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CEDAW: Sexual Stereotypes, Retrogressive Traditions a major obstacle

23.10.2022 | CEDAW/WOM/115 Zimbabwe Report

Sexual stereotypes and retrogressive traditions were major obstacles to the advancement of
women in Zimbabwe, the Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination
against Women said this morning. Addressing the Committee as it concluded its consideration of
Zimbabwe's initial report on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women, Salma Khan, said that while sexual discrimination in Zimbabwe was
prohibited by law, women were still subjected to the discriminatory practices enshrined in the
country's customary laws and traditions. Yet, she added, with political will and the Government's
gender-sensitive national machinery, as well as the commitment of its women, Zimbabwe would
likely achieve greater equality for women. The Minister of National Affairs, Cooperatives and
Employment Creation of Zimbabwe, Thenjiwe Virginia Lesabe, concurred about the need to
address women's issues both legislatively and culturally. As an example, he noted that, while the
The government had repealed the bride price as a legal requirement for marriage, but there was still broad
cultural acceptance of the practice. In response to a series of questions concerning the high rate of
unregistered marriages, Mr. Lesabe told the 23-member expert body that the Government would
consider recognizing unregistered marriages in order to protect women upon the dissolution of such
unions. In addition, while the Government was not taking concrete action against the practice of
polygamy, trends indicated that its incidence would decrease in the future, due to the spread of
Christianity, as well as economic and social realities. The Committee's experts made
recommendations on, among others: the development of a national affirmative action plan; a
broad-based Government network to address women's issues; and a more comprehensive and
systematic approach to preventing violence against women. They warned that, in times of economic
difficulty, violence against women could escalate and such negative trends should be pre-empted by
punitive and preventive action, including legislation. The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today,
to continue consideration of the Czech Republic's initial report.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to continue its
consideration of the initial report of Zimbabwe on its implementation of the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The delegation of Zimbabwe will
respond to the questions that were posed by the Committee following the presentation of that
country's report on 22 January. (For information, see Press Releases WOM/1009 and
WOM/1010 of 22 January.)

Response of Zimbabwe

THENJIWE VIRGINIA LESABE, Minister of National Affairs, Cooperatives, and Employment
Creation of Zimbabwe, said that the questions posed by the Committee had provided a guideline
for Zimbabwe's approach to human rights and women's issues.

Turning first to concerns over the lack of national machinery, he said that although the Ministry of
Women's Affairs appeared to have been dissolved, in fact, it had been upgraded. What was solely
a women's ministry was now the Ministry of National Affairs, Cooperatives, and Employment
Creation. The Ministry's mission was to facilitate the socio-economic empowerment of
communities, focusing on women, the youth, and the unemployed. Also, the focus of the
The government was oriented towards women. The President was considering the most effective way
to monitor women's rights activities, including the possible establishment of an independent

Regarding concerns about the budgetary allocation for gender issues, he outlined the Government's
structure from the central seat of power to the village development committees. Those committees
determined the kinds of projects that should be implemented in their villages. Plans then moved
through the hierarchy to a national ministry, where budgetary funds could be allocated. Once
projects had been approved, the funds were given to the relevant ministry. For the creation of a
health clinic, for example, budgetary funds were allocated to the Health Ministry, and so forth.
Although it might appear that there was no budgetary allocation for women, that was not the case.

The Committee's recommendation that a specific organization for women is established would
require the creation of yet another ministry, he said. Yet, there was pressure on Zimbabwe to
reduce its ministries, because of the budget deficits that were crippling the country. Rather than
create additional institutions, his Government believed it should consider improving those institutions
already in place.

Furthermore, he continued, the donor community favored the decentralization of the Government.
Donor funds were not channeled through the Government but were provided directly to the local
authorities. He was, therefore, somewhat apprehensive about a piece of central government machinery to
deal specifically with certain gender-related issues. With decentralization another function of
structural adjustment, it would be a retrogressive step to return to a "central command" economy
where everything was done by the Government.

Although the Government had not specifically implemented the Committee's recommendations,
some of its laws and practices were in conformity with them. He would consider the Committee's
offer to assist his country in incorporating the Committee's recommendations into its legislation. By
constitutional law, a ratified treaty or convention did not automatically become part of the municipal
law of Zimbabwe. Although there was no single piece of legislation related to the Convention, most
of its provisions had been incorporated into various pieces of legislation and were, therefore, legally
enforceable. In addition, Zimbabwe had taken a number of initiatives to implement the Platform for
Action from the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), including monitoring the
status of women. A project for women in politics and decision-making was launched in 1997.

Addressing questions concerning the role of the ombudsman, he said that the ombudsman did not
have a specific mandate to address women's rights issues. However, it served as a useful channel
through which aggrieved women could seek redress for unfavorable administrative decisions or
actions taken by certain institutions. The office of the ombudsman, however, was limited in its
scope. For example, it had no jurisdiction over private or informal sectors, and it could only
recommend corrective action. Such recommendations were not legally binding. An extension of the
ombudsman's functions to include the investigation of a violation of women's rights was worth

To questions concerning the gender-sensitive training of judicial, police, and medical personnel, he
said that judicial staff and police officers who handled cases of rape and other forms of violence
against women had received gender-sensitive training. Medical personnel, including paramedical
staff had not yet received such training, but they would be taught how to handle female victims of

Turning next to the dissemination of the Convention, he said it was an ongoing process. The
Zimbabwe Institute of Public Administration and Management ran a gender project, which included
the Convention in its training curriculum for government employees. Now that the Convention had
been translated and its language simplified, dissemination was targeted at the community level, with
particular focus on women and traditional leaders.

Regarding the participation of women in judiciary, diplomatic and international service, he said that
the Government was aware of the need to increase the number of women in managerial positions.
There was a program designed to equip women with the skills needed for management
positions. While there was no specific program designed to increase the number of women in the
judiciary, the overall number of female judges had been increasing.

He then described a 1996 amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited discrimination on the
grounds of sex. Constitutional discrimination had previously prohibited discrimination on the basis
of race, color, creed, tribe, place of origin, or political opinion. The Constitution also provided that
no law should result in any provision that was discriminatory in fact or in effect. While the law did
not provide for discrimination against women specifically, he said, it prohibited discrimination on the
grounds of sex.

As the State's supreme law, all other laws must conform to the Constitution and any law which was
inconsistent with the Constitution was void, he said. While some customary laws and cultural
practices were by nature discriminatory against women, they were void to the extent that they went
counter to the Constitution, he added.

Under the sex discrimination removal act, which was now part of the general law amendment act,
women were able to hold any public or civil office or appointment, subject to the same conditions
as men, he said. The act did not provide for affirmative action, but it provided for equal treatment,
he noted.

He said that, while there were no specific programs linked to the elimination of negative cultural
practices and attitudes against women, there were programs -- including educational curricula --
which sought to educate and sensitize people on culture and the law. There was a need to strengthen
education and awareness programs, so that discriminatory practices were eliminated, he added.

There was no code regarding the individual and the family, he said, but the Government might
consider establishing such a code in the future. In response to the Committee's questions on the
effect of the recent civil unrest on the country's women, he said that such information was not yet
available, but he would endeavor to provide such information in the next report.

He then took up questions on article 2, legal and administrative measures to eliminate
discrimination. He said the labor relations act prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sex,
subject to certain exceptions. Those exceptions, which were designed to safeguard the interests of
female employees, included such matters as maternity leave and breaks for breastfeeding.
Independent researchers had revealed that discrimination against women was quite prevalent in the

There was an ongoing process of identifying discriminatory laws with a view to amending them, he
said. Committee members had observed that Zimbabwe's Government should recognize
unregistered customary marriages, particularly in light of the extreme difficulties faced by women
upon the dissolution of those unions. The ultimate aim would be to ensure that all marriages were
registered in accordance with human rights instruments, rather than increasing the recognition of
unregistered marriages. However, unregistered marriages could be recognized as an interim
measure, for the purposes of property division at the dissolution of such marriages.

Although the actual figures on polygamy were not available, there were indications that the practice
was widespread, he said. Polygamy was recognized under the customary marriages act, but most
organizations and individuals were calling for its abolition. The Government was not taking concrete
action against polygamy, but trends indicated that its incidence would decrease in the future, due to
the spread of Christianity, as well as economic and social realities.

Turning next to article 4, on temporary measures to accelerate equality, he said that the
The government was considering how other countries had successfully implemented affirmative action,
with a view to accelerating de facto equality in all sectors.

In article 5, sex role stereotyping, he said that the existence of "Lobola", or bride price, had
ceased to be a legal requirement for customary law marriage. While it had been removed as a legal
requirement for marriage, it had not been prohibited. Bride price was an entrenched African
custom, and resistance to its abolition was strong. He then referred to instances in which hooligans,
acting in the name of preserving culture, had harassed women they deemed indecently dressed. The
police had not taken action against the perpetrators, which resulted in the impression that the
Government condoned the incidents. That was not the case. The police must be educated on the
need for appropriate action, he stressed.

There were no shelters or rehabilitation programs for victims of violence, although some
non-governmental organizations provided counseling services to victims, he continued. Regarding
female genital mutilation, he said information on the practice was scanty. It was an extremely rare
practice, occurring only in localized communities. Also, training in gender-sensitive reporting had led
to gradual changes in the portrayal of women in the media.

With regard to article 6, suppression of the traffic in women, he said that since prostitution was
illegal in Zimbabwe, prostitutes had no special rights, including access to healthcare services.
Trafficking in women was not a common occurrence in Zimbabwe, which recently acceded to the
Convention on the Suppression of the Trafficking in Persons and of the Exploitation of the
Prostitution of Others. Measures would be undertaken to incorporate the Convention's principles
into domestic law. Living off the earnings of a prostitute or allowing premises to be used as a
brothel was also illegal. Although the national machinery did not have any specific program to
rehabilitate prostitutes, some non-governmental organizations had attempted to guide prostitutes to
viable alternative sources of income.

On article 7, elimination of discrimination in political and public life, he said that there were some 10
political parties in Zimbabwe. The major parties had a women's section, although the support
mobilized was primarily for male candidates. However, the national machinery had embarked on a
program to change such attitudes. The President had appointed women to certain Government
posts intended to take care of the interests of minorities and other underrepresented groups. In
addition, some women had been elected to certain posts.

With respect to article 10, elimination of discrimination in education, he said that no specific
assistance was given to girls who returned to school after childbirth. To questions concerning
private school education, different religious organizations -- Roman Catholic, Anglican and
Methodist -- managed private schools. Such schools received nominal grants from the State and
were predominantly privately funded. Prior to Zimbabwe's independence, the racial division had been
abolished in schools. However, most private schools remained exclusive because of their
prohibitive fees, which only a few Africans could afford. With the economic empowerment of the
For African indigenous people in Zimbabwe, such a practice would eventually die a natural death.

School uniforms should be worn by all students, according to a Government policy, he said.
However, also according to that policy, no one should be turned away from school if they did not
have school uniforms. That policy particularly applied to rural areas, where parents could not
afford uniforms. He discussed the effect of having a poor student sitting next to a well-clothed child
who changed his or her ordinary clothes every day and said that perhaps uniforms were the answer
to address that effect, although the debate was open. Certainly, if a child could not afford a
uniform, he or she would not be expelled from school. School dropouts received training,
subsidized by the Government, in such areas as agriculture and business management.

In article 11, employment, he said there was a specific statutory instrument covering the conditions
of domestic workers, which stipulated the minimum wage, hours of work, and leave conditions.
However, it did not adequately provide for such benefits as maternity leave, medical leave, and
pensions. Those issues were being considered in order to make the instrument more
comprehensive. Although there were no formal trade unions, the Government was encouraging
participation in the recently formed association for the informal sector, so that they would have an
organized voice. That was a temporary measure, pending the future formation of a proper trade
union. A process of harmonizing labor laws was in progress.

Concerning article 12, elimination of discrimination in health, he said free health care in rural
areas was offered by government health institutions. In the case of the urban poor, free health care
was offered to those earning below $400 (Zimbabwe) per month. The national machinery had
developed monitoring indicators for all sectors, including health. Despite government efforts to
provide free health services to those who could not afford to pay, adequate healthcare facilities
and essential drugs had not been available.

The reduction in the social services budget due to structural adjustment programmes had adversely
affected health services, he continued. To address the problem of declining health services, the
The government recently appointed a Health Commission mandated with the task of reviewing such
problems and recommending ways to redress them. Information on health policy with regard to
social and environmental issues, malignancies, statistics on female village and farm community
workers, and so forth would be provided in the next report.

Undoubtedly, home-based care had increased the burden on women, he said. State assistance had
not been adequate in that regard, given the large demands on the social welfare fund by AIDS
patients and their families, as well as other cases requiring assistance. In order to assist home-based
caregivers, the National AIDS Coordinating Programme had developed training manuals
specifically for caregivers, which contained the guidelines used by healthcare institutions. In
addition, there were educational campaigns through the media to sensitize the public on the need to
change negative attitudes toward people with HIV/AIDS. He said that while there was no
available data on teenage pregnancy, there were indications that the problem was "prevalent".
Proper research was required to ascertain the extent of the problem and should be available in
Zimbabwe's next report to the Committee. The law did not say that young girls must not be given
contraceptives. However, sometimes health staff were rather reluctant to give young girls
contraceptives since it was a criminal offense for a man to have sexual relations with a girl under
the age of 16.

In article 14, problems faced by rural women, he said that in terms of lessening the burden of
work for rural women, most families had basic farming implements, such as animal-drawn plows.
Facilities for grinding meals were available at service centers, and in most areas, water points had
been brought closer to the homes in order to reduce the distance women had to travel. As for
article 15, equality before the law, and article 16, elimination of discrimination within marriage and
the family, married women could sue or be sued in their own right and did not require the assistance
of their husbands, he said. The Government was in the process of establishing a legal aid
directorate that would represent indigenous persons and hopefully benefit women. It was the
The government's policy is that all marriages should be registered. The minimum age for marriage and
registration measures would be taken to ensure their registration. That would involve, among other
things, awareness campaigns and decentralizing marriage offices.

He said that there was currently no domestic violence act, and no effort to keep statistics of
domestic violence. The need to have such an act had been raised in various forums, and as a result,
the Government was considering the issue. At the moment, a "peace order" could be obtained in
accordance with the criminal procedure and evidence act. Such an order was issued in the event of
a complaint made to a magistrate that any person was conducting himself violently towards or
threatening injury to a person or property or who had used language or behaved in a manner towards
another person likely to provoke a breach of the peace, or assault.

Discussion of Response

An expert, responding to the question posed about whether there should be an independent or an
integrated institution to cover women's issues, said the political will and the resources were what
mattered, rather than the particular structure. Even the most carefully designed organization could
be rendered useless by an absence of resources and political will.

She stressed the importance of having a network of all ministries, with sufficient numbers of people
aware of women's issues, interacting with each other. Rules of procedures were needed to
prescribe that network's functioning. In her country, Germany, such a network was in place,
although a dearth of political will had hampered its efficiency.

Every legislation, prior to its enactment, must be checked for its impact on women, she said. Such
analysis should be written and include suggestions for action. Also, the ministry responsible for
women's issues -whether it was independent or integrated -- must be given the power to initiate
legislation, action, and programs that did not fall directly under its authority. For example, if the
ministry for women's affairs recognized the need for change in the domain of the ministry of
agricultural affairs, it must be working together with the Ministry concerned, be able to initiate change.
In addition, the network must involve follow-up, and the ministry of State must be involved. Every
ministry should provide an annual report on its participation, with negative consequences for those
that had not followed the rules and procedures.

Without affirmative action, things did not move forward for women, she said. Affirmative action did
not mean giving women equal opportunities; it meant giving them more than their proportional
share. In fact, other groups should be discriminated against, to raise women from their minority
position. The Government of Zimbabwe should come up with an affirmative action program and
apply it to all areas of women's lives, including economics, employment, and health care.
Responding to an earlier comment, she stressed that the private realm of women's lives was not
outside the scope of the law.

Another expert said that networking within the parliament should be established, especially among
women's representatives. She also noted the important role played by non-governmental
organizations for mobilization, as well as to move policies forward. Their participation should be

She then said that the Government had not to date done much to address the "two very delicate
issues" of polygamy and violence. Zimbabwe did not yet have a law concerning violence. In times
of economic difficulty, and in a new country in which social relationships were not yet established,
violence could escalate and become a widespread phenomenon. It was, therefore, important to
start at the level of the legislature and make strong efforts to stop violent trends. She said the same
was true with polygamy.

An expert welcomed the fact that the office of the ombudsman did not exempt police from its
investigations of human rights violations. Noting the statement to the effect that harassment of
women was not acceptable, she said the Government should be more assertive in terms of punitive
and preventive action. Violence against women profoundly impacted upon their ability to enjoy
even the most basic rights, such as mobility. While she welcomed the Government's efforts to train
judicial and police officers in order to establish "victim-friendly" courts, she said that such training
should also include medical personnel.

Governments should take a more comprehensive and systematic approach to the issue of violence
against women, including collecting data, establishing appropriate laws and policies, and organizing
services, she said. The latter was not the sole responsibility of non-governmental organizations.
Public awareness campaigns to prevent violence against women should also address the enormous
economic and social repercussions of such violence. She stressed the importance of continuing girl's
education and welcomed the Government's commitment to recognizing unregistered marriages.

Another expert said the political will of Zimbabwe to bring about a change in the state of women
had been manifested in the adoption of important legislation, which had helped improve the realities
women faced. One of the fundamental concepts demonstrated was that the Government, through
national machinery, could also work through non-governmental organizations to enhance the
population's awareness of women's rights. That type of consciousness-raising work could also be
done at the community level, through official information sources and publicity channels. Such a
course would call for considerable preparatory work and budgetary resources.

An expert said that she was happy that the functions of the ombudsman - who was a woman -- had
been extended to include law enforcement agencies. That was important because police had been
arresting girls for -- allegedly -dressing illegally. The Government should consider extending the
functions of the ombudsman into the private sector, where many violations occurred against
women. The creation of the post of deputy ombudsman could be effective in that regard.

Another expert said that in Zimbabwe's commitment to implementing the terms of the Convention,
article 6, which concerns trafficking and prostitution, should not be forgotten. Some replies had
been given, but those replies had not proven to be in total compliance with the provisions of the article
6. Preventive programs could be helpful in addressing the problem of prostitution since
economic problems were often at the root of the matter. Like any marginal group in society,
prostitutes required support from the rest of the population, as well as from the authorities.

Furthermore, she said, in taking preventive action it was necessary to remember that, while
prostitutes were a marginal group, they were a part of the larger population and their basic rights
should be respected. For example, women who practiced prostitution should not be deprived
of access to health care. Also, women who worked as prostitutes might be object of violence.
Finally, it was contradictory to say that practicing prostitution was illegal, while those who sought it
out were not punished under the law.

Statement by Chairperson

The Chairperson, SALMA KHAN, an expert from Bangladesh, congratulated the representatives of
Zimbabwe for their presentation and the frankness with which they tried to reflect on the reality of
the situation of women in their country. The Constitutional amendment prohibiting sex as grounds
for discrimination should also include a prohibition of discrimination against women, she said. In
addition, a large number of legal and administrative measures had been undertaken, and a
Department of Women's Affairs as part of the national machinery had been formed. She
appreciated learning that the national machinery was now housed under the Ministry of National

Affairs and had not in any way diminished its functions, but would rather be more visible. While
Zimbabwe had made efforts to put gender issues at the forefront, many experts had noted that
sexual stereotypes and retrogressive customary laws and traditions in Zimbabwe were a "major
obstacle" for the advancement of women, she continued. While discrimination on sexual grounds
was prohibited, that was not the case for women who were still subject to the practice of
discrimination that was enshrined in customary laws and traditions. Although women could hold
public office, negative practices and cultural stereotypes seemed to have affected their
representation at that level.

Furthermore, she said, it was still unclear whether women now had the right to own communal land.
The new reforms would hopefully include provisions for land ownership, a very important right for
women, especially in rural areas. Programs to combat negative cultural practices should include
extensive educational campaigns to dispel discriminatory cultural and traditional practices, which
often overruled a country's legal practices.

She said that a picture of violence against women in Zimbabwe was sketchy and expressed the
hope of learning more in Zimbabwe's next report. While the Government's attempt to establish a
victim-friendly court was appreciated, the Government should aim to create some means to prevent
violence against women.

The recent priority given to the situation faced by rural women was to be congratulated, she
continued. Such measures as easier access to clean water and free health care would have a
positive impact on the life of rural women. Nevertheless, she was particularly concerned about the
high rate of teenage pregnancy, about which no data had been made available. That concern
deserved greater attention. Better sex education was needed, given the very high abortion rate.
Also, greater use could be made of article 4 of the Convention concerning the utilization of
temporary measures to promote gender equality. With women's participation in decision-making
and political levels are still unsatisfactory, article 4 could have an immediate positive impact.

In closing, she said that given the political will and gender-sensitive national machinery, as well as
the commitment of the women in Zimbabwe who were highly involved in the non-governmental
organizations movement, Zimbabwe would to a great extent achieve the equality of women.

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