Book exposes gender imbalances in arts

Edith WeUtonga performed at the launch of the book

Edith WeUtonga performed at the launch of the book

Beaven Tapureta : Bookshelf

The arts and culture sector in Zimbabwe is a space that is traditionally dominated by men both at management and at individual artist level, a study by the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe reveals.The findings of the study are contained in a 56-page book titled “Status of Women in the Arts and Culture Sector” published late last year. The book was also launched in November last year at a ceremony held at the Culture Fund offices in Milton Park, Harare, to celebrate achievements of women in the sector.

In the book, there is celebration of women who have defied odds and an exposure of the load of challenges affecting women in the local arts and culture industry.

While in theory the empowerment of women has been sung over and over, in reality, the war for the support and recognition of talented women in Zimbabwe is not yet over. However, although the situation looks gray, the success stories of some women in the sector gives hope for a gender balanced society.

Between 2013 and 2014 the Culture Fund, in partnership with the Embassy of Sweden in Zimbabwe undertook a research to “articulate the role, situation and institutional framework for women in the culture sector”.

The research also established that the proportion of women in the sector is low but growing; likewise their contribution to the fiscus but of concern, according to the study, is the entrenched traditional, cultural values and norms that characterize the Zimbabwean society.

According to the study, women in the sector said men are not their number one enemy. On the other hand, as much as professional education and training for women artists is sometimes provided by institutions in the sector, the study shows that this training does not overlap towards life-skills training which involves issues such as Gender-based Violence, HIV and AIDS, Gender Equity and drug abuse. Yet the sector is vulnerable to these issues.

The book also presents a variety of challenges faced by women in the arts and culture industry. These include harassment and intimidation, gender equity and equality, socialisation, financial constraints and existence of few female artists-friendly spaces.

Another section of the book carries real life stories of about 18 women drawn from all sub-sectors show that there are still certain uneven areas as regards the way women in the arts are perceived by society.

The women whose experiences are captured in this section include those from the film industry (Hope Ranganayi, Jesesi Mungoshi, Priscilla Sithole, Nakai Matema, and Tsitsi Dangarembga), the literary arts (Virginia Phiri and Ericah Gwetai), dance (Ellen Mlangeni, Loveness Mambakwa, and Chipo Basopo), music (Sandra Ndebele-Sibindi and Edith WeUtonga), theatre arts (Ratidzo Eunice Tava and Sandra Chidawanyika Goliath), visual arts (Sikhulile Sibanda, Georgina Maxim, and Nompilo Nkomo) and cultural heritage (Luta Shaba who is also known as Mbuya Muhera).

From these experiences the study came up with recommendations for the women in the arts as well as for the Culture Fund, institutions and organisations that work in the arts and culture industry and the government.

However, a shared agony among female artists in Zimbabwe which is so vivid in some of the recorded stories is the singling out of the media and harassment as some of the chief impediments to the complete acceptance of women practicing in the arts sector.

In her story, Hope Ranganayi, a sound technician who lives with disability, says women are “hyper-sexualised” by the media. Ranganayi works in the film sector.

“Adverts tend to show women as sex objects and therefore there is no respect for women. To move us forward, I think media need a paradigm shift,” she says.

Dancers also believe the media has a role to play in the advancement of women and their varying talents. Sandra Ndebele-Sibindi, known as Sandy on stage, has had her own share of negative media coverage. She says at some point the media “went to town with all sorts of rumors about her health and ‘raunchy dances’”.

“The media is not only killing some artists, it actually buries them. This is not to defend the wayward behaviour of some artists but just to say the media should take some time to establish facts and not just to build on rumours in order to sell their papers. We also need protection and respect, just like any other sections of society,” says Sandy in the book.

Musician Edith WeUtonga and actress Ratidzo Eunice Tava have suffered harassment in the sector and yet through determination they conquered this obstacle.

When WeUtonga started on a solo musical career, having been with Tanga wekwaSando as back-up singer, she found out that it was not going to be easy. Men offered her all sorts of favours but she could not sell her soul and dignity for the material things on offer.

Today, WeUtonga leads a six-member band of mainly men and she gives credit to the men who respected the woman in her and what she can achieve for her team. Her husband, an artist, has been very supportive as well.

Tava says when first she joined theatre arts, she was “shocked by the behaviour of the male managers and some of the actresses while on tour”. It was just atrocious, if not filthy, she says.

Her power to say ‘no’ to the male directors’ advances and offers saved her and her friend from the purge by HIV and AIDS that haunted the group later.

“As we speak and as far as I know, my friend and I are the only living members of the girls in that group – others succumbed to AIDS,” says Tava.

Luta Shaba or Mbuya Muhera, a spirit medium and author, observes that apart from the challenge of having to deal with “male family members who do not readily accept a female medium”, she also has to deal with negative media coverage.

“I am reviled and accused of wanting to take people back to the dark ages. I was once invited to a radio programme where they hoped to cleanse me of the demons that possess me,” she says in her life story.

In the literary arts, according to the study, piracy and marketing problems rank high among challenges being faced by women writers and their male counterparts. Author Ericah Gwetai who is also mother of the late celebrated writer Yvonne Vera says, “Marketing books to government institutions is a challenge since these institutions are not allowed to buy from individuals directly.”

Every writer would agree with Gwetai’s concern as piracy rocks the book sector in and out. Virginia Phiri, known for writing about taboo issues in her novels, is a founder member of Zimbabwe Women Writers which she says was formed after the realisation that “as women writers, we were not taken seriously by our male counterparts, both in the publishing sphere and as writers.

Phiri has self-published her books and thus one way or another breaking into the male-dominated publishing industry.

Although Zimbabwe has a number of successful women in sector, the book “The Status of Women in the Arts and Culture Sector”, if taken from the shelf and implemented in line with the recommendations, proves to be another step forward towards getting rid of the gender imbalances threatening to bring down the arts industry.

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