Danai Chirawu
It is that time of the year again where different parties within the state, Government and other Non-Governmental organisations commemorate 16 days of activism while still bearing in mind that every day the fight against gender-based violence continues.

These celebrations start each year, from 25 November to 10 December which is the International Human Rights day. The history behind this necessary tribute dates back to 1960 with the story of the Mirabal sisters who spoke and conspired against a despot who ruled the Dominican Republic.

This led to their brutal assassination on November 25, 1960 and this day has been termed “The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women” after it was officialised in 1999 by the United Nations General Assembly. This period urges everyone to recognise gender-based violence and its adverse consequences.

It calls for all spheres of the state to organise activities which are aimed at raising awareness on the issue of gender-based violence and for all players to have a united solution for the elimination of this socio-political ill.

The theme for this year’s celebrations is “Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls” following last year’s theme which was about maintaining peace at home and in the world to make education safe for all.

This year we have many achievements to celebrate in the women’s rights movement. While as a country we have ways to go before effectively eliminating gender-based violence, there have been many strides which have been taken to promote women’s rights since independence.

One of the biggest achievements that Zimbabwe has made in this journey is the promulgation of the 2013 Constitution which holds a very comprehensive Bill of Rights that effectively promotes the recognition of women’s rights among other rights.

It mandates the State to promote, protect and fulfil these rights whereas the previous Constitution which is known as the Lancaster House Constitution allowed for discrimination based on certain circumstances.

At face value it appeared progressive; having included a non-discrimination clause but the fine-print was problematic because it allowed for customary law to prevail in issues of marriage, sharing of property at death and adoption among others.

It allowed for there to be discrimination for as long as it was custom and this was a challenging stance because the areas outlined often and heavily affect women and children, in most circumstances, quite badly.

The current Constitution has given women and girls a fighting chance at ensuring that their rights are upheld to the extent that one does not need to be the direct victim to be able to litigate, they can simply litigate out of public interest.

Because of its reformist nature Zimbabwe declared child marriages illegal. It continues to offer many more opportunities for change. In the past, women and men were not regarded as equals.

Women were seen to be perpetual minors who needed the direction and counsel of men until 1982 when the legal age of majority was set at 18 for all people both male and female.

The significance of this law was that it altered the interpretation of women and children’s rights which were previously stifled by provisions under customary law.

It placed both men and women at a level playing field as the age of majority was not limited to males alone. In 1985 the law pertaining to divorce was also amended to include equitable distribution of matrimonial property, what this means is that property would be shared fairly and impartially.

In this era, many women were not financially emancipated enough to own property and have the same being registered in their own names. It was necessary for the law to respond to that exact gap because only considering whose name appeared on the title deeds was disadvantageous to many women at the time.

A lot of reference will be made to the current Constitution because of it tackles many women’s rights issues. It speaks of equality of rights for both spouses during the life of the marriage and even during its dissolution, a feat that previously did not exist in the Zimbabwean law.

We fast-forward to 1997 where the law with regards to the issue of succession was developed to help cater to widows’ grievances. There was a culture of plundering and property grabbing by a widow’s late husband’s relatives. Some people still practice this uncouth culture and it remains a criminal offence to loot from the surviving family before, during or after the deceased’s funeral.

By limiting the ability of the customary heir who was the first born son of the deceased to inheriting in equal portions as all the children, the law dispelled the practice that female children were not entitled to inherit from their parents’ estate.

This change to the issue of intestate succession in Zimbabwe also came with the addition that the surviving spouse would have interim custody of the estate until the winding up of the estate with the Master of the High Court.

What this means is that while the estate is being registered and the executor is distributing the deceased’s assets, all the property left by the deceased is temporarily kept by the spouse until the distribution has been formalised by the Master. It was and still remains a clear stance against property grabbing.

Worthy of note are the changes under the crime of rape. Hard as it may be to believe, marriage was once considered a ground for defence in a charge for rape. This has since been removed from our law and marital rape is now acknowledged as a crime.

It is important to remember that gender based violence is not limited to physical fights and insults; it encompasses systematic practices that are set out to prevent women from being at par with men or from getting fair and equal chances to better themselves in life. It includes women’s acceptance of their inferiority status because they have no remedy should they choose to fights against that.

That is why the creation of the Domestic Violence Act is important. This Act came into being in 2007 and it tackles different types of gender based abuse, it includes psychological abuse economic abuse, stalking and harassment to name just a few.

It speaks against the exercise of harmful cultural practices such as virginity testing and even child marriages. This Act is a direct response to the different forms of abuse that women have had to succumb to since time immemorial.

It criminalises these acts of abuse and offers protection to women should they make an application against a perpetrator. Even the right for women to participate in politics has been taken seriously by our law. Through affirmative action, sixty seats in the parliament are reserved solely for women.

The inclusion of commissions such as the Gender Commission and the Human Rights Commission is nothing to trivialise. It is evident that since independence Zimbabwe has made strides to uplift the position of the Zimbabwean woman.

During these 16 days therefore, we encourage everyone to reminisce on the many positive changes that have happened in the life of the Zimbabwean woman and to reflect on ways to continue to better these lives.

While this walk down memory lane is certainly not all encompassing of the progressive changes in the treatment of women, it is evidence that many modifications have been done for the better and because of this new Constitution many changes are still yet to come.

It is 16 days of commemorations but 365 days of activism and everyone’s active participation in this is encouraged.

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