A Decade After Fighting for Zimbabwe’s Independence, Women Battle for Rights


Joyce Mujuru fought so fiercely in the war for independence that she earned the name “Spill Blood.” Now, 10 years later, she fights for women’s rights in a male-dominated culture.

Mujuru, 35, is minister of community and cooperative development in President Robert Mugabe’s government and finds the new battle, in its own way, as daunting as the old one.

“We have come a long way since independence, but there is still a lot of work to be done educating people about women’s rights,” she said in an interview.

In the civil war, she said, “we fought side by side with our men and they realized we deserved what we were asking--laws giving women equal rights.” A female historian, who asked not to be identified, said: “Women have retrogressed since independence. They only made progress because of their contribution to the war, but now men in government are . . . asserting traditional attitudes.”


Women were a strong force in the seven-year war that ended nine decades of white-minority rule and transformed Rhodesia, a breakaway British colony, into independent, black-ruled Zimbabwe.

Many ferried arms, sheltered fighters or were spies for the insurgents.

Others engaged in combat. It was said of Joyce Mujuru that she was the first woman to shoot down a Rhodesian helicopter.

Women have made some advances since independence. Laws that once barred them from certain jobs and denied them full legal rights have been repealed. They can make contracts, own land and are no longer regarded legally as minors.


Turmoil has accompanied change in this African nation of 9.5 million people, more than half of whom are women.

Wife-beating, rape and baby murders are on the rise. Reports appear almost daily of newborns found abandoned in ditches, tossed into bushes, jammed into sewer pipes, even buried alive.

Elizabeth Rider of Women’s Action Group, blames the “baby dumping” and illegal back-street abortions on economic and social stresses facing women.

“Changes in traditional culture are not keeping up with rapid urbanization, and women are taking the brunt of it,” she said.

In African villages, grandmothers and aunts traditionally advise young girls about sex. Without that help, many schoolgirls in cities and towns become pregnant, Rider said.

Faced with expulsion from school and shame in a culture that ostracizes single mothers, they often have little choice but self-induced abortions, and some even kill their babies, she said.

Farm women still do most of the work in the fields while men sit under the trees drinking home brew.

“My husband does the planning and I do the work,” said Susan Marewo, a farmer in northeastern Zimbabwe.


Male judges carry traditions rooted in polygamy and male domination into their courtrooms.

One magistrate, after hearing the case of a man who beat his wife to death because she refused to cook him a meal, fined the man the equivalent of $100 and set him free. The woman had “asked for trouble,” the judge said.

Another obstacle to sexual equality is the bride price. A cow and two goats was considered a good sum 50 years ago, but some fathers now demand several thousand dollars for a university-educated daughter.

The government is reluctant to outlaw the tradition. Mugabe has said the bride price should be considered “a custom of expressing thanks, not of buying a woman or a passport for oppressing her,” but few heed his advice.

Women’s rights groups say many African men believe the more they pay for a a wife, the greater their right to dominate her.

“Attitudes and values are . . . ingrained in our minds” and, unfortunately for women, hard to change, said Victoria Chitepo, the information minister.