Traditional leaders from Zimbabwe become gender activists

Male traditional leaders play an important role in rural Zimbabwe. In addition to governing their communities, they have the power to allocate land, are responsible for settling disputes and ensuring that cultural norms and values, which were handed down by their forefathers, are preserved.

Given their influence, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) project on gender equality saw the opportunity to set up training sessions specifically for them.

The challenge, however, was that most traditional leaders in Zimbabwe have a vision of society based on male domination.

“If change is to happen in attitudes towards women, it is important to include men in our gender programmes,” said Hopolang Phororo, the ILO Country Office Director for Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Madamombe (pictured) is a headman and traditional leader in Ward 1, Murewa district, located about 75 kms northeast from the capital city Harare. According to him, women in his community have always been considered at a lower level and were expected to be subservient to men.

Similarly, Madamombe had always held the view that whatever he says, women must obey without questioning, leaving no room for them even to take part in discussions.

However, things started to change after he attended the training sessions organised by the ILO, as part of the UN Joint Programme for Gender Equality .

The training covered self-esteem, confidence building and leadership; livelihoods and food security; business development; gender equality; women’s rights; women’s working conditions; sexual and reproductive health, including child marriage; gender based violence and domestic violence as well as HIV and AIDS.

Though the goal of the wider project was women’s economic empowerment, it was necessary to conduct training on transforming attitudes about gender roles as an entry point.

At first, Madamombe found it hard to agree to the very idea of taking part in the training. His first reaction was that it would be a waste of time and resources, as he firmly believed that women were not capable of performing any economic activities.

“I found the training very difficult at first because it sounded as if they were trying to reduce me to the same level as women,” he recalled.

However, as the training progressed, he realised that the objective was completely different.

“I began to see that the training was there to help me understand that whatever it is that I can do, a woman is also capable of doing it.”

It was from that time that Madamombe began to reflect on the contribution that a woman makes at the household level.

“I realised that most of the times men are either hanging out doing nothing or at the township (local shopping centre) having fun with their friends, while women were either working at home, going out to look for firewood or searching for work to do on farms, in exchange for food to feed the family,” he added.

Similarly, Mugariwa Gonese, a traditional leader from Gutu district – who also attended the training – went through the same attitude change. Like Madamombe, he was responsible for attributing the land on which the gardening projects of the UN joint programme were being implemented and he now praises the fact that women were involved.

“I can testify that involving women has brought great changes in the community. The women selected for this programme were some of the poorest in our community but today, they have bought livestock, have built houses and toilets and can afford to pay school fees for their children,” he said.

In Murewa district, Madamombe even noticed a reduction in the number of incidents involving violence towards women, as a result of the training and the income that women are now generating from the gardening projects.

“Perhaps the greatest transformation has been in my family,” says Madamombe.

“As someone who makes decisions for my community and arbitrates in various cases, I now request my wife’s views, which I seriously consider before I come up with a decision,” he added.

Madamombe became a ‘Male Champion’ in the community, advocating for gender equality amongst his peers and subjects. He has since introduced a quota system in his committees. As a result, women now make up 50 percent of the members in the committees ensuring that gender-sensitive decisions are made. In the meetings that he chairs as traditional leader, he also allocates time to talk about the importance of gender equality. He sits on the gender steering committee in Murewa district and is working with organisations in the district as a gender activist.

“When this programme started, we were dealing with some of the most hardened male positions. It is gratifying to us that this project has made in-roads in tackling negative social norms that perpetuate gender inequality from the grassroots. We can only see positive developments with leaders like Madamombe at the helm of communities,” concluded Hopolang Phororo, the ILO Country Office Director for Zimbabwe and Namibia. – ILO

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