The just ended conference of the Zanu PF Women’s League stressed, as previous conferences have done, two aspects: the progress that has been made in building gender equality and emancipating women in practical terms as well as legal equality, and the progress that still has to be made.
No one doubts that a lot of progress, often against significant opposition from far too many men, has been made since the league was set up in 1977 in exile and the Zanu PF Government came to power in 1980.
The 1980s concentrated on full legal equality, with Parliament from the Legal Age of Majority Act onwards making major modifications to customary law and practice, a legal system that had been frozen in the 1890s and in the most conservative form at that, by the settler regimes.
Even the amendments to labour law and civil service regulations, largely needed to end racial discrimination, also removed vast areas of permitted gender discrimination, making it clear that salary was dependent on grade alone, not gender or any other factor.
But simply removing legal barriers and legally permitted barriers did not create practical gender equality and practical emancipation overnight. Indeed, more than 42 years on since the first legal changes were made we are still on that journey.
So then came the really hard part, changing attitudes and practices to convert legal and regulatory equality into practical equality and practical opening of equal opportunity.
It helped that the political policy was there, so each advance was permanent. It helped that there was a growing number of exceptionally able women willing to push the advance, and a growing number of men ready to either assist or at least not stand in the way of practical equality.
Of course Zimbabwe was not alone in this journey.
Almost every culture and country thought it quite natural to keep women subservient and locked into the “women’s sphere”, which basically meant household drudgery and bearing children, and even today there are religious extremists in most religions, including sections of Christianity and Islam, who preach this is ordained by God.
Even the first initial marker, letting women vote, is modern. The only present day UN member that allowed women to vote was New Zealand, and even that was because the main treaty with the Maori omitted, probably accidentally, a gender bar in the Maori franchise and since the treaty could not be amended white New Zealand women used it as leverage.
A couple of Australian colonies were admittedly experimenting with women’s suffrage, but this did not carry over to the rest when the federation was formed.
In some ways the Third World missed that initial battle. When the colonial empires were wound down the new states all received one-person one-vote constitutions, although for most of the French empire that only happened 11 years after French women were allowed to vote.
The other major initial battle, allowing women, especially married women, to own property was fought over roughly the same period, from the 1890s onward.
But just because we are not alone does not mean we should not become a leader and pathfinder in this journey. We have taken additional legal steps in our Constitution that not only grants women full equality, but goes further with temporary allocations of extra seats in the National Assembly, extended now for another 10 years since progress has been slower than hoped, and from the next general election in local authorities.
So it is not the legal barriers any more, but the practical and economic barriers that have to be addressed, and both the Women’s League members and President Mnangagwa saw this clearly and addressed these issues.
Besides the Zimbabwe Women’s Microfinance Bank and Women and Community Development Fund, women were not just welcome, but encouraged to access major Government initiatives pushing economic empowerment and raising standards of living.
The President specially mentioned the inputs schemes stressing that there was zero gender bar in theory or practice and that women who farmed were as entitled as anyone else to the inputs support which his Government was already mobilising.
Special support for women was not “instead of”, but something extra to overcome present practical unfairness and to accelerate progress to practical gender equality.
This all makes economic sense, as well as being an ethical requirement. To gain rapid economic growth requires the whole nation.
Neglecting, or not using fully, 52 percent of the population will not achieve the development we all need. We simply cannot waste talent and resources.
There are not a fixed number of jobs, nor a fixed amount of wealth, in any country or in the world, so that adding to those in production does not mean that others fall out of the productive chains.
If more women farm at their full potential then there is more food, more exports, more rural income that factories can tap.
Each person who adds production increases wealth and increases the number of jobs.
This is basic economics and is used by economists to not only push for women, but also others, such as the elderly, to be as economically active as possible.
Problems of culture tend to mean women are left with many of the household chores and child rearing in many countries. But simply expanding the borehole drilling programme, as is being done now, and then working out how to pump water to rural homes creates more time for production.
Even household appliances can be moved into remote households.
The first washing machines, and most washing machines for a century, to take one example, were hand operated, basically a tumble drum or a drum with paddles turned by a hand crank; they were taken up largely by working women with water, but without servants.
It was the same with the first cast iron stoves, using far less fuel than open fires to cook food better and without hours being spent gathering wood or chopping firewood.
Smart Zimbabwean industrialists, including new comers to industry in the small rural towns, need to start thinking how they can supply women with what they need, especially if they are empowered and have some money and now want to spend more time earning more and less time on household drudgery.
We have made major strides. We can make more and do this more quickly for the benefit of women and the rest of us.