By Nellie Nyang’wa
Southern Africa is a highly patriarchal society. Patriarchal power plays out in many different scenarios and is exercised by both women and men. Women in the region, however, find themselves in an awkward position since they can, on the one hand, be the subjects of patriarchal power and, on the other, be the power holders within the traditional system.
What is interesting is that when women hold the power they often act without regard to who they are as individuals. It’s the difficulty of wearing too many hats – you’re a mother, a mother-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a wife, and a sister. The patriarchal system defines how women behave when they wear each of these hats and it can be contradictory and confusing, not to mention emotionally stressful.
I was visiting Oxfam’s Zimbabwe programme in January this year, and met with one of our partners, ZWLA, which helps women access justice. The statistics are shocking: each day about 50 women seek legal assistance from ZWLA. The women lawyers who assist them largely work as volunteers and are stretched to the limit.
The staff at ZWLA told me about a woman who had visited them a while ago. Her husband had died and his relatives exercised their patriarchal power by grabbing his property. The ZWLA programme assisted the woman in retrieving that property. Some time later, a young woman approached ZWLA complaining that her mother-in-law had grabbed her property after the death of her husband. It later emerged that the mother-in-law was the same woman the ZWLA had helped a while back. The young woman’s brother-in-law knew his mother had gone to ZWLA for help and so took the woman to their offices.
This story shocked me. What went wrong here? One expects that someone who has had a similar experience would be more understanding and respectful of the young woman’s rights. Was the mother-in-law hoping to get some sort of revenge for what she had been through herself? Was she under pressure to exercise her patriarchal power? Did she forget how painful it is to be treated in such a manner and that it is a violation of one’s rights? Considering this, what then is the best strategy to deal with violence against women? And who would be the ideal champions of change?
In Southern Africa, we are currently developing a strategy to deal with attitudes and beliefs that propagate violence. This comes from our learning that good policies alone are not enough to bring the change we are looking for, because their implementation is hampered by negative attitudes and beliefs towards women and girls. This case gives us useful insight into how complex these issues are.
Nellie Nyang’wa is Regional Programmes & Policy Manager for Oxfam GB in Southern Africa