The Impact on Women

It is a bit like watching an unfolding tragedy on television. You can see the situation and to some extent appreciate its seriousness, but you cannot enter into the experience of those on the ground or fully comprehend their situation. Over time you also become inured to various situations - they seem to happen so often and eventually you turn off the television or switch to entertainment.

Mugabe has now been in power for over 24 years. After 5 years of exciting and rapid development and change we then went through a period of 10 years or so of mixed experience - some bad, some good, followed by a decade of serious mistakes and growing corruption in all spheres of life. Challenged by civil society Mugabe retreated into a political kraal and simply refused to listen to any but the sycophants that surrounded him.

Eventually challenged politically he has fought back using every tool in the book and a few others in a no-holds defense of his hold on power. The cost to the country has been massive and comprehensive.

GDP is down to nearly half what it was in 1997. Exports are down by two thirds. Employment is down by 40 per cent. Up to 3 million people have fled the country as economic and political refugees. Food production has fallen to the point where up to 70 per cent of the population has had to be fed by foreign donors in the past year. Life expectancy is down to 35 years - less than Malawi and down 24 years since 1990. All investment has stopped and some US$2 billion in capital has left the country in the past 4 years.

Oh well - what else is new - switch the channel to something more interesting! Africa - defeating itself again. Self-destruction in self-defense!

But there is another dimension to this sorry tale, which is not being told. That is, what is the impact on certain sectors of our population? Not white farmers - that has been beaten to death by the media who seem to see little else in the Mugabe tragedy, as this series is called. No I am talking about the impact on others - women for example.

The impact of the Mugabe crisis on women is perhaps the most telling of the consequences of this sort of thing, and yet it is almost completely ignored. If you take any of the measures by which the Mugabe crisis is measured in human rather than economic or political terms, the impact on women has been very much greater than on the population as a whole. In part this is due to cultural factors but in addition it is that women are just that much more vulnerable to social and economic collapse.

Lets look at just a few of these factors. First the question of life expectancy. This is a crude measure of the success or failure of a State - can it deliver a longer life expectancy (as a result of better nutrition, health care) than in the past?

The answer in Zimbabwe is that life expectancy has retreated a year for every year that Mugabe has been in power and that all of this retreat has taken place in the past 14 years. Zimbabwe now has a life expectancy less than that of Malawi. For women the situation is even worse with life expectancies now dipping below 30 years. The reasons are multiple - deteriorating nutrition, high costs of protein foods, deteriorating health care services and their cost. But to this we must add the re-emergence of disease epidemics that we once thought were beaten - malaria, tuberculosis.

Then there is the Aids/HIV pandemic - Zimbabwe is in the forefront again in this sphere. We have one of the highest rates of infection in the world, high even by southern African standards. But one statistic sticks in my mind - that 58 per cent of all women between the age of 15 and 25 are HIV positive - nearly 6 out of 10. Why? Well one of the things that Mugabe has done in the past decade is to create near perfect conditions for the spread of HIV and Aids. He has destroyed jobs, income-earning opportunities, and enhanced insecurity of nearly everyone, stimulated labour migration to the point where it has become a national pastime. Rendered illegal the income earning possibilities of millions.

So more women than ever are in prostitution, or 'temporary relationships' for security or income purposes. More families than ever are divided and separated. The cost of schooling has soared - so called 'free education' now costs parents more than they can afford so it is the girls who lose out. What does a 13-year-old do when she is kicked out of school and onto the street?

How do we measure the status of our health services? One simple measure is the status of women in childbirth. 400 000 women give birth to a child in Zimbabwe each year. We now have the highest rate of mortality in childbirth in the world. God, what does it take to save a woman's life in labour? I am told US$30 on average.

Then there are the more simple things - like sanitary pads and nappies. What do you do when you cannot afford these simple, every day things. Use dirty rags and towels? Where is the dignity in this? And what about clean water - in city after city, clean affordable water has become a nightmare as pumps break down and councils run out of chemicals. The men - they drink beer and coke, it is women and children who bear the effects of these failures.

At independence we boasted - free education for all, housing for all, health services for all by the year 2000. The reality is that none of this has been achieved, in fact we have lost ground in all these areas in a self-imposed collapse that has impacted on our women and children most. Those who drive luxury cars with tinted windows and who live in mansions on other people's money must take prime responsibility for this, but it is also a disgrace for us all. If you are not engaged in this struggle for change and reform in Zimbabwe, then you are also responsible for this unfolding crisis and its impact on millions of women and their children.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, August 6th 2004