When women are empowered their families are healthier, more children go to school, agricultural productivity improves, and incomes increase.
It has also become evident that economic empowerment of women indirectly reduces cases of gender based violence worldwide.
Stella Dube, a 45-year-old mother of five runs a number of flea markets in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, and her story bears testimony to this.
“I used to suffer all kinds of physical and mental abuse from my husband back in the day when all I did was look up to him to provide for all the financial needs in the home. He would beat me up in private, in public and in front of our children and would sometimes disappear for weeks on end, leaving us with no money for food,” says Dube.
“It was then I realised that I needed to act otherwise my children would die from hunger. I borrowed money from friends and family and ventured into cross border trading, where I’d buy stuff from South Africa or Botswana to sell here. It was difficult and took me a long time to become stable but with perseverance and some luck my business grew and today I own five stands here and employ several people.
“When I started making enough to pay for the children’s school fees, clothe and feed them, as if by magic the abuse from my husband abruptly stopped. It was as if he had gained some new found respect for me and started treating me as his equal. He has not raised his fist to me in seven years and I think he fears that if he does it again I am empowered enough to leave him and start a life for myself or worse report him to the police.”
Statistics show that, despite the active campaigns from women’s groups, government ministries and non governmental organisations, gender based violence continues to be a major problem in Zimbabwe.
Reported cases of domestic violence in the country have steadily increased since 2008 to 10,351 cases this year. Although this may be partly the result of more women coming forward, the number suffering abuse on a daily basis is chilling.
As the country joins the rest of the world in commemorating the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, gender activists and women’s bodies have been urging women to use economic empowerment as a tool against abuse.
Adeline Sibanda from UN-Women says economic empowerment in women drastically reduces cases of gender based violence in any community.
“It is important for women’s confidence and self esteem to be raised so that women are able to demand and advocate for space in the key sectors of the economy. Gender based violence against women in most families is a result of over dependence on men. If women can be empowered economically and are earning, they will not be violated.” she says.
Gender experts believe Zimbabwe still has some way to go before women and girls can fully enjoy their fundamental rights and economic well being. The country currently ranks 118 out of 146 countries in the 2011 Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index, which reflects gender-based inequalities in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and economic activity.
The Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey for 2010 to 2011 found 37% women to be employed, compared to 62% of men. The same study notes that women constitute 21% of the public sector’s key economic decision makers, against the Southern African Development Community’s protocol of 50%.
Sylvia Chirawu, national coordinator for Women and Law in Southern Africa’s Research and Education Trust, says it is crucial to include gender budgets in all the country’s ministries as women are the backbone of the economy, a practice known as mainstreaming.
“If, as a country, we are serious about gender equality and the economic emancipation of women, we need to do gender mainstreaming across the board. We need to ensure adequate resource allocation for gender mainstreaming and thereafter assess whether the allocated funds actually have been disbursed and how. If we do that we can definitely map the way forward for women,” she says.
National policies in Zimbabwe such as the "Medium Term Plan" and the broad-based "Women’s Economic Empowerment Framework" have attempted to emphasise the economic emancipation of women but limited implementation in most cases results in the programmes remaining in limbo.
On the plus side, Economic Planning and Investment Promotion Minister Tapiwa Mashakada says his ministry is in the process of disbursing US$1.4 million worth of loans to women’s groups while another US$2 million is yet to be released.
“The 'Medium Term Plan' also envisages the raising of awareness on issues of gender based violence and increasing women’s participation in key economic sectors as well as increasing access to land by women. In addition a broad-based Women’s Economic Empowerment Framework was developed to ensure that women effectively participate in key sectors of the economy,” adds Mashakada.
For women suffering as Stella once did, progress can’t come soon enough.
Reporting by International HIV/AIDS Alliance Key Correspondent Samkeliso Ndlovu.