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Zimbabwe challenges cultural gender normalities

USAID and UNESCO are working to change gender normalities in Zimbabwe by normalizing men’s contributions to household activities that are traditionally perceived as feminine. Equal division of domestic duties leads to improved child health and nutrition, as well as advancements in women’s rights. These social benefits are instrumental in alleviating poverty in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe and Gender Norms: An Overview

A country of 14 million, Zimbabwe has recently faced declines in public health, education, infrastructure and standard of living. Of the population, 63% of households live in poverty. Government policies and climate issues hamper farming and impact food insecurity. In addition, the country has a high burden of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and maternal and childhood disease.

Women traditionally hold an inferior position in Zimbabwean cultures, which are often patriarchal. Women often work for no pay in the home or in subsistence agriculture; alternatively, they perform low-paid wage work. Women cannot own or claim land except through their male relatives or husbands.

Gender Norms and Food Security in Zimbabwe

USAID and UNESCO are working to transform gender normalities in Zimbabwe, and the positive effects of these efforts extend far beyond women’s rights. Empowering women and normalizing men’s participation in the domestic sphere effectively increases the household labor force and children’s access to nutritious food. In rural Zimbabwe, one-third of children are malnourished, largely because of gender norms that lead to unhealthy feeding practices for young children.

As USAID reports, there is a close connection between women’s lack of assistance in the domestic sphere and child nutritional status. USAID wrote, “In a typical day in rural Zimbabwe, a mother must collect water, search for firewood, make a fire, cook and wash dishes, repeating this cycle for every meal. She must also spend a large proportion of the day tending to the family’s crops. Mothers simply do not have the time in the day to focus on all their responsibilities, including the childcare and nutrition necessary for the healthy growth and future productivity of their children.”

USAID’s program Indoda Emadodeni (“A Man Among Men”) holds monthly dialogues in which advocates, or Male Champions, challenge social norms and discuss the benefits of expanding men’s roles with both traditional leaders and the community as a whole. Participants in the program reported great pride in their domestic skills, including cooking, feeding and dressing infants and doing their daughters’ hair. The fathers enjoyed the closer relationships that they developed with their children. 

The program has yielded excellent results in many areas. A survey found statistically significant improvement in behaviors and support like fetching water and firewood, childcare, taking their wives to medical (including prenatal) appointments and cooking. There was also a 52% increase in joint decision-making among spouses. Rather than being stigmatized, these supportive and beneficial behaviors now elicit high praise in their communities, “uyindoda emadodeni” which translates to “you are a man among men.”

UNESCO’s Impacts

The United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization agency is also running a project entitled “Challenging constructions of masculinity that exacerbate marginalization of women and youth,” in which the organization focuses on women’s empowerment through male engagement with gender issues. By conducting trainings and dialogues, the program leads men to reframe masculinity and reconsider their behavior.

One participant, Tichaona Madziwa, described how he “started to see [his] wife as a partner, a shareholder in this household…[and] really started to respect [his] wife’s decisions and perspectives—something that was not considered the norm.”

As he began to cook and care for his daughter, his relationship with her grew stronger. Madziwa, like the other program participants, found that the change of perspective greatly benefited him and his family.  

Normalizing men’s performance of domestic work lightens women’s workload. This, in turn, both empowers women and improves child nutrition. These USAID and UNESCO programs are effectively addressing the issues of both food security and gender normalities in Zimbabwe.

– Isabelle Breier 
Photo: Wikimedia