Crisis in the State and the Family: Violence Against Women in Zimbabwe

by Mary Johnson Osirim


Since the early 1990’s, Zimbabwe has been enmeshed in a major economic crisis that has seriously eroded the status of women in that country.  For the past three years, the economic crisis has been joined by a political crisis which marks the first major challenge to the Mugabe regime since independence.  In addition to the very harsh toll that the economic and political problems have had on poor and low-income African women in particular, especially those involved in subsistence agriculture and the micro-enterprise sector, black women in Zimbabwe have also experienced an escalation in violence committed against them, by both individuals and the state.  Such violence cannot be solely understood as physical abuse, but as a phenomenon that takes on a myriad of forms, including the economic and the psychological.  Domestic violence and rape have deeply-rooted structural explanations in Zimbabwe linked to the long history of colonialism and white minority rule, political transition, economic crisis and adjustment, changes in expected gender roles for women and men, and the political crisis that emerged in the last few years.  Under such circumstances, many men perceive that their power and position in the broader society, as well as within the home, have come into question and unfortunately, all too many men have directed their anger against women.  In the midst of this crisis, though, two non-governmental organizations have attempted to address the issue of violence against women—the Musasa Project and the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Center and Network.  Although the limited resources of these NGO’s restrict what they can accomplish, they, unlike the state, are path breakers in the empowerment of poor and low-income women.

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Mary Johnson Osirim is Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy at Bryn Mawr College. Her research interests have focused on gender and development, economic sociology, and the role of the microenterprise sector in Nigerian and Zimbabwean development. She has written many published articles, including, “Making Good on Commitments to Grassroots Women: NGO’s and Empowerment for Women in Contemporary Zimbabwe,” in Women’s Studies International Forum, 2001. Currently, she is writing a book, Enterprising Women: Identity, Entrepreneurship and Civil Society in Urban Zimbabwe as a fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.