The article on gender politics in Zimbabwe immediately made me think back to our previous discussions of the link between gender-based violence, gender inequity and HIV. It is amazing to me how the same trend exists across the globe. Moreover, as we have learned, high HIV rates are not a direct cause of gender-based violence, but an indirect result of gender-related power inequities. This really highlights how important the empowerment of women is to combatting the HIV epidemic; it is really no coincidence that some the highest HIV prevalence rates among women exist in the same areas of highest gender inequality.
One of the first things that struck me while reading this article is how in many ways gender inequity was amplified due to events that were believed to (or at least portrayed as) advance the status of women. The author highlights this well, noting that “the role of women became very important through practical reasons, rather than through ideological reasons”. While it may appear on the surface that women’s participation in the military was an advance for women, because some traditional practices (like lobola) were suspended and “military rank superseded gender rank”, these were only short-term concessions for political leaders to ultimately utilize the manpower that women could provide. The fact that women in the military were still frequently sexually abused makes this distinctly apparent. Further, since there were no long-term changes made, it is hard to argue that these short-lived advances for women were anything but that. Clearly, as the author states “gender reforms were never on the movement’s practical agenda”.
It really amazes me how much a political leader (or political party) can make such a difference in the social norms of a country. While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast to the history of Burkina Faso (a country where I have worked) despite some similar situations. For example, male migration was (and still is) very common in Burkina Faso after they gained their independence. It is one of the poorest countries in the world (ranked 181 out of 188 on the Human Development Index) with very few natural resources, and so many men migrate for agricultural work to Cote d’Ivoire. Consequently, women were left as the heads of households, and as a result women enjoyed relatively high participation in salaried employment (especially in the civil service) and prominence in political and administrative positions. However, this was largely due to the political environment of the country. President Thomas Sankara strongly supported social programs, like education and empowerment of women, and so under his leadership this was possible (…I could go on for pages about Sankara, but I will get to my point). Conversely, under the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe rather than allowing a similar situation (of male migration) to empower women, instead it made them more dependent on the government (to intervene on their behalf when issues arose), and their support of these women was really only to further empower their regime.