Blow to women's rights in Africa


Ruling: The Zimbabwe Supreme Court says the `nature of African society' dictates that women are not equal to men, especially in family relationships.

May 12, 1999|By Neely Tucker | Neely Tucker,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- When soft-spoken Vennia Magaya was evicted from her deceased father's house, her TV set and oven thrown out into the yard after her, she thought it wasn't right.

So she sued her half-brother for evicting her.

She had a compelling case. The nation's constitution, a separate law enforcing women's rights and several international human-rights treaties that Zimbabwe has signed clearly backed her claim as heir to her father's estate.

But in a stunning reversal of fortune for Zimbabwean women in particular and African women in general, the nation's Supreme Court overruled or challenged almost every law relating to women's rights in Zimbabwe and gave the house to her half-brother.

In a landmark 5-0 decision, the court said the "nature of African society" dictates that women are not equal to men, especially in family relationships. The court said centuries-old African cultural norms -- unwritten -- say women should never be considered adults within the family, but only as a "junior male," or teen-ager.

"I was shocked," says Magaya, a 58-year-old seamstress who rents a one-room wooden shack. "I thought things had changed. But they haven't. If you're a woman, you can't do anything."

The ruling, quietly handed down in March, appears to strip Zimbabwe's women of almost all the rights they had gained since the nation broke free of colonial rule 20 years ago.

It runs contrary to progressive rulings for women's rights in other African countries, such as Botswana and South Africa, and might slow the modest advances women have been making on the world's poorest continent.

"Basically, there's nothing left of the gains women's rights have made in the past 20 years," says Welshman Ncube, the nation's premier scholar on constitutional and family law. "It's a full-bench decision by the Supreme Court. There is no appeal. They meant to settle this question once and for all."

The case, Magaya vs. Magaya, opens a window into the most revered aspect of African society -- the family. It is indicative of the struggle across the continent of nations trying to synthesize their age-old traditions -- many of which are blatantly discriminatory toward women -- with modern legal codes, which attempt to enshrine equal rights for all.

African women see Western-oriented laws and the courtroom as their best tools to fight for equality. A wife in Kenya recently became the first woman to sue her husband for domestic abuse. In West Africa, the Senagalese parliament recently outlawed female circumcision, a practice that slices off the clitoris to deny sexual pleasure, thereby, in theory, ensuring a girl's chastity.

But in Zimbabwe, two decades of courtroom victories for women were largely wiped out by the Magaya verdict. It is regarded as a triumph for conservatives who wish to turn back the social clock.

"We're desirous of getting out of the quicksand of tradition, but we can't," says Ncube. "We try to get rid of the ghosts of the past, but we can't exorcise them. They keeping haunting us."

Pre-colonial traditions in Zimbabwe and much of the continent did not accord women the same rights as men. They could not own land, inherit property from their deceased husbands or fathers, conduct their own wedding arrangements or have rights to their children in case of divorce. Their husbands could be as polygamous as they wished.

But many women fought on the front lines in Zimbabwe's 15-year independence war from white colonialism. They grew accustomed to the idea of equality. After independence in 1980, the black-majority government adopted a progressive constitution that prohibited discrimination.

In 1982, the parliament went one step further, passing the Majority Age Act, which effectively repealed traditional practice by granting women older than 18 the legal status of adults.

"The object the legislature sought to achieve was the liberation of African women," says Enoch Dumbutshena, chief justice of the Supreme Court in one of two test cases that affirmed the law.

"That really made Zimbabwe a beacon, a leading light in Africa," says Marsha Freedman, director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch, a human-rights agency based in Minneapolis.

But Zimbabwe is split between its past and present.

On one hand, it is among the most developed nations on the continent. On the other hand, that modern veneer disappears in the rural areas, where 80 percent of its 12 million citizens live with scant electricity or other modern amenities. Extremely conservative gender roles dominate rural family life.

"Driving from the city to the rural areas is like driving from one century to the last," says Teresa Mugadza, a Harare lawyer.

But most Zimbabwean men abhor Western concepts of gender equality.

"I say to my sisters in Africa, don't look here [America], there is very little of what you want," wrote Ken Mufuka, the state-run newspaper's columnist living in the United States, in a March essay ridiculing American gender relations.

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