Published by: GenderIT.org on 07/09/17
Maggie Hazvinei Mapondera is a Zimbabwe born hybrid feminist, perching at the intersection of grassroots feminism, feminist communication and movement building.
In this interview, Maggie reflects on the current status of technology and the internet in relation to the feminists movement building and women’s everyday organising and participation globally.
Koliwe Majama: Lets talk about your feminist activist journey. What is your passion and drive?
Maggie Mapondera: It’s been a strange journey; And I think what makes it strange is that I have never really restricted myself to one sector or place. My feminist activism dates back to my Undergraduate years as student at Yale University in the United States of America. There I started organising with homeless women who were either struggling or recovering from substance abuse and poverty. The experience was the first synergy between my writing and my creative side as an activist. I organised creative writing workshops with and for the women. It was then that I discovered that creative writing can, in fact be an integral part of how women can build voice, identify the root cause of their issues and find ways to organise around them.
I organised creative writing workshops with and for the women. It was then that I discovered that creative writing can, in fact be an integral part of how women can build voice, identify the root cause of their issues and find ways to organise around them.
I then moved to a feminist movement-building organisation Just Associates (JASS) where I did communications. There was a connection there for me because JASS was focusing on Her-stories as a means for individual women and women’s communities to tell the story of their struggle, and not only telling them to make their experience visible to others, but to analyse them and collectively organise themselves and fight for change. Today I find myself with Womin, an organisation that organises frontline peasant and working class women across Africa around land rights and climate justice. Everyday I interact with the challenges women face as the climate changes their livelihoods, land and capacity to provide for themselves and their families. My passion is about women’s stories and the power those stories have to change the world. If we could find a way to collectively tell a different story of the world we live in, then maybe we can change things.
KM: What do stories contribute to the movement?
MM: The women’s movement is rooted in women’s stories. A lot of women are at the cross cutting edge of some of the deep issues that the women’s movement is challenged with today. They face patriarchy daily and in some cases have to deal with even more dangerous issues – such as the consequences of the pursuit of capital by governments and corporates at the expense of their bodies, their lives and their rights.
They face patriarchy daily and in some cases have to deal with even more dangerous issues – such as the consequences of the pursuit of capital by governments and corporates at the expense of their bodies, their lives and their rights.
So the women’s movement has to challenge itself, and think outside silos and search for the interconnectedness of these stories so that we have a full story. Otherwise we keep going two steps forward, and five steps back, as we continue thinking that issues such as the political participation of women is important because we think representation in government will take us where we need to go. But it is not enough to have the story. Her-stories need to feed our activism, action, advocacy and analysis and we have to keep growing that analysis, sharpening it and nuancing it. Otherwise what is the point? We begin to look like we are telling stories and sharing stories for the sake of stories as though that is the end. It is not the end. Across the board as a movement, we need to push ourselves and ensure that these stories are not just in vogue, but make a difference.
it is not enough to have the story. Her-stories need to feed our activism, action, advocacy and analysis and we have to keep growing that analysis, sharpening it and nuancing it.
KM: In general, is there a fair representation of women online?
MM: I don’t think it is fair at all. Especially when you look at countries like Zimbabwe and the realities of inequitable access between men and women. A huge proportion of women are not represented in online spaces largely because of their socio economic status. I am not convinced that our goal should be to get those women online. Rather what we should do is broaden the way that we connect our conversations online with the traditional and ‘conventional’ ways such as radio and television so that our messages filter through to corners we do not usually reach. That way we would have brought those critical voices on board. We cannot allow ourselves to think that the internet is the ‘Be all and end all’ of communication. We have to be context appropriate, and appropriate to the people that we are speaking to. We must think about whether the woman who tells her story, her geographical and/or interest community will have access to it. What is the point of getting her story on the internet if it cannot change her immediate and country context? We have to be strategic about how we communicate in order to fairly represent women online.
We cannot allow ourselves to think that the internet is the ‘Be all and end all’ of communication. We have to be context appropriate, and appropriate to the people that we are speaking to. We must think about whether the woman who tells her story, her geographical and/or interest community will have access to it.
KM: What is the best way of connecting the ‘unconnected’ especially in repressive states?
MM: We always have to be creative and sharp about our class analysis because it informs how access to the internet is different for all women. Access to the internet will vary based on geographical location, race, class and age. Given this reality, the women’s movement must organise itself so that, as much as possible, we reach each other as best we can and have the ability to share our experiences horizontally. For instance, I don’t think women use popular social media platforms, like WhatsApp, to their greatest potential. In Zimbabwe today, you will find that WhatsApp is the most popular mode of communication and accessing information. The sheer number of chain messages my mother sends me everyday about the most random things – whether religious or political, is amazing. Most of the information that I received about the street protests against bond notes, the nationwide stayaway, arrests of activists last year, organised by under the #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka movements, for instance, I got from Whatsapp. So that is the platform where Zimbabweans share opinions, mobilise and organise. This has exposed them to a lot of insecurities, and as the women’s movement we need to recognise and appreciate this. What I see as critical in times such as these is to find a way of getting women that are connected to understand how vulnerable they are when they are online. We also need to prepare ourselves to support them to understand their individual responsibility to consciously protect their rights to privacy, and consciously respond to safety and security online.
What I see as critical in times such as these is to find a way of getting women that are connected to understand how vulnerable they are when they are online. We also need to prepare ourselves to support them to understand their individual responsibility to consciously protect their rights to privacy, and consciously respond to safety and security online.
KM: Do you see potential for women to organise online?
MM: It has been and remains really exciting to see my mothers and my grandmothers using WhatsApp – being so proficient and sharing information- I mean they use it more than I do! So there is something there, obviously -organising opportunities. However they come with their own complications such as security, which is something that we should begin to talk about. It is also clear from the crackdown that the people in power in Zimbabwe have identified WhatsApp as a politically dangerous terrain. It says something is going on in this WhatsaApp, you want to call it – revolution, that is dangerous to those in power. So given that the people in power across the African continent see the dangerous side of the internet, we need to see what is and what is not possible in order to use, especially social media, strategically and in a way that is useful for our movement. There are possibilities and there is potential everywhere on different platforms. The movement just needs to harness these opportunities if that is the way more people can get the message.
Given that the people in power across the African continent see the dangerous side of the internet, we need to see what is and what is not possible in order to use, especially social media, strategically and in a way that is useful for our movement.
KM: Can the internet enhance African women’s participation in very contentious women’s rights issues?
MM: The internet has limits. To be honest, there is nothing better than opening up spaces and getting women together physically so that they see each other face to face and talk. However, it is not practical given the fast shifting context, which has made the terrain so fraught and dangerous for feminist activism. Therefore if we are to venture into the sensitivities of our womanhood, we have to be agile and ready with an analysis to deal with and respond to threats quick and effectively. The other dangerous aspect in as far as women’s participation, and closely related to inequality of access, is that those with access seem to be talking to themselves all the time. I have observed that, across the different social media platforms, be it Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, the same people follow and interact with each other. In the end, it becomes a bit of an echo chamber. This, I think, can be detrimental to one’s activism and feminism; especially if those women are not forcing themselves to grow by challenging themselves enough to reach out to, or be in solidarity, in real ways, with women on the ground. So as the women’s movement we must challenge ourselves not to get trapped in the echo chamber of ourselves.
I have observed that, across the different social media platforms, be it Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, the same people follow and interact with each other. In the end, it becomes a bit of an echo chamber. This, I think, can be detrimental to one’s activism and feminism; especially if those women are not forcing themselves to grow by challenging themselves enough to reach out to, or be in solidarity, in real ways, with women on the ground.
KM: Do you see the women’s movement benefitting from the internet?
MM: There are examples where movements have harnessed the internet, and especially social media to amplify, magnify and voice out an issue so that it gains traction. For instance, South Africa’s #FeesMustFall obviously did not just start online. There was students’ activism on the ground around the issue for a long time. Students in South African universities were passionately angry about the injustices in university institutions for a long time, and yes! the hashtag really caught fire. It gave visibility to the students activism that has continued offline meaning the hashtag was not the sole reason that the campaign was ‘big’. The hashtag allowed the movement to gain a presence beyond the South African borders, which it may not have had without social media. The same can be said of #BlackLivesMatter. People have been organising against racism in the United States for a long time. This is not to say that the hashtag is insignificant. No!
It is important that long after that the hashtag has gone or been changed to something else, those movements remain and continue to grow. All these online movements were informed by the real and lived experiences of the people on the ground.
It still is a powerful moment and movement that has given birth to other movements. However, it is important that long after that the hashtag has gone or been changed to something else, those movements remain and continue to grow. It is not possible for something that happens in isolation online to be sustainable. There has to be the on-going conversation because things always have to be that grounded. People always make reference to, for instance, the Arab Spring, as a phenomenon that happened online. But those people had been organising against oppression for many years. All these online movements were informed by the real and lived experiences of the people on the ground. So even for the women’s movement, it is such experiences that should prompt us to connect with other women. This can be done ether online or in other ways, so that when social media comes along, it is just to amplify and spread the message.
Audre Lorde. Photograph contributed by Rooturu. Source:Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons License Attribution Share-Alike.
KM: What role(s) do social media play in movement building?
MM: We must not see one strand of the strategy for any movement as the end. Everything must be a means. If we reach an end then what are we doing? We will never reach an end in the struggles against oppression. We have to continue going back, wait, something happens, then we come back and analyse then we move forward. Otherwise we become static and stagnant. Social media becomes a part of the strategy and it plays a complimentary role.
KM: What challenges (if any) are women facing online?
MM: Unlike men, most women do not have the confidence of masculinity or advantage of patriarchy to say whatever we want without fear. We have to build a support base for women to share more online, and to feel more confident to speak out. It is hard, especially with social media, as there can be a lot of backlash. People will jump on you if they feel that you are wrong or that your analysis is weak. As you can imagine, for women its even more dangerous So imagine being a radical feminist, deal with radical opposition politics as a woman – backlash and criticism cannot be avoided. What is important to protect each other by creating both private and public platforms of different kinds to foster conversations among ourselves and with other people that we do not ordinarily interact with daily.
Personally I do not see analysis of class, race or sex and sexuality of different contexts in conversations online. Instead, most times, there is a narrow mainstream line of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in the world today.
We must sharpen one another like we sharpen knives by having the courage to say, ‘Hey my Sister! You need to step up on this one’. From there, we need to put ourselves in spaces where the backlash will be inevitable because our voices need to be heard there. This is where our challenge lies now. Only certain groups of women get their voices heard in those spaces and I am not sure that the agenda they push is indeed the ‘politics’ that we can confidently say represents the women’s movement. Personally I do not see analysis of class, race or sex and sexuality of different contexts in conversations online. Instead, most times, there is a narrow mainstream line of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in the world today.
KM: How do you think the feminists movement can touch base with the different constituencies and make their presence online more representative?
MM: We must interrogate each other on the extent to which, as individuals, we are ‘representative’ of the constituencies that we say we represent. On this one we have to be honest with one another and appreciate that it is necessary to be critical if we are to move forward. Sisters in JASS Meso-America use a Spanish term, ‘Critica Amorosa’, which, translated, means to love criticism. So, for instance, if you saw Maggie on Twitter speaking to the women’s situation in Zimbabwe as the country heads towards an election, you can be more upfront and remind her that her work is mostly based in the capital city, Harare and outside the borders of the country. That way Maggie will be clearer that maybe her scope is not deep enough as she cannot really speak on behalf of the experiences woman in rural Murehwa and their concerns about the upcoming election. So how do we bring the women from Murehwa and make them part of the conversation? That is the work we have to do and its hard work, but it is important work.
We have to be honest with one another and appreciate that it is necessary to be critical if we are to move forward. Sisters in JASS Meso-America use a Spanish term, ‘Critica Amorosa’, which, translated, means to love criticism.
KM: Describe the way women’s movement works online
MM: I struggle with the ‘performative’ nature of conversations online as women posture and say things that they actually may not believe. We see multiple identities online that conflict with those we interact with offline. Agreed, it can be quite liberating to have all these different identities, but once in a while, one has to step back and ask oneself what it is exactly that they believe in. People do and say things just for ‘clicks’ and they use this to prove the success of their moment or movement. This is not our success. Our success as the women’s movement lies in what we have done to change the lives of women on the ground. Sure, the fact that we have had conversations on sensitive issue that we are passionate about, is a success. You can mark it as a ‘little outcome’, but that cannot be it.
KM: So is a feminists internet possible?
MM: Weeeellll! [Laughs] I have had had time to reflect deeply on this since the City Conversation on the Feminists Principles of the Internet here in Harare. Having principles is a powerful thing as it gives us something to look towards and fight for. The principles are key in that they will give us a code in which to function as feminists. We can try and create the space of a feminist internet, knowing though that the reality of a feminist internet is quite far in the future – and that is still okay.
The principles are key in that they will give us a code in which to function as feminists. We can try and create the space of a feminist internet, knowing though that the reality of a feminist internet is quite far in the future – and that is still okay.
In general, my take way, and this is purely based on my current work with community activists, is that the internet is not the ‘hugest’ of priorities for the majority of women on the African continent. My major concern for feminism in this digital era is the failure to reach the relevant audiences. Everyday stories are told and discussions are held that only a certain set of people can access. This is the dilemma of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). I see the possibility of the extension the ‘NGO-isation’ of movement online if we do not take heed. Being online gets us funding because of the exposure and visibility, but the communities who are the reason we can produce this content and for whom this content is supposed to serve, don’t always have access to it.
KM: Thank you Maggie for your time MM: Thank you
We need to have an honest and open conversation about sex and sexuality in digitised Africa!
Given the evolution of African cultural norms and the changing media environment, the trends on access to, censorship and regulation of sexual content on the continent, must be confronted openly and realistically.
It is time to stop treating sex and sexuality issues with conservatism. Africans have sex! The ‘with who’, ‘why’ ‘how’ and ‘to what end’ which, yesterday was not spoken about openly, and with not just ‘anybody’, today blatantly pops up on the screens of our mobile phones and television sets in different forms, with or without our consent. Africans are consumers of global media, made easily accessible daily via Digital satellite television (DSTV) and the internet. As a result their view of the world is different today than it was, say, two decades ago.
A significant number of African countries openly recognise only heterosexual relationships. 33 of the 54 African countries have laws that criminalise same sex relationships. Within the scope of heterosexual relationships, the chastity of women is valued with very little recognition of their individual sexual and reproductive rights. Generally, women on the continent regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religious background or sexual orientation, are in the majority of the sexual and gender group that carries the consequences of a society where patriarchal norms govern and characterise sexual behaviors.
Sexual offences, obscenity, content or censorship laws run afoul of free expression and access to information rights. This is because they border on indecency and obscenity, which are usually, largely defined by morality, culture and religion; in most instances, these yardsticks are not standard even in a single community.
Other characteristics of our African societies include the lack of honest family level and institutional adolescent sex education; intolerance of the gay, lesbian and trans community and little opportunity for women’s discussions on sex and sexuality . Abortion is illegal or immoral and sex work, despite being a highly ‘demanded’ service, is criminal.
In the past two years, the aforementioned laws, the morality question and the rise in access to the internet have made for interesting observation in as far as efforts to regulation sexual content in Africa’s mainstream media is concerned.
The naked truth
Sex and sexuality issues can no longer be kept under the wraps. You just need to watch television to prove it!
Children’s viewing has evolved. A couple of years back, cartoon cat and mouse characters, Tom and Jerry innocently chased each other in an endless battle. In the series I watched with my eight-year old daughter last Monday on DSTV’s Boomerang a ‘small and beautiful’ She-cat, as my daughter described her, distracts Tom. Similarly, teenage television viewing borders on relationships. Any parent who takes time to sit and watch popular teen series’ Jessie on the Disney Channel and Henry Danger on Nickelodeon, knows that more often than not, episodes will depict the complexities of teenage dating. Together with the internet, the television is, in a sense, the new sex ed class for our teenagers.
This makes a folly of two recent developments on the continent.
Last year, Kenya was at the forefront of what led to the continental ban of an episode of cartoon series, The Loud House, on Nickelodeon. The country’s Film Classification board caused the ban after complaining that the series featured an animated gay couple. Earlier Nigeria had caused a continental pull down of the second season of reality show I am Cait from E! Entertainment. Last month, media reports indicated that Kenya had called for a ban of yet another seven cartoons on three children’s channels for being ‘pro-gay’ and ‘normalising, glamorising or even glorifying homosexual behaviour’, a trend they noted as damaging ‘family’.
It must be noted that a request by one African country for a pull down of any show on DSTV has implications on the entire continent. This is because, in most instances, some of the channels and content providers have one feed for the entire continent. This is the case for Viacom International Media Networks Africa (VIMN Africa) and NBC Universal International Networks, that provided the aforementioned shows. While other providers like M-Net have regionalised channel feeds for South, East and West Africa in order to satisfy regulatory codes in the regions, it may still be a challenge in other regions. Take for instance, Southern Africa where approaches to sex and sexuality and sexual content differ from one country to another. South Africa has legalised same sex marriages and revised its Sexual Offences legislation to grant rights to children between the ages of 12 and 15 to consent to sexual acts with each other. Next door, in Zimbabwe, same sex relationships are outlawed, and even the distributing contraception in schools was declared a No, No!. As a result, recent reports rated Zimbabwe as having the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Sub Saharan Africa. Within that scope, a move to ban sexual content may deprive South African citizens of content that would be acceptable in their society.
In the second development, which is in fact more recent , Ghanaians last month petitioned the country’s media regulator, the National Media Commission, to stop the screening of pornographic movies on three free-to-air television channels stating that by showing these, the channels disregarded ‘constitutional responsibility’. The regulator found the channels lacking in as far as meeting media decency standards. The country’s Minister of Information, Mustapha Hamid reportedly said that within the African context it was ‘incorrect’ to show the movies.
Is this to say sex, in its varying forms, and sexuality issues have never been a part of our mainstream media consumption on the continent?
As I reflected on the dimensions of sexuality on television in the past, I immediately remembered one of my favourite TV shows in the 1980’s, My two dads. Upon much reflection, I came to the realisation that the show was, in actual fact, about same sex parenting. While, I admit, that, at no given time were we driven to think that there may have been a sexual relationship between Michael and Joey (the two dads), my conclusion is that, there were no issues raised about the show, only because at the time, the queer society was definitely ‘invisible’. The show, therefore passed as innocent, in spite of the ‘inappropriateness’ of the story line, within the African context where a girl is raised by two men that her mother dated when she was conceived. Their co-parenting was based the uncertainty of which one of the two was her biological father.
Furthermore, publication of private intimate images of political activists in the mainstream media in order to discredit or silence them in politically related ‘attacks’, begs the question on who has rights to, and when is acceptable to publish sexual content. Never mind the scandal behind their publication, it has implications on individual rights to privacy.
Zimbabwe’s state media has quite a reputation with this tactic. After he resigned from Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu PF, in June 2016, former youth leader, Acie Lumumba’s intimate images were published by the state-owned tabloid, H-Metro. This followed his vocal criticism of the party and its leader Robert Mugabe after he left the party. The leak of the images extracted from a sex tape followed a search his residence by the police. In one interview Lumumba said that the leak of his images on social media and in the mainstream, were an attempt to silence him.
Earlier, in 2007, the country had woken up to the country’s precedent case of the mainstream media publishing sexually explicit content when state owned newspaper, The Chronicle, published intimate images of Catholic cleric and critic of Robert Mugabe, Archbishop Pius Ncube. Archbishop Ncube, who was involved in an adulterous relationship with one of the congregants, submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI , following what he termed a state-driven, vicious attack on not just his person, but by proxy the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe.
Enter the World Wide Web
The internet has presented itself as an alternative platform to overcome the aforementioned restrictive laws on publishing of especially content that relates to diverse sexualities. The relatively affordable cost, ease of publication and access to this content has made the internet very important for the publication of sexual content.
Marginalised groups have space on the internet which they would have never known in the mainstream, to express themselves, resist and mobilise support. Take for instance the online call by the Coalition of African Lesbians for contributions to the Southern African Charter on Access to health; which call recognised of the lack of access to affordable and accessible health services, including HIV related services for sexuality and gender-marginalised groups.
Also interesting, is the launch and rise in popularity of Nigerian feminist, Iheoma Obibi’s women’s online sex shop Intimate pleasures . The shop also provides sex education and awareness sessions online under the hashtag #Sextalk.
However, the same internet, and especially social media, has replicated offline violations in the distribution of sexual content. This time by the users themselves as they continue to violate each other’s rights through invasion of individual privacy and violence based on sexual identities. As a result there is a continuing a trend of discrimination and criminalisation of sexual expression. Chief among these is the emergence of revenge pornography.
The parameters of what defines pornography must be made clear because it continues to shadow the importance of
sexual content in our societies today. Appreciating that morality can no longer be a basis to guide the extent to which sex and sexuality rights are exercised, would be a step in the ‘real’ direction. That the imposition of measures to suppress or restrict broadcasting of sexual content, such as same-sex marriage, rights to legal abortions, sex workers and sex education, will preserve our Africanness is a fallacy. African cultural identity is not static, it is fluid.
The continued existence of sexual offences and censorship laws with obscur pornography and obscenity provisions is problematic. While we are in agreement on the protection of children against pornographic content, we need to decide whether censorship, of any kind, on other sex and sexuality content for consenting adults is feasible. In this technologically converged global media environment maybe African governments need to realistically weigh the costs of censoring what they classify sexual content against the citizens rights to access content of their choice, privacy of communications and free expression and opinion.
Lastly, it is clear that within the scope of national, regional and continental multi-stakeholder internet governance processes, Africa finds itself faced with varying paradoxical socio cultural realities as it attempts to maintain strict reigns on the production and circulation of sexual content. Given the amount of debate on revenge pornography across the continent, the slow pace in its criminalisation is disturbing. People have rights to take and share images of their intimacy with who they chose in confidence. What is problematic, is the malicious distribution of those images without consent, and with the intention of causing harm or damage to another persons reputation. It is not a morality issue. It is a rights issue. As it is, some of the existing anti-obscenity laws on the continent fall short in the protection of victims and prosecution of perpetrators of some of sexual crimes. To date most victims of revenge pornography have found themselves equally liable to the sexual offence of production of ‘pornography’. If the law supposes that, then it is apparent then that ‘the law is a ass, a idiot!’
The emergence of the internet is touted as an opportunity for women in Africa to ‘play catch up’ after years of being ‘left out’ in the mainstream media. It is said that the internet is a platform of democracy and freedom where women can amplify their voices on and access critical information relating to their well being and empowerment nationally and globally. But what are African women’s realities and to what extent can the internet be made accessible to them and have meaningful impact in their lives? Globally, women have lesser access to the internet than men do, a clear indication that the global digital divide is highly gendered. In Africa, the gap is wider as significant social, economic and, to a lesser extent, political barriers continue to hinder women’s access to not only the internet, but new technologies in general. Some of these barriers include low ICT literacy and lesser access to and ownership to ICTs owing to little or no income at all. For women with access, patriarchal and cultural practices continue to limit that extent to which women can fully exercise rights to privacy, free expression and access to information. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) latest statistics show a nominal, albeit significant 2.3 percent increase in the number of African women accessing the internet between 2013 and 2016. During that period, there has been a noticeable increase and prominence of online content platforms focussing on women’s issues, female opinion leaders with verified social media accounts, women in Tech and internet policy who are visibly in the forefront of regional initiatives on the development of the internet on the continent. The irony of the statistics relating to access to the internet on the continent, is that seven out of ten of the worlds fastest internet populations are in Africa, where the women constitute almost 52 percent of the continents population of 1.2 billion population. Undoubtedly, these statistics are an indication that the barriers women face in accessing the internet and technologies can no longer be ignored if there is sincerity about bridging the digital gender divide. Continuing advocacy for gender mainstreamed policies and legislation by African women’s rights and gender equality activists, must now define a clear and unified strategy to ensure that women’s access to the internet goes beyond quantitative measurement. The strategy should also clearly outline indicators of positive impact of the internet on the social, political and economic well being of women. What would this involve? Consciously acknowledging that physical access to ICTs and the internet alone do not guarantee full utilisation, and going further to find out exactly which women go online and what they do when they are online. This will assist in the acknowledging that the varied uses determine the extent that women can appreciate the utilitarian value of the internet. Some women spend more time online and have the confidence and flexibility to use the internet for a variety of issues ranging from recreational use, transactional use and also for general economic welfare. Others will have very low digital literacy, and may only have access to Facebook or WhatsApp, without even the slightest inkling that they are actually connected to the internet on those platforms. There is a tendency, by especially the media and academia, to treat women as a homogeneous group by ‘lumping’ them into one marginal group. Women have differences based on geography, age, race, marital status and even sexual orientation. It is these same differences that determine the variations of motivation and interest, to fully utilise the internet. A regional strategy is particularly important, considering the general lack of political will by most African governments to prioritise bridging the digital gaps in their jurisdictions. This is reflected by the adoption of ICT policies by a number of African countries, which in trying to ensure gender equality and equity in access and use of ICTs, fail to understand existing power imbalances and gender relations at community level, and can therefore not be fully translated to gender responsive planning and budgeting of ICT development projects at implementation level. This has been evident in even the country’s that pioneered gender mainstreaming in ICT policies. For instance Mozambique’s ICT policy adopted in 2000, has a whole section on gender and youth in ICT Development initiatives though decision making, training and content development among other. The strategy that followed only made reference to women and children as victims of pornography, abuse and violence online, thereby missing opportunities to deal with real issues affecting women’s access such as literacy and geographical location. Unlike past South African ICT policies that preceded its National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper (2016) which recognised gender equality in licensing, procurement and training, the current policy skirts over gender without actually defining the strategy. On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s policy, adopted in August 2016, recognises gender mainstreaming as a strategy integration of the design and implementation of ICT programmes for equal benefit. It is critical for activists working in the sector to familiarise with their respective ICT policies in order to identify areas of intervention, support and continuous monitoring. This should so away with governments continued regurgitation of gender disparity provisions and ensure the incorporation of strategies that will bridge them meaningfully. African internet governance conversations about connecting of the next billion users, should begin to take into consideration the fact that the current disproportionate access by women on the continent translates to a set back in its facilitatory role in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
In 2011, the High Court received a total of 1 551 divorce cases, a 21% increase from the 1216 cases received in 2010. It took me ‘bumping’ into a friend’s astonishment at the statistics on her Facebook status; and some rather insensitive comments that followed, to realise that divorce – no matter the circumstances – remains an abomination in our society.
Zimbabwe, and indeed many Southern African countries, are largely Christian nations who view a failed marriage as the ultimate sin. This unfortunate trend is the total opposite of their rank-and-file conservative Christian counterparts in the European nations who have woken up to the realisation that divorce may be the solution to the disintegration of a marriage. Some prominent church leaders get divorces and continue to lead thousands of Christians in their ministries.
As a 32-year-old professional Zimbabwean woman, mother to two children and going through a divorce, I will undoubtedly be ‘another’ statistic this time next year. I view divorce as evidence, in part, of women’s empowerment of their legal rights and power to walk away from a violent or an unfulfilling relationship. That is not to say that it is only women who walk out of the marriages, nor are these the only reasons why people walk. NO!
In fact, throughout my own marital and legal battles I have observed the vast number of women of various ages and classes sitting side by side on the creaky benches in the glum and dreary offices of the Harare civil court. All of them want either protection from a violent partner, to escape unhappiness through a divorce or get some man to realise that he needs to feed and clothe the baby she is carrying on her lap. It is an indication that indeed, Zimbabwean women are more empowered and resilient than ever before.
Women in Zimbabwe now realise their legal and social rights; the need for education and have more awareness about self and the world around them. This self-awareness coupled in some instances with financial independence reduces the probability of women staying in a relationship out of sheer necessity and obligation.
The trend seems similar in South Africa where statistics indicate that in 2010 alone, women initiated 49,3% of the divorces recorded. Women from the black African population group had a lower proportion of plaintiffs compared to white female plaintiffs.
The comments on Facebook reflect the gender stereotypes still prevalent in our society. One (a male contributor) states that divorce is “centered on pride, arrogance and equality” and that there is need to “… think of our children and AIDS.” Among others the comment reflects the naivety of regarding marriage as a safe haven against HIV and AIDS. The Zimbabwe’s National Aids Council points to the fact that married women constitute the largest number of those infected by the virus.
The other comment (shockingly by a female contributor) reads: “The problem is equal rights. Equal rights mean no submission, no compromise, no competition and more. Biblically the MAN is the head. Once we modernise marriage, then there is a problem. Even if the woman earns ten times more than her husband, she is not the head.”
Great personal cost
In African societies, women are expected to marry and ‘stay married’ even at great personal cost.
Marriage in African societies is followed by the cultural expectation to procreate. This means that – no matter the battering, sexual abuse or deprivation; multiple concurrent partnerships that can expose a woman to HIV and AIDS – she has to endure all forms of abuse to protect her reputation in society and “hold on” so that the children can have a “father”.
Women’s empowerment; the change in social and family structure due to globalisation; increased communication and access to information on marriage, sex and sexuality; smaller nuclear families; work pressure, and a declining trust in the institution of marriage are slowly changing these norms. The changing status of women in society is undoubtedly central to all of these.
This article was first published on the Gender Links News Service.
For me the most provocative aspect of Robert Mugabe’s presidential run-off campaign this time around is the abuse of word empowerment and its simultaneously use of women — particularly in adverts that are inserted in mainly the State media.
I am particularly revolted by an advert in support of Robert Mugabe’s ‘empowerment’ policy or stance (whatever you may call it) inserted by a group who I am hearing of for the first time, called the Young Women Movement (YWM). The advert is set on a very femininely pink background, has an image of a fairly middle aged woman (who to me represents the minority class of Zimbabwean women who have managed to maintain such a fair facial skin, albeit sunken eyes) and has a headline that screams, “Enough is enough! Zvakwana! Sokwanele!”
On first sight of the advert, I thought to myself, ‘At last someone has finally found the right words to summarise the pain that we Zimbabwean women have had to go through and maybe sought to encourage us to stand up for something worthwhile’; but alas the advert proceeds to read:
“Women of Zimbabwe, enough is enough, there have been too many lies and demonisation of our country. Zimbabwe has done a lot for us (that is when I began to blink!!!) Age of Majority Act, Equal pay for equal work, Maintenance Act, Domestic Violence Act. Women can and now own land, businesses…” (There I thought, well, Okay!) Then the advert goes on to say…”On 27th June, vote for the consolidation of women’s empowerment.”
I cannot believe that a sincere women’s movement would utter such nonsense! To a Zimbabwean woman, empowerment is not defined by a couple of Acts that are not supported to ensure that the woman is able to benefit from them.
To us empowerment means being able to walk into a supermarket, or stand at the counter of the kiosk at the corner in the township I live in, and being able to buy pads or the basic cotton wool — and not to be told the price has gone up or that they have run out. Or being able to walk into a pharmacy or local clinic and get contraception of my choice! Empowerment means being able to take good care of my bedridden HIV positive relation at home because I have running water at the house; and not that water becomes so scarce I cringe every time my two year old son requests to use the loo. Empowerment means being able to get equal pay to my male counterpart if I even make it through college. And not this thing of fees being topped up every semester such that I have to ‘fundraise’, because it is obvious that my parents salaries are way below the monthly expenses of my siblings — and grandparents who by the way are still in the same reserves they were in during the days of Ian Smith (so much for land empowerment). I do not know of a single ‘ordinary’ woman who worked on the Baas Jones farm, who during the land resettlement programme got a portion of the land that she had toiled on for so long. But I do know of a few prominent female ‘liberators’ who went on to take over that land.
Empowerment to us means being able to stand up and speak on issues that affect us and being heard. And not to be shut up in prison when we do — like Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, the Women of Zimbabwe Arise activists arrested while participating in a demonstration on May 28, 2008. Or being slain in front of our children like Abigail Chiroto, Wife of Harare’s newly elected Mayor, who was abducted and found dead on June 17 for being married to the wrong man. Empowerment means having a roof above my head and not being classified ‘dirt’ (Operation Murambatsvina) in a clean-up campaign that seems more important than that I have a home.
My take on the adverts being placed by YWM is, “Enough is Enough!” We are tired of being used by politicians when they realise they have run short of a political gimmick. And woe to the woman who thinks that she can speak for the women of Zimbabwe, without even consulting them.
The average woman in Zimbabwe stresses throughout the day about how the hell to run a household, raise children and care for the ill in this crazy economy — not to mention worrying about her family’s safety because of her own or husband’s affiliation. No one has a right to speak on behalf of the Zimbabwean women unless they can stand up and wholly identify themselves with the majority of us angry, stressed, hungry mothers and wives itching for change and true, not theoretical empowerment!
First published on Walking the talk
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