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‘Let’s unite to promote respect for human rights’

By The Herald

April 2, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Recently, President Mnangagwa appointed veteran lawyer, women’s rights activist, opposition legislator, and former deputy minister Jessie Fungai Majome as the new chairperson of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. Majome has extensive experience in public administration and human rights issues. In this report, Deputy News Editor (Convergence) Phyllis Kachere (PK) speaks to Ms. Jessie Majome (JM) on her vision to push for the integration of human rights policies into every sphere of life for Zimbabweans and how to overcome deep-seated inequalities and structural barriers that hinder meaningful inclusion and participation.

PK: As you take up the chairmanship of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, what is your vision?

JM: My vision is to see a Zimbabwe in which a culture of human rights pervades every aspect of our society. In public spaces, public transport, in the fields, in the mines, on the roads and hospitals, in state institutions, families and religious organisations, and schools.

Everywhere as Zimbabweans, we understand the dignity of the human being. We understand and subscribe to the dignity, equality, and freedom of each human being.

That is the vision that I have. I envisage a situation where human rights cease to be a political tool a politicised device or a cause for division.

Because I believe that human rights should unite us. We are all human beings and we can all co-exist. That is the vision that I have as I take up the chairmanship of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission.

I look forward to the support of all of the citizenry in fulfilling this mandate. We will also have a mandate to work with the Public Protector Office. That’s another important mandate that requires that we amplify to the citizens that they have a right to administrative justice and to be treated well by all State institutions.

That, if they are not treated right, they can bring their complaints to the commission, and will address them. We will also help the Public Protector Office put in place systems where citizens are served and get the services that they require in all State institutions.

PK: As the ZHRC chair, what brings a smile to you about the current human rights situation in Zimbabwe?

JM: Wow! It’s got to be our Constitution. We must applaud ourselves for crafting a declaration of rights that is broad and deep.

Our Bill of Rights is more robust than, say, for example, the South African one.

South Africa has a shining Bill of Rights. Zimbabwe learnt from that but we went deeper. That shows we are clear about what we want to achieve.

The deep seat of the existence of fundamental human rights in our cultural consciousness is African. As black people with fundamental rights, such as the right to life itself, human rights are inherent in us. This gives me confidence that with such a consciousness, the ZHRC will ensure that citizens enjoy these rights without impediments. I am glad Zimbabwe is already moving in that direction having taken to abolishing the death penalty.

This is something that we, as African people have always had. We’ve always had in us the understanding that life is precious.

We do not spill blood. This move brings a smile to me because it makes our struggles even easier. The right to liberty! You will agree that in the African consciousness, we did not have prisons. We never locked up human beings.

It is livestock that we would lock up in a pen. Even our chickens were never locked up. They are free-range.

This makes me proud as an African and it makes me even more confident that human rights are not imports that came with colonialism.

We have always had human rights; they are not strange to us. We know what human rights are. We understand the dignity of the human being. That’s why even in our Bantu cultures across Africa, we respect human life.

Our Ubuntu is the bedrock of the dignity of the human being coupled with freedom. These are the values that we’ve always had. Colonial culture took us backward and introduced things like imprisonment; the death penalty; that you can cut people’s throats or hang them. These things are alien to us as Africans. We need to find our tongues and speak with our tongues about these issues and reclaim human rights. We have a lot to teach the rest of the Western world about genuine values of human rights. We need to put it on the table and look each other in the eye and say, hey, let’s talk about the dignity of the human being.

Because this is the bedrock of our African culture. We have an opportunity of taking the discourse back into our hands. That way we should be able to sort our problems ourselves.

We don’t need somebody to come from wherever to tell us that it is wrong to crowd people in a prison. We just didn’t lock people up; that it is wrong to slit another person’s throat or hang them. We don’t need to be told because we already know this wrong.

Those are in fact, our values and we keep doing the right thing. We will interact with others, but not from a position of being told that we have no idea of human rights; that we are barbaric, and that we don’t understand what a human being is. Hell no! The majority of African countries had to fight protracted liberation wars to reclaim these human rights. We know how to protect them.

PK: You were involved in the current Constitution-making process as deputy chairperson of Copac. What are your thoughts on political rights vis a vis Proportional Representation as espoused in the Constitution?

JM: Oh yes! I have a radical view about the place of proportional representation in our political system regarding the political rights of women. The Constitution provides that everyone has a right to hold public office as well as to be rep-resented fully. Beyond that, there is a provision that categorically prohibits discrimination against women or men.

The Constitution, in particular, requires that there be equal opportunities. Section 17 categorically provides that the State shall take legislative measures to ensure that at least 52 percent of decision-making positions in elected and appointed positions are held by women or on an equal basis with men and women.

What we need to remember is that the Constitution says, “the State must ensure”. Please underline, highlighting in capitals the word “ENSURE”.

There is an obligation to ensure that there is gender parity in the least because democracy is about proportionality and representative. It is an open secret that the population of women in Zimbabwe is at least 52 percent. They are more than men. What political and democratic rights would require is that women be represented.

It’s 52 percent of the positions, but we are nowhere near that. We are way down; among the lowest.

We are below the 20 percent threshold and that’s not healthy. Therefore, what needs to be done is, in my view, a 50 percent quota for women. I don’t know why we don’t say this enough and why we don’t support it. We forget the 50/50 constitutional requirement and then we end up getting lost in the quotas.

Proportional Representation, when it was introduced in the 2013 Constitution, was meant to prime the political landscape to get accustomed to women getting into the political space in numbers. It was more or less a soft landing for the increase to 50 percent.

It came from the recognition that if we straight away do a radical 50/50, it would bring shock-waves. There would have been dismissals, but an approach was put in place to prime the political system. The political party system that we had dominated the landscape. Because patriarchy and the domination of men are prevalent and alive in political parties, it is clear that women would not be likely to become candidates for their parties in equal numbers.

It was clear that patriarchy would have its way. What was then decided was finding a way of introducing more women without being radical. A lot of men, maybe not all of them, unfortunately, unnecessarily and needlessly feel threatened by women becoming em-powered. Men need not fear.

They need to be assured that it is good for them. But because of these fears, it was agreed that the approach should not make men feel like they are being deprived of something.

We would add women; increasing the numbers by adding women on top of the 120 seats. The idea was to add seats for women without removing the men from the seats that they occupied.

The seats that men are currently occupying in either council or in Parliament that extend beyond 50 percent belong to women. And that must be clearly understood. Those places are women’s places that men are sitting on. They belong to women.

And when women are taking them, they are not taking from men. You can only give what belongs to you. Those seats belong to women because democracy requires that. You cannot talk of democracy and democratic rights without gender equality. You can’t be democratic.

Even in this country, where we have a proud history of a liberation struggle that be-came armed. One of the biggest mantras during the war was majority rule.

The majority rule was the mantra for the liberation struggle. That’s what democracy Is about, the matter of proportionality. That same concept of majority rule applies from a gender perspective.

The majority of the population is women. There’s been a modesty around not going for the 52 percent. Let’s improve and get to the 50/50. The concept of majority rule is about proportionality. In this case, there were added seats to increase the number of women MPs for a temporary period. It’s an affirmative action measure.

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women defines affirmative action as “special temporary measures to accelerate the equality of women.”

This was precisely that; a temporary measure meant to be in place for 10 years. So that at the end of that, or during that 10 years, there were supposed to have been measures put in place to ensure that when they end, the political terrain in the political system would have put in place measures to ensure Section 17 is adhered to. Alas, that did not happen.

The first term was from 2013 to 2018. No measures were put in place. The second term was from 2018 to 2023. Again, no measures. Instead of putting in the measures and getting it right, there was, in my view, a very unwise and unfortunate decision to extend the quota.

Instead of biting the bullet and doing what was required to have been done in the past 10 years.

PK: What should have been the remedy?

JM: There should have been electoral reforms both at the legislated level as well as at the party level. Political systems in Namibia, a country that is right next to us, and that also went into a liberation struggle are very admirable in the political parties.

Political parties themselves commit to gender equality; they put in place quotas in their parties to ensure parity. And it’s all political parties, that compete for this. We should develop the political will to ensure that across the board, they feel that women and men should be equal members and that gives that chance of parity.

There is no appetite in the political parties in Zimbabwe. There isn’t a will in the political parties. Political parties are the spaces where all patriarchal and male power is exercised.

Unfortunately, despite the role that women played in the liberation struggle, there is nothing for them. It’s a paradox, but that’s the way it is. You don’t have that will from the political parties across the board.

We then need to put in place legislative measures and compel the parties to toe the line with constitutional equality. During the 10 years from 2013, the women’s quota was wasted, in my view. We should have resorted to the devices that are clear in the Constitution; the constitutional provisions on elections that created the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and spell out its mandate. It’s a duty to gender-delimit constituencies. In my view, what needs to be done is clear.

The delimitation process is what should have been used by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to not only delimit physical boundaries but also delimit gender boundaries. What it could then do is to demarcate and limit.

If Harare, for example, has 50 seats. Let’s say the seats are maybe 20 parliamentary seats and 30 local government council seats; what ZEC would then do is that 10 of those 20 parliamentary seats get a gender boundary and say, these 10 seats are for women only.

The same would happen to the local government seats. That’s the only way out. For the 50/50 to happen, you put in what you take out. You can’t put in 20% women candidates and expect to get 50 percent women candidates.

They’ve got to be 50/50. For that to happen, there needs to be changes to the Electoral Act to facilitate that. It’s hard, but that’s the only way that we’re going to ensure that this happens. If this doesn’t happen, the number of women will plummet further in this quota system being used. It’s a dangerous tool that also cuts against women. Because of the weak position of women in political parties, it is used against them.

The quota system is not serving any purpose. It is a tool that’s being ironically used to marginalise women. Women have been pushed out. Women get pushed from the constituencies that they have and get told, no, you go to your quota and the men take those seats.

Because women don’t have much power, they don’t have equal decision-making power in political parties, they are shuffled out. Women do not decide who gets on the party list. It’s the kingpins who hold those positions and they push around their weight and dislodge women.

The women end up also fighting each other viciously; turning against each other because the space has shrunk.

Sometimes, they are manipulated against their interests. The quota system is not the best tool. It’s an obstacle to the realization of the 50/50. We are failing to see the wood for the trees in there.

This is the problem. It was a red herring. Sadly, a lot of people and women fell for it. But instead of going for the two, it’s a distraction to going for the prize. The prize was 50/50.

Hopefully, these conversations and efforts will be made among the political players. Without those political rights being recognised, we are all the poorer. We continue to be deprived of the skills and proficiency that women bring to the decision-making table so that together with those skills in the perspectives of men, we can only equally do so much better as a nation.



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