The month of August was women’s month in the neighbouring country South Africa and August 9 is their national women’s day. The ripple effects of this spirit of celebrating women’s lives reached this country, with Zimbabweans wishing women a happy women’s day and month. On the international scene, we are also drawing closer to the international rural women’s day which is celebrated on October 15 every year. In view of these events, it is therefore befitting and justifiable to discuss a law which focuses specifically on women. This international law, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is so far the most important international legal instrument for enforcing women’s rights. At the same time, women’s rights seem to be one of the most misunderstood issues of the day both by individuals and some sectors of Zimbabwean society. Some people view women’s rights as a threat to the social equilibrium and a tool that makes women ungovernable.
CEDAW is an embodiment of women’s rights hence in focusing on the Convention; this article seeks to highlight what CEDAW is really about. It is an international legal instrument or tool which enables women to participate fully in the life and responsibilities of their communities, nations and world community.
Since CEDAW is an international law, it is important to first define its position within the national legal system. The national Constitution of Zimbabwe has a provision which stipulates that all international conventions and treaties will only become part of national law if they have been incorporated into the national law by an Act of Parliament. This process is called domestication and has not yet been done in relation to CEDAW. However, Zimbabwe has ratified CEDAW. Ratification is the legal process by which a state gives its formal consent to a treaty or convention.
This means that Zimbabwe through the Government has assumed an obligation at an international level to take all necessary measures to ensure that no woman in Zimbabwe suffers discrimination on the basis that she is a woman. In practice, the Government has adopted a piecemeal approach where it has incorporated some of the provisions of CEDAW into various pieces of legislation. The national Constitution itself has many provisions in the Bill of Rights which are a reflection of CEDAW.
CEDAW has a very clear and comprehensive definition of discrimination. According to this Convention, “discrimination against women shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
In short, practices that restrict, exclude or distinguish women thereby hindering them from enjoying or exercising their political, social, economic, cultural or civil rights are to be regarded as discriminatory. Restrictions upon women are those actions which put a limit to or control their potential. It can be argued that this is the discrimination that is taking place in the area of decision making where women are a minority in decision making positions. Political parties companies and other institutions prefer men in these positions and where women are included, they are often restricted to the bottom ladder of decision making.
National statistical evidence reflects that there are few women who are cabinet ministers, chairpersons or members of boards in parastatals and private companies, managing directors or chief executive officers or who occupy key top positions.
A practice that excludes women is also discriminatory. If a woman or girl is forbidden from doing something or participating in an event or enterprise simply because she is female, that would constitute a violation of CEDAW. A clear example of this kind of discrimination is the law which Zimbabwe used to have which prohibited women from owning immovable property. It did not matter that you had the money to buy the property.
The fact that you were a woman is the one that excluded you from owning such kind of property. The good thing is that the Government implemented CEDAW and this law is no longer in existence. Women can now acquire land and houses in their own names. The last key element in the CEDAW definition of discrimination is the issue of distinction which is treating someone differently. One such area where women and men are treated differently is in customary marriages where polygamy is allowed for men only.
This is not a discussion on whether polygamy should be allowed or not because that is a cause for national debate or discussion. The point being explained here is that polygamy as it is applied in our current law is discriminatory as it differentiates between men and women hence in this regard, Zimbabwe is not CEDAW compliant. The positive thing about CEDAW is that it prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination.
Direct discrimination refers to laws and practices which clearly state that women are excluded or which subject them to a negative thing to which their male counterparts are not subjected. Indirect discrimination occurs where there are gender neutral laws which do not take into account the specific realities of men and women as distinct groups in society.
CEDAW requires State Parties to condemn discrimination against women and to enshrine the principle of the equality of men and women in their national Constitutions. In the current Constitution of Zimbabwe has a progressive non discrimination and equality clause which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, marital status, pregnancy and culture among other areas.
It also stipulates clearly that men and women should be treated equally before the law and they should be accorded equal opportunities in all spheres of life. CEDAW goes on to address specific areas in which women should be treated equally and not be discriminated against such as education, politics, economy, health and marriage and family lives.
It is sufficient to point out that most of these provisions are covered in the national Constitution and other laws. In essence these are human rights which apply to all humans and they are called women’s rights to emphasize the fact that women as human beings are also entitled to these rights. There are a few which are women specific such as reproductive rights which take into account women’s reproductive roles.
In recognition of the upcoming International Rural Women’s Day, reference is made to Article 14 of CEDAW which focuses purely on the rights of rural women. States are urged to take into account the problems faced by rural women and their right to participate in all developmental planning in their communities. In practical terms, this entails ensuring that rural women are included in all development committees and decision making structures in their communities.
Article 14 also requires that the rural women should be accorded access to economic resources including establishment of cooperatives and access to healthcare. The state has an obligation to develop and implement empowerment programmes specifically targeting rural women taking into account their role in looking after their families.
In conclusion the important question to be addressed is how women can apply CEDAW in their daily lives. As stated earlier, most of the rights enshrined in CEDAW have been incorporated into the national Constitution.
This means that women need to know what these rights are and this article has provided a glimpse into some of them. With this knowledge women can then identify areas where these rights are not being respected or fulfilled. They can do this either as individuals or as groups.
They can achieve this by use of the Constitution and other national laws to enforce their rights. While Zimbabwe has not domesticated CEDAW, the provisions of the Convention can still be used to support or boost an argument in any court case alleging the violation of women’s rights. This is possible because Zimbabwe made itself a party to CEDAW through ratification.
It cannot run away from its international obligations under the Convention by arguing that it has not domesticated it. Moreover under the Convention, states are required to submit periodic reports detailing how they are implementing the provisions of the Convention. These reports are then considered by the CEDAW Committee which comprises of experts in various disciplines whose composition is inclusive of all regions.
After considering a state report, the Committee makes recommendations on how the state in question can improve the situation of women in its country. Women can use the various platforms where they interact with government and members of Parliament to lobby for the domestication of CEDAW. Women can also find out how they can contribute towards the Government’s report to the CEDAW Committee from their local office of the ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development.