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Women in interracial marriage - Still facing discrimination in Zimbabwe
September 2001

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Although the legal environment governing inter racial marriages has greatly improved in Zimbabwe, women married to men of different races still have to confront social and cultural barriers.

According to Dr Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law lecturer, discriminatory marriage laws existed before Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980. "The Marriages Act, which denied people of different races, particularly blacks and whites from marrying each other was repealed in the 1950s because it was discriminatory and unconstitutional. However, whites were not allowed to marry under the African Marriages Act, which was another form of racial discrimination," Madhuku, who is also chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic organization advocating law reforms in Zimbabwe explains.

Laws that discriminated against people on the grounds of their race were repealed after Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, explained Madhuku. But after independence, laws were enacted which discriminated against people on the basis of gender. Of note was the Citizenship Act, which allowed foreign females to get automatic Zimbabwean citizenship if they married a male citizen. This right was not extended to Zimbabwean women.

Sekai, a black Zimbabwean woman married to white Australian Jim Holland, is one person who suffered a bitter struggle at independence when, she says the government wanted to deport her husband back to his home country despite the constitutional provisions against such an act.

"For 16 months we fought battles in the courts to have my husband allowed to stay in Zimbabwe and at last we won the battle and my husband was allowed to stay in the country," she explained. "Mixed marriages under the colonial period were rejected and the government did not do much to reconcile citizens not to segregate each other on racial lines, says Holland.

Sekai feels that both the government and non-governmental organizations have failed to invest in racial harmony. As a result, some colonial practices that perpetuate racial discrimination still exist in Zimbabwe, she says.

"This piece of legislation (Citizenship Act) was both unlawful and unconstitutional because it violated women's rights. It did not have any space in a democratic society which respects human rights and gives equal opportunities to all people irrespective of their sex," Madhuku says.

The discriminatory nature of the Citizenship Act forced women and human rights campaigners to wage a bitter campaign against it. Their efforts forced President Robert Mugabe's government to persuade Parliament to amend the Constitution. The amendment became famously known as Amendment number 14 of 1996. The new law took away men's rights to have their foreign wives gain automatic citizenship. It now requires both Zimbabwean men and women who have foreign spouses to apply to the Immigration Office for registration of their unions.

Zimbabwe is considered as having one of the best Bill of Rights when it comes to race relations and mixed marriages in particular. The Declaration of Rights Section 11 of the Constitutions says, " every person in Zimbabwe is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, the right whatever his race, tribe, place of origin, political opinion, colour, creed or sex but subject to the respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest."

Although these strides have been made on the legal front, women married to men of other races continue to face an uphill struggle socially and culturally. Although interracial marriages are quite acceptable among sections of the elite, there is still a lot of stigma associated with such relationships at other levels of the society. A lot of the women married to men of different races are ostracized by friends and family. Black women married to white men or those of other races are labeled prostitutes and accused of being disrespectful of culture.

Tendai, a black Zimbabwean woman married to a Dutch national Clemens Westerhoff says she has often borne the brunt of this discrimination. "Some people do not approve of such kind of relationships (interracial). One can see an element of disapproval among both blacks and whites if say we (Clemens and I) go together to a restaurant. The divide can be seen from the way people look at you."

A white businesswoman who is married to a black man and who preferred anonymity says she also has not been spared the disapproving glances:. "While other powerful groups in Zimbabwe, like politicians and businesspeople see nothing wrong with interracial marriages, typical traditional and conservative men in our country do not approve these unions," she explains. She says that she has numerous problems when she visits her husbands' rural home and her conservative friends in Harare.

"In the rural area, some people think that our relationship is queer and each time we visit our rural home, a number of villagers actually gather to observe the behaviour of a white woman married to a black person. One day I heard one of the village elders saying that my children will not be blessed because of this union," explained the businesswoman.

She told IPS that although there was nothing illegal about that union, a lot needed to be done to educate people that there was nothing untraditional for white and black people to marry each other. Furthermore, there is need for people to come to terms with people's human right to choose freely, their life partner.

Ironically, men married to white or Asian women are regarded as symbols of achievement although conservative patriarchal social leaders such as chiefs sometimes accuse them of violating traditional norms. The different reactions to men and women's interracial marriages indicate the gendered nature of interracial relationships.

Sekai feels the government should have done more to operationalize its policy of reconciliation expounded at independence in 1980. She feels civic organizations and the government should organize workshops where they educate members of society on methods of conflict resolution and peaceful co-existence. Such workshops can also be used to assist people to accept interracial relationships and to eradicate the myths and misconceptions surrounding such marriages.

From the looks of things, it seems plausible to say that Zimbabweans should appreciate that the Constitution of this diverse Southern African nation says citizens are all those born in Zimbabwe, born to Zimbabwean parents, descendants of Zimbabweans and those who obtained the status through marriage to Zimbabweans or applied for it.

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