zimbabwe human rights

“Wear a Dress, Keep Clean, Keep Your Legs Together”


The Raoul Wallenberg Institute, together with its academic cooperation partners (Africa University, Great Zimbabwe University and Midlands State University) under the Zimbabwe Human Rights Capacity Development Programme 2016-2018, recently concluded a two-day workshop on human rights research methodologies in the vibrant capital city of Harare.

A particular focus of this workshop was to, through targeted lectures and engaging roundtable discussions, hash out the gender and sex implications in the participants’ current research projects.

Facilitating these gender and sex sessions was Professor Julie Stewart, Director of the Southern and Eastern African Regional Centre for Women’s Law (SEARCWL) at the University of Zimbabwe. Timothy Maldoon, a programme officer at RWI, sat down with Julie and asked her a few pertinent questions on the matter at hand.

What first sparked your interest in gender and sex issues?

Somehow it has always been there. I cannot remember a time when I was not acutely aware of the significance of being born female and how that circumscribed my life options and choice. Career choices I had as a teenager would be commented on as not really being for girls: why not become a legal secretary, a veterinary nurse.

Workshop participants

Wear a dress, keep clean, keep your legs together. No, no, no, good girls don’t do that. So it was quite natural that 1970s feminism was right for me as it fit with my own demands and hopes. But I knew somehow that we needed the legal and social transformation. Currently we have paper transformation; now the real work begins.

But, yes, I have always been a rebel, and the little princess image is not me and never was!

Why is it essential that researchers (and society at large for that matter) consider gender and sex implications in their work?

If we are looking at human rights, socioeconomic rights, equality paradigms and constitutional and legal rights and issues, it is vital to be able to consider the different conditionalities that affect attainment of those rights and entitlements for an individual. Albeit a notional individual, we need to understand who mediates access, who facilitates access and the barriers to access of the rights and entitlements.

Even when we have the rights in place, it is then a question of operationalisation and utilisation, as no matter how carefully we draft inclusion into laws, or demand inclusion at international level it has to be put into operation and ‘advertised’, and then – just as at the beginning of the process – sex and gender has to be carefully factored into sensitive information dissemination.

For those that may be struggling/find it difficult to make said considerations in their work, what do you say to them?

This is a critical question as thinking through how to cover sex and gender issues in human rights and legal work can be very difficult. In my experience there is very little that provides a simple entry point. Very often the initial introduction is through feminist jurisprudence which tends, perfectly rightly, to begin with a critique of the situation of women and girls. So someone can be very alert to the debate but puzzled about how it fits into their work.

This is why I always start with the simple notion of the dichotomy, although dichotomy is too simplistic in the long term, in outcomes for females and males in relation to any issue you like to think of. The simple question: What is going on when you put the notional male and the notional female into any given situation be it rural, urban, education, medical, employment, or literally every situation you can think of? It is about helping people to envision how different people experience different situations.

Then the next step is to ask: Is there law or policy, human rights, socioeconomic rights or new constitutional mandates that prescribe rights and entitlements in relation to the issue? Then the question becomes: Is the trajectory towards claiming or attaining that right or entitlement the same for males and females? Are there facilitating factors or barriers that ‘interfere’ with access dependent on sex or gender ascriptions? Then of course the next steps are around class, religion, culture and other impeding or facilitating factors.

Many people who I work with find figuring out how to include sex and gender difficult because they think they have to go full bore on feminist theory and do not know where to start. For lawyers it can be a little difficult to just sit and think about the how and what of sex and gender. The easiest starting point is recognising difference and then using your own experiential data just to get the idea. Dr. James Tsabora, a participant at the workshop, was a classic example: he told me he had wanted to engage with sex and gender analysis but couldn’t see how; then just taking those few first steps over the course of the workshop, he got it very quickly.

Interestingly at SEARCWL we always start with research methodology, and the first week is just sex deconstruction, then gender deconstruction, then putting it all together from experiential data. Only after that is research methodology in law introduced. After six full weeks on methodologies, feminist theory is introduced and it fits together. I am told by some lecturers who come in to teach in specialist areas that classes demand to know from them where sex and gender fits it.

So start with the very simple, grasp the significance of difference and how to manage it for the achievement of the structures, physical and conceptual, as well as laws and policies that provide the conditions for sex and gender equity and equality.

The programme in Zimbabwe is supported financially by Swedish Development Cooperation (Sida).