Thobekile Matimbe holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of South Africa. She serves as Community Manager at Paradigm Initiative and is a human rights lawyer with over 10 years of legal and civic engagement experience. In her role, she advances digital rights and inclusion in Africa through community engagement, research and advocacy. She is passionate about promoting human rights and advancing digital inclusion for all. She is a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow and serves as the Board Chairperson for Emthonjeni Women’s Forum in Zimbabwe where she contributes to fostering a gender-based violence-free society. https://www.chr.up.ac.za/expression-information-and-digital-rights-unit-human-rights-clinic/22-academic/hrda/2411-student-profile-of-thobekile-matimbe
Gender Equality Statistics
In Zimbabwe, as of February 2021, 31.9% of seats in parliament were held by women. In 2015, 84.8% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. 33.7% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 107.9 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2017, down from 110 per 1,000 in 2014. In 2018, 18.2% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Employed population below international poverty line. Age 15+: Female (28.6%); Male (26.9%) Unemployment rate. Age 15+: Female (17.9%); Male (16%) Literacy rate, age 15+: Female (88.7%); Male (88.3%) UN Women (https://data.unwomen.org/country/zimbabwe)
Interview with Thobekile Matimbe (5 April 2023)
How has child marriage affected education for women in Zimbabwe? Following the Zimbabwean Constitutional Court's ruling that child marriage is unconstitutional, what steps is the government taking to enforce a minimum marriage age of 18 and reduce the incidence of child marriage?
Child marriage is a long-standing custom in Zimbabwe that has significant implications for children's rights. Prior to the 2013 constitution, children as young as 16 could be legally married with ministerial approval. This practice was widespread, particularly in rural and marginalized communities where poverty and religious beliefs, such as those of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, often perpetuated the practice. However, since the 2013 constitution, the legal age for marriage has been set at 18, and civil society organizations have been working to raise awareness and push back against the practice. The Emthonjeni Women's Forum is one such organization that engages with religious leaders to challenge the cultural and religious justifications for child marriage. While the government has been slow to act, it is working with civil society organizations to combat the issue. Despite progress being made, there continue to be tragic
incidents, such as the pregnancy and death of 12-year-old girls, highlighting the urgent need for continued action.
As poverty becomes increasingly common throughout Zimbabwe, what steps can be taken to shed more light on the issue and provide better education to children, especially girls? Is the situation too dire, or is there hope for change?
Regarding education for children, especially in marginalized communities, the economic downturn in Zimbabwe has resulted in girls being given low priority. Unfortunately, parents often prioritize marrying off girls instead of providing them with education. It is crucial to raise awareness and ensure that girls have better access to education.
Nevertheless, there is still hope. Civil society organizations that run women's empowerment projects are making significant efforts to raise awareness among religious leaders and beyond. The Zimbabwe Gender Commission is also playing a key role in driving this awareness, advocating for girls to have exposure not only to arts and social sciences but also to math, sciences, and Information and Communication Technologies. With the combined efforts of the Zimbabwe Gender Commission and civil society organizations, young girls, especially those in marginalized communities, will eventually be able to attain a meaningful education.
What is the biggest issue related to gender inequality that either you have experienced or heard about with the Emthonjeni Women's Forum? What do you think needs to happen for this inequality to cease to exist?
When examining gender inequality, several issues arise. However, for young girls, the most significant problem is the digital divide, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to statistics produced at Paradigm Initiative, where I am employed, the current situation reveals that more men have access to digital technologies compared to women. This gap is even wider in rural communities where many individuals struggle to access computers, smartphones, and other technological devices. The digital divide further compounds existing gender inequality that stems from cultural roles and perspectives within these communities. To address this disparity, the government must prioritize the improvement of digital technologies for women and girls in marginalized communities. However, it is crucial to first enhance our national budget to effectively tackle this issue.
What are some of the major challenges that women in Zimbabwe face in achieving gender equality? How has the Emthonjeni Women's Forum taken steps to address these challenges?
One of the biggest challenges women face in achieving gender equality is access to economic resources. Women in rural and marginalized communities are often raised with the belief that their only option is to get married. This mindset deprives them of the opportunity to learn and limits their access to formal employment, leaving them dependent on household farming to support their families. Without economic power, they are unable to engage in entrepreneurial projects and initiatives, forcing them to rely on their partners for financial support and livelihood. This dependency also makes these women more vulnerable to abuse.
At Emthonjeni Women’s Forum, we address these challenges by entering communities, engaging with women, and empowering them through advocacy groups. These groups provide support for women who have experienced gender-based violence. We also educate them about their rights, empowering them to break away from practices such as child marriages. Armed with this knowledge, women are more likely to report gender-based violence and participate in projects and fundraising efforts.
Emthonjeni Women’s Forum also advocates for gender equality by engaging with the Government. Recently, we successfully influenced a provision within our Labor Act that specifically addresses sexual harassment. This accomplishment is significant because it helps to address the issue of sexual harassment in formal employment, which often deters women from entering such environments. Furthermore, sexual harassment disproportionately affects poor women, exacerbating the cycle of disempowerment within marginalized communities.
I was raised with the belief that women and men are equal, which is undoubtedly a privilege. However, how can we, from abroad, contribute to empowering women in Africa and help them recognize their individual power and the undeniable benefits of their voices? What stigmas associated with femininity and women in general need to be redefined?
Gender equality is a principle that is embraced and echoed in our new constitution. Specifically, there is a section dedicated to the rights of women, which aims to amplify their voices. However, assessing gender equality solely based on our constitution overlooks the influence of historical, cultural, and religious perspectives. Changing these mindsets, particularly within certain sects, takes time. To promote ideas of gender equality, it would be beneficial to receive support from partners outside of Africa. Emthonjeni Women's Forum already benefits from the assistance of numerous international partners and funders. Additionally, engaging with young people through university exchanges and cross-cultural learning platforms could play a crucial role in shifting these historical perspectives.
How do cultural gender norms and stigmas impact the daily well-being of women in Africa? To what extent do these norms contribute to violence?
Gender norms are a significant challenge when it comes to achieving gender equality. Let me provide you with an example. I have a 12-year-old daughter who questions me, saying, "If you ask me to do the dishes, will you also ask my little brother to do them?" In our household, we strive for an equal distribution of household chores, such as clearing the table. We divide this responsibility between my son and daughter. It is the small things, these little actions, that ultimately contribute to a larger understanding of what it means to be treated equally as women. However, in other households, the dynamics are different. The girl child may be solely responsible for cooking and cleaning, while the boy child can make a mess and expect the sister to clean up after him. These practices create an environment where boys in the household bully their sisters. Unfortunately, this is just a glimpse of what happens in society. In some homes, women are subjected to gender-based violence because of norms like these. When these boys grow up and become husbands, they may enter their homes and react violently if it is not clean or if their shoes are not polished. These are some of the stories we hear when we engage with different communities and inquire about the reasons behind the attacks. Gender norms play a critical role in this issue. It is essential to educate our communities about gender roles and emphasize the equality of women and men. We must strive to create an environment that fosters equality. This is the message we are promoting; otherwise, chaos ensues.
Gender inequality has been a hindering force for women in various aspects of society. In the political realm, women in Zimbabwe have faced a lack of political power, despite increased representation through quotas. This raises the question of how female politicians are treated by the public and their political counterparts, and how such treatment has impeded women from being elected into more influential political positions.
The Constitution of 2018 acknowledges that women in Zimbabwe have historically been treated unequally in terms of political power and influence. To address this, specific quotas of seats have been allocated to women, as they have been underrepresented in political discourse. However, with the implementation of the new Constitution, we have observed that women are now being disenfranchised during competitive processes. Men often argue that women already have their quota and question why they still want to run. While the quota has increased female representation in politics, it has also decreased the number of women who would be elected without the quota. This has sparked a debate within the women's movement in Zimbabwe. Many now advocate for the elimination of the women's quota, as it is seen as a form of charity. They argue that allocating only 10 seats to women disregards the many qualified women who could eloquently represent and potentially be elected over men. Therefore, I urge you to consider whether you agree or disagree with the women's quota. Do you believe it is beneficial? Personally, I believe it does not contribute to gender equality, as it perpetuates the idea of women as beneficiaries of charity. Women are discouraged from running against men because they already have their quota, and even if they believe they are the better choice and could win, they are restricted by the quota.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
In my opinion, awareness is one of the most important factors in achieving gender equality. It is essential to acknowledge the current existence of gender inequality in order to work towards gender equality. Are women in Zimbabwe aware of their situation regarding gender inequality? Additionally, considering that the goal is gender equality, is the Zimbabwean society perceiving this goal as foreign and not aligned with their culture? Is the rejection of this idea due to it being seen as foreign?
Women are becoming more conscious of gender equality due to the efforts of societal organizations, the work of the Zimbabwe Agenda Commission, and the Constitution which advocates for gender equality. However, in rural areas and marginalized communities, poverty often prevents women from speaking out against gender inequality due to fear of gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence. The Domestic Violence Act recognizes economic abuse as a form of domestic violence, which we are also working to raise awareness about. Economic violence not only puts women at risk of physical harm but also discourages them from speaking out against gender inequality. It is not a matter of women being unaware of gender inequality, but rather the difficulty in speaking out against it. While our laws acknowledge the existence of gender inequality and we have policies and practices in place to promote equality, the implementation of these measures in society is lacking. Some sectors, such
as education, have made significant progress, but there is still a lack of gender equality in politics.
As a college student, I am extremely curious about the college experience in South Africa. Could you please share more about your experience at the University of South Africa?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the university. Specifically, I attended the University of Victoria. During my studies with the University of South Africa, I participated remotely from Zimbabwe. Despite this, the experience was quite engaging. Our online lectures included students from various countries in Africa, which made them interactive and engaging.
However, when I pursued my master's degree at the University of Victoria, I was able to attend classes in person. The living arrangements were comfortable, with individual rooms and shared spaces like kitchens. The student population was predominantly female. Since I was studying human rights, I found that our class was incredibly diverse, comprising students from different parts of Africa. We spoke multiple languages and had virtual participants from Europe as well. Our discussions not only focused on human rights frameworks in Africa but also encompassed those in America and Europe. This made for a highly interactive experience.
Due to the rising poverty rates, there has been a neglect of youth education. Furthermore, when educational opportunities arise, boys are often favored over girls. This raises the question of how poverty and gender-based violence (GBV) contribute to the perpetuation of gender roles and child marriage.
Poverty is a significant factor that contributes to child marriages. Parents often send off their children to get married due to poverty and to receive money. Before the new constitution of 2018, this practice was allowed if a child claimed to be 16 and the parents agreed. Consequently, the child's rights were controlled by their parents. While there is a place for guardianship and the protective role of parents, it should not infringe upon human rights. The new constitution now clearly states that children should not be married until the age of 18. Additionally, child marriage is now considered a criminal act according to the new marriage law. This sends a signal that parents who engage in child marriage will be arrested. Previously, there were no sanctions like this, so we are pleased that there is now some form of deterrent. We hope this will put an
end to this practice, although there have still been incidents where children have been married off and faced the associated challenges. However, addressing poverty plays a crucial role in empowering women, which is why our organization is dedicated to this cause. We have the responsibility and the power to speak out against child marriages. Therefore, there is undoubtedly a correlation between poverty, child marriages, and even access to education. Unfortunately, women are often not prioritized over boys when it comes to education, and this is an ongoing issue we are fighting against. Nevertheless, we have made meaningful progress in this regard compared to the situation in the 1980s.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Thank you very much. We all believe that education is essential to bring about change and improve the situation of women worldwide, not only in Zimbabwe but also in Ghana, Italy, or the United States. When it comes to education, we can consider two levels: formal education in schools and the education provided at home, where parents play a crucial role. In Zimbabwe, what do you think is the most challenging aspect of education: the school system or the education children receive at home? Is home education the weakest link in the fight for equality and preparing the youth for the future?
I believe that education is influenced by both schools and homes. While schools can address gender equality, it is crucial for this value to be taught at home as well. Even if students learn about equality in school, if their parents oppose this notion, it becomes irrelevant. In such cases, the impact of in-school education diminishes. Certain churches can also undermine these messages if parents adhere to their teachings. We need every household to stop debating and start accepting everyone as equal, rather than perpetuating cultural and societal norms that restrict girls and boys to specific roles. These are the real challenges, surpassing the limitations of the classroom. Hence, I do not consider the classroom to be the weakest link in addressing these issues.
Has the traction following the #SPEAKOUT/KHUMA campaign continued since 2020 to end sexual harassment in the workforce? In other words, have its effects been stabilized and lasting? Additionally, has social media played a significant role in forcing business and political leaders to notice and take action on this issue?
The campaign was undoubtedly helpful, but its success can be attributed more to the offline efforts rather than the online campaign. Through the offline campaign, we engaged with universities and various companies in the country, enabling us to address the lack of sexual harassment policies in many organizations and universities. Additionally, we were able to advocate for the revision of the Labor Act, providing channels for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. This advocacy gained momentum and resulted in an amendment to the Labor Act, establishing a clear definition of sexual harassment.
Our ultimate goal is to enforce sexual harassment laws not only in the labor force but also among students and the general population. While the campaign was a success on social media, it is important to acknowledge that social media activism can generate awareness and shed light on important issues. Combined with the offline work, it effectively captured the attention of relevant lawmakers, urging them to address this issue promptly.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
So, imagine waking up tomorrow as the president of Zimbabwe. With that power, what would be the first thing you'd change in the country?
Well, the first thing I would change in Zimbabwe is to ensure that laws are in place to allow women to participate in politics without relying on handouts. My starting point would be to ensure that the Constitution reflects our commitment to equality. It should be clear that we seek equality without expecting special privileges. Immediate action should be taken to achieve a balanced representation, where women have equal participation.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
So, if you were president, what would be your biggest priority?
Instead of relying on a women's quota, it would be better to implement practices that promote gender equality across all government sectors. A possible approach would be to set a timeline within the next year for the government to take the necessary steps towards achieving gender equality in these sectors.