When Vennia Magaya was evicted from her deceased father’s house, her TV set and oven thrown out into the yard after her, she thought it wasn’t right.
So she sued her half brother for evicting her.
She had a compelling case. The Nation’s Constitution, a separate law enforcing women’s rights and several international human rights treaties that Zimbabwe signed clearly backed her claim as heir to her father’s estate.
But in a stunning reversal of fortune for Zimbabwean women, the nation’s Supreme Court over-ruled or challenged almost every law relating to women’s rights in Zimbabwe and gave the house to the half-brother.
In a 5-0 decision, the court said the “nature of African society” dictates that women are NOT EQUAL TO MEN, especially in family relationships. The court said centuries-old African cultural norms, which are not written down, say women should never be considered adults within the family, but only as a “junior male” or teenager.
“I was shocked, “ says Magaya, a 58-year-old seamstress, who now rents a one-room shack. “I thought things had changed. But they haven’t. If you’re a woman you can’t do anything.”
Experts say the ruling, quietly handed down last month, strips Zimbabwe’s women of almost all the rights they had gained since the nation broke free of colonial rule 20 years ago.
it runs contrary to progressive rulings for women’s rights in other African countries, such as Botswana and South African, and may slow down the modest advances women have been making on the world’s poorest continent.
“Basically, there’s nothing left of the gains women’s rights have made in the past 20 years,” says Welshman Ncube, a Zimbabwean scholar on constitutional and family law. “It’s a full-bench decision by the Supreme Court. There is no appeal. They meant to settle this question once and for all.”
The Magaya vs. Magaya case opens a window into the most revered aspect of African society: the family. It is indicative of the struggle across the continent of nations trying to synthesize their age-old traditions – many of which are blatantly discriminatory toward women – with modern legal codes, which attempt to enshrine equal rights for all.
“We’re desirous of getting out of the quicksand of tradition, but we can’t. We try to get rid of the ghosts of the past, but we can’t exorcise them. They keep haunting us, ” says Ncube.
The analogy is apt, for the Supreme Court ruling seeks to take Zimbabwe’s pre-colonial traditions into the 21 st century. That is problematic, for in pre-colonial Zimbabwe – and across much of the continent – women were not accorded the same rights as men.
They could not own land, inherit property from their deceased husbands or fathers, conduct their own wedding arrangements or have rights to their children in case of divorce. Their husbands could be as polygamous as they wish.
But many women fought on the front lines of Zimbabwe’s 15-year independence war from white colonialists. They grew accustomed to the idea of equality. After independence in 1980, the black-majority government adopted a constitution that prohibited discrimination.
In 1982, Parliament went a step further, passing the Majority Age Act. It said women older than 18 could no longer be considered minors, no matter what traditional beliefs dictated.
“The object the legislature sought to achieve was the liberation of African women,” said Enoch Dumbutshena, chief justice of the Supreme Court in one of the two test cases that affirmed the law.
“That really made Zimbabwe a beacon, a leading light in Africa,” says Marsha Freedman, director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, a human rights agency based in Minneapolis.
But most Zimbabwean men abhor Western concepts of gender equality.
“I say to my sisters in African, don’t look here (America), there is very little of what you want,” wrote Ken Mufuka, a newspaper columnist living the United States, in a March essay ridiculing American gender relations.
Mufuka alleged that equal rights for women in America have resulted in “huge numbers…of sissified men” who are turning to homosexuality because women are frustrating their “natural desires.”
Rudo Kwaramba, director of the Musasa Project, a women’s resource center in Harare, said the ruling did not surprise her.
“Don’t make any mistake: We are challenging the national idea of family and culture, because the national idea of family and culture are tools for men to keep women as inferior beings,” she said. “Men aren’t going to like that, and it’s going to take a long time to change.”