ZIMBABWE: Middle Class Women Have Needs Too
Zimbabwean writer Fungai Machirori makes the case that gender development isn't just for the poor. She challenges new UN Women executive director Michelle Bachelet to support leadership opportunities for women at all income levels.
To the UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet,
I am not rural.
I am not illiterate.
But still, as a woman from the Global South, I have needs. Sadly, these needs continue to slip through the cracks of gender discourse because for so long, the focus of women’s development initiatives has been on addressing the needs of the rural, illiterate, and direly poor.
I do not argue against the fact that these women’s needs are urgent and immediate. I know that they are and I welcome every single cent in development assistance that is channelled towards their needs. In fact, I demand that more be done to understand the complexity of their predicament. As your sister agency, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has realized, poverty is multi-dimensional and rooted in various deprivations that must be addressed with diligence and determination. I commend this realization and urge that UN Women find imaginative, representative, and progressive ways of working with the UNDP to understand more fully the gendered aspects of the dimensions of poverty.
But now I return to my own disgruntlement.
I am a 26-year-old Zimbabwean woman who has enjoyed privileges that many of my countrywomen have not. I have received a good education and have had the chance to work and be self-sustaining. Nothing has ever been handed to me ready-made on a plate. I have succeeded through hard work, perseverance, and the support of an incredible social network that includes parents who never made me feel incompetent or incapable because I am female.
But as a writer, poet, and journalist, I recognize the various unaddressed challenges faced by Zimbabwean women who choose this path.
A 2009 report on gender and the media in southern Africa, entitled ‘Glass Ceilings: Women and Men in Southern African Newsrooms’ showed that the average proportion of women in the media in southern Africa was 41%. When South Africa was excluded, the proportion plummeted to 32%, or just one third of the total. Because of their marginal status, these women were said to be experiencing discouraging working conditions, such as sexual harassment, and relegation to ‘soft’ news beats like fashion and lifestyle, as opposed to the male reserves of politics and business.
Yes, there are local institutions that support women in the media, but their operations have been severely curtailed by a lack of consistent funding and technical support. No matter how many proposals are written or funding streams sought, there is an emphatically negative response from donors who consistently state that nurturing women in the media is not a development priority area.
Well, I must roundly object. As important as it is to afford the most marginal of the marginal their share of support, we must not forget that by nurturing positive examples of women in the developing world, we help to debunk negative stereotypes and give many women and girls the hope that they too may rise up one day to assume positions of authority—in the spheres of health, politics, the media, environment, or any other area they wish to pursue.
But as prominent Zimbabwean feminist Everjoice Win once noted,“… the middle-class woman [in Zimbabwe] is completely silenced and erased from the images of development and rights work. She is constantly reminded that development is about eradicating poverty and so it focuses on those defined as ‘the poor’ (read as resource-poor). Therefore her story and her experiences are not part of the narrative. In essence, this means women’s lives are put in a kind of league table and it is those that qualify who get addressed.”
Beyond advocating for increased funding for women in leadership, I want to also note that the same issues that affect our rural poor women affect city-dwelling contemporary women too. Contrary to what donor funding suggests, gender-based violence and HIV do not only affect the most marginalized groups in society. Women of affluence contract HIV too. But where should they turn to for assistance if all the social support systems make it clear they are not the target of initiatives? Are counsellors trained in providing services for all women, or just the women they always expect to encounter?
I know of one woman who lived in a middle class suburb in Harare who could never tell anyone that her husband was beating her up every week of her life, simply because of the shame that she felt about this. It isn’t anything new to note that a beating often elicits feelings of shame. But consider how much more difficult it can be for a woman deemed by society to ‘have it all’ to open up about the vulnerabilities that are so often—and incorrectly—associated with certain social groups.
Please consider how difficult it would be for these women to open up about their HIV status, their inability to negotiate the use of condoms or contraceptives within their relationships, and their realisation that a sound education and a good job do not eradicate patriarchy.
I am not rural.
I am not illiterate.
But I am a woman whose needs deserve to be addressed with the same respect as any other woman’s.
I hope that through UN Women, we might begin to better understand that ‘Third World’ women are not an undifferentiated mass, and that all women have needs that should be acknowledged through development assistance, capacity building, and representative development monitoring and evaluation.
We experience similar situations but our needs vary. Don't disregard us. We matter too in this long struggle toward equity and gender justice.
I thank you for your time.
Fungai Rufaro Machirori