The second phase of the Professional Training Programme on the Equal Status and Human Rights of Women took place in Lund and Stockholm recently. The 21 participants represented Zimbabwe’s government agencies, independent commissions, traditional leaderships, academia and civil society organisations. During the two weeks the participants were presented to the work of institutions acting in different and complementary levels in Sweden, from the national to the local level.
We sat down with one of the participants, Ms Kwanele Muriel Jirira, to learn more about her engagement in gender equality back home in Zimbabwe.
“Do you ever sleep?”
The question is a knee-jerk reaction upon the discovery of the impressive amount of work done by Commissioner at the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, Kwanele Muriel Jirira. She has almost 30 years of practical experience in human rights and gender equality in Zimbabwe.
Since 2011, she has chaired the Thematic Working Group on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights at the commission. She laughs at the question.
“Yes, I do sleep. When I was younger, I was very active, but not as much anymore. How can you let your brain sleep?”
She was raised in pre-independence Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, in Harare. Her mother died when she was still young, leaving her with what she now sees as a progressive father.
“He was an equal opportunity person and wanted all his children to learn, no matter if you were a boy or a girl. I guess it made me assertive.”
Just like her father, Kwanele Muriel Jirira studied in the US, focusing on political science, social work and political economy, completing BS and MA degrees from the Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and Pittsburgh University, Pittsburgh. She also has qualifications in political economy from the New School for Social Research (now New School) in New York City.
Being a student in 70’s America, where second wave feminism had managed to push gender equality on the agenda in the universities, Jirira became a feminist.
“It was just natural that I should be interested, I used to be active in the feminist group and I went to a very lefty school in New York. It was a fascinating time and I was meeting people from all over the world. It was that kind of university which opens your mind to other cultures and people.”
At the same time, whilst being abroad, Zimbabwe gained its independence. When Jirira returned home in 1984, her country had been independent for four years.
“Things were vibrant. It was a thrilling time – people were so excited.”
Being back in Harare, Jirira started working for an NGO in order to reestablish her relationship with a country that was new to her, post-independence. Two years later, she joined the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe as a researcher, a position where she focused on field related work.
“You can’t just explain things from your computer. By taking information of what you’ve seen on the ground, we came up with recommendations on how to improve a situation.”
Over the decades to come, Jirira focused on social and economic rights, gathering information on poverty and gender related issues. Gaining expertise that resulted in her being hired as a consultant for UN bodies, governments and politicians. Often, these consulting missions were lecturing on affirmative methods called gender budget training.
“I train women in budget allocations and how the government’s budget impacts women’s health and sexual reproductive rights. We know women have a higher mortality rate than men and then we know that you have to put more money to women because women get pregnant and they might die due to poor health delivery; so there is a need for proper facilities to secure a safe birth,” she says. “It is the same for men’s health, you have to make sure that the money’s allocated in the right way.”
Jirira concludes that gender equality has improved over the years in Zimbabwe. In 2016, child marriages were made illegal, and the country now has a good constitution when it comes to raising awareness about gender related issues and a lot of influential women’s organizations.
However there is still a gap between the legal and practical work, where a lot of the problems are structural.
“In Zimbabwe, we have more girls than boys who drop out from school – and you need to know why that is. It goes up to university levels as well, where we need to encourage girls and women to apply for scientific programs. There is a need for affirmative action so that those problems are addressed in a gender related way.”
During the study visits in Sweden provided by the RWI Training Programme, she found inspiration in especially two things:
“We were told about how Lund is trying to become a Human Rights City. It was a refreshing thing that I could share back home. Sweden is a great place to visit and see how things are being done here. Your prisons are not prisons – they are hotels!”
With eyes set on the future and continued progress, we discuss the main human rights challenges in Zimbabwe at this stage:
“To make people aware of their rights. That not only privileged people, like me, are able to claim their rights. That is what I would like – that people in the urban area can say that they can access their rights. Perhaps not in my lifetime but I want to contribute and move towards an improvements.”