Historical Overview of Women's Groups in Zimbabwe

Naume M. Ziyambi, M. Phil.

In Peasants, Traders and Wives, Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe, 1870-1939, Schmidt (1992) notes that the earliest women's groups in Zimbabwe were linked to missionary activity and the church. The Wesleyan Women's Groups and the Media in Zimbabwe Methodist Church women's Ruwadzano (fellowship) movement had taken hold in the then Southern Rhodesia by 1919 (145). Other denominations soon followed suit. The primary aim of these groups was to teach African women about God. Secondary aims included instructions on how to maintain a home that measured up to Christian standards of cleanliness. Schmidt further notes that "The Victorian ideal of virtuous wife, selfless mother, and tidy, industrious housekeeper was the goal for which all African women should be taught to strive" (145). This concept of women's groups was to spread outside the church in the form of local and community-based women's groups which also aimed to improve women's skills in home management and in the production of handicrafts.

Incidentally, these notions of the subservient and industrious woman found resonance within traditional African culture. As a result, the collusion of white and black patriarchy resulted in the formulation and codification of the legal system known today as Customary Law. Joan May describes this system as an "invented tradition" because:

Rules which might have evolved, customs and traditions which might have altered radically or gradually been discarded in favour of more adaptive legal norms harden and are subject to manipulation rather than evolution

This codified law came to mediate relations between black men and women through the colonial judiciary system. Under Customary Law, a black woman remained a legal minor all her life under the custodianship of her father husband or eldest son as her life progressed from childhood, to marriage and widowhood or old age.

The immediate pre-independence period led to a re-assessment of gender relations. Debates about gender roles came from two fronts. The first was from the liberation movement and the second from the small group of university-educated and professional middle class women (Gaidzanwa 1992 Jirira 1995). These two groups of women put considerable pressure on the new government to reconsider the situation of women.

According to Gaidzanwa, with considerable numbers of women joining the liberation struggle in the late 1960s and 1970s, the image of the subservient and industrious mother or daughter came to be challenged by the female combatant (Gaidzanwa 1992: 110). Although there was discrimination in the guerrilla camps in that women were often headed into roles that involved cooking and caring for the sick and wounded, there was equality on the battlefield. Women proved to be just as able and dedicated to the cause for national liberation as their male counterparts. Therefore, there was little justification for continuing to regard women as inferior. This new perception found support in those guerrillas who read socialist literature and thought about its possible application in independent Zimbabwe (Gaidzanwa 1992). As Jirira elaborates, with colonial rule drawing to a close, more opportunities for women to study at home and abroad opened up airira 1995). These women made use of knowledge gathered from their own experiences in different educational institutions and societies as well as from the international feminist movement, particularly the activities at the United Nations, to develop critiques and to challenge gender subordination. At independence in 1980, both groups of women took up jobs in the newly created Ministry of Women's Affairs and other related institutions which carried out women's development programmes airira 1995). Thus the women's cause came to be championed by the government-backed groups which included the Women's League of the ruling party, ZANU (PF). However, as it turned out, state patronage left very little room for these groups to develop into autonomous groups with their own political muscle (Saunders 1991; Gaidzanwa 1992; Jirira 1995). They increasingly took up the role of bystander and left the government to shape and direct the women's programme, as is reflected in the events of the first few years after independence.

The first moves by the government were to introduce legal reforms concerning the status of women which included the Legal Age of Majority Act, the Matrimonial Causes Act, the Maintenance Amendment Act and the Equal Pay Regulations (Jirira 1995: 10; Zimbabwe Report on the United Nations Decade for Women, 1985-1995: 21). The most far reaching of these laws was the Legal Age of Majority Act of 1982 in that for the first time in Zimbabwe, it established the principle of equality between men and women, thus opening up the way for other reforms. The Act conferred adult status on all Zimbabweans over the age of eighteen, making it possible for women to vote, own and register property in their own right without male mediation.


Jirira, O. "Gender, Politics, and Democracy." Southern African Feminist Review 1 (1995).

Saunders, R. "Information in the Interregnum: The Press, State, and Civil Society Struggles for Hegemony in Zimbabwe, 1980-1990." Unpublished PhD thesis, Carleton University: 1991

Schmidt. Peasants, Traders and Wives, Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe, 1870-1939. 1992.

[From Naume M. Ziyambi, The Battle of the Mind: International New Media Elements of the New Religious Political Right in Zimbabwe. Oslo:University of Oslo, 1997, pages 7-9. Available from Department of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

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