Divorce: an indication of empowerment?

2012-02-21 00:00

THE latest statistics from the Zimbabwe High Court indicate an increase in the number of divorce cases in the country.

In 2011, the high court received 1 551 divorce cases, a 21% increase from the 1 216 cases received in 2010. It took me bumping into a friend’s astonishment at the statistics on her Facebook status, and some rather insensitive comments that followed, to realise that divorce — no matter the circumstances — remains an abomination in our society.

Zimbabwe, and indeed many southern African countries, are largely Christian nations which view a failed marriage as the ultimate sin.

This unfortunate trend is the total opposite of their rank-and-file conservative Christian counterparts in European nations that have woken up to the realisation that divorce may be the solution to the disintegration of a marriage. Prominent church leaders get divorced and continue to lead thousands of Christians in their ministries.

As a 32-year-old professional Zimbabwean woman, mother to two children and going through a divorce, I will undoubtedly be another statistic this time next year.

I view divorce as evidence, in part, of women’s empowerment of their legal rights and power to walk away from a violent or an unfulfilling relationship.

This is not to say that it is only women who walk out of a marriage, nor are these the only reasons why people walk at all.

In fact, throughout my own marital and legal battles I have observed the vast number of women of various ages and classes sitting side by side on the creaky benches in the glum and dreary offices of the Harare civil court. All of them await assistance to be protected by the law against a violent partner, escape unhappiness through a divorce or get some man to realise that he needs to feed and clothe the

baby she is carrying on her lap. It is an indication that indeed Zimbabwean women are more empowered and resilient than before.

Women in Zimbabwe now realise their legal and social rights and the need for education, and have more awareness about self and the world around them. This self-awareness, coupled in some instances with financial independence, reduces the probability of women staying in a relationship out of sheer necessity and obligation.

The trend seems similar in South Africa where statistics indicate that in 2010 alone, women initiated 49,3% of recorded divorces.

Women from the black African population group had a lower proportion of plaintiffs compared to their white female plaintiffs.

The comments on Facebook reflect the gender stereotypes still prevalent in our society.

One (by a male contributor) states that divorce is “centred on pride, arrogance and equality” and that there is a need to “... think of our children and Aids”. Among others the comment reflects the naivety of regarding marriage as a safe haven against HIV and Aids. The Zimbabwe’s National Aids Council points to the fact that married women constitute the largest number of those infected with the virus.

The other comment (shockingly by a female contributor) reads: “The problem is equal rights. Equal rights mean no submission, no compromise, no competition and more. Biblically the man is the head. Once we modernise marriage, then there is a problem. Even if the woman earns 10 times more than her husband, she is not the head.”

In African societies, women are expected to marry and remain married even at great personal cost.

Marriage in African societies is followed by the cultural expectation to procreate. This means that — no matter the battering, sexual abuse or deprivation, multiple concurrent partnerships that can expose a

woman to HIV and Aids — she has to endure all forms of abuse to protect her reputation in society and hold on so that the children can have a father.

Women’s empowerment, the change in social and family structure due to globalisation, increased communication and access to information on marriage, sex and sexuality, smaller nuclear families, work pressure, and a declining trust in the institution of marriage are slowly changing these norms.

The changing status of women in society is undoubtedly central to all of these.

• Koliwe Nyoni is a gender and media activist based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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