and economic empowerment.

Equality in the social, economic and political sphere will potentially be realised through the provision on gender balance and the call for government and other institutions to ensure full and equal participation of women alongside men. Dr Olivia Muchena, the Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, however, reiterates the need for all stakeholders to unite in a continuous campaign to publicise the constitution and to pool resources to ensure effective implementation.

The new Constitution and an equal representation of women and men in commissions such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the judiciary will help achieve a gradual mainstreaming of gender balance. A new Gender Commission will also oversee the implementation of various regional and international instruments adopted by Zimbabwe like the SADC Gender Protocol.

- Virginia Muwanigwa is the director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre, an award winning journalist and gender and women's rights expert. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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