Politics and Society

The Politics of Control and Ownership over Women’s Bodies

Discourses that shape reproductive and sexual rights in Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe is a predominantly conservative and Christian society which, akin to many countries on the continent, supports patriarchal traditional and religious philosophies. These often-restrictive ideologies and practices are deeply entrenched in conventional Christian churches (e.g. Roman Catholic), African Christian churches (e.g. Apostolic and Pentecostal), and African traditional religion, among others.



Although diverse in their approaches, these structures heavily influence the ways in which citizens experience their lives. The dominance of patriarchal structures offers researchers an opportunity to interrogate and deconstruct Zimbabwe’s 35-year-old flag-democracy for subtly upholding discriminatory practices that shape and violate women’s reproductive and sexual rights, irrespective of age, socio-economic status, geographical location and traditional or religious background, and that lead to politics of control and ownership over women’s bodies in Zimbabwe.

International vs National Rights Discourses

Although the past four decades have witnessed the proliferation and ratification of international instruments to improve access to reproductive and sexual rights globally, these have been met with tension at the national level. Such tension is largely explained by the fact that countries are expected to ground their national policy frameworks in these international documents that often flow out of the “international” discourse on reproductive and sexual rights.

However, because African customary law, for example, seldom draws from these international documents, “the national” becomes a site of contestation over rights in Zimbabwe and other African countries. Women’s efforts to subvert gendered reproductive and sexual boundaries are often met with a resistance that is deeply entrenched in the need to preserve what the state considers as “the national heritage” in its bid to eliminate Western influences on cultural identity. The meaning of “being Zimbabwean” for women is therefore framed in terms of the incessant control and ownership of their bodies by the state through conservative policies that police women’s sexuality. These macrolevel debates do not only call for a contextual analysis of traditional and religious practices, they are also gateways for exploring the real limitations to women’s access to and progress towards universal sexual reproductive rights in Zimbabwe.


The Reproductive and Sexual Rights Landscape in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, traditional and religious practices continue to influence women’s access to control and ownership of their bodies. This is evident in the ways women negotiate the restrictive symbolism and frameworks that police notions of virginity, “real” womanhood, marriage, lobola (bride price), contraception and termination of pregnancy.

Photo: Naija Housewives

Over the years, religious institutions have had a strong influence on the evolution of traditional values and moral systems in Zimbabwe. Beyond shaping young women’s individual identities, missionaries in the colonial period constructed the meaning of womanhood based on predetermined social and sexual mores. The sexuality of these young women was governed by religious codes of sexual purity legitimated by biblical teachings, an observation that hints at the subsequent impact of religion on the reading of women’s sexuality in contemporary Zimbabwe. The high value set on real womanhood and sexual purity encouraged heavy policing of the sexual body by parents, society and religious institutions through stringent rules for courtship and other aspects of interaction between genders.

Indepth analysis of this surveillance discourse shows how internalising the norms that govern virginity – believing that any deviation is punishable and brings disgrace on the family – can shape young women’s sexuality into adult life. Women’s bodies become a yardstick of morality in both traditional and religious perspectives.

Zimbabwean women’s reproductive and sexual rights are also regulated by the gendered structures of marriage practices, especially the traditional practice of lobola. Whether married through traditional or religious institutions, women’s rights to their reproductive and sexual bodies are negotiated through their relationship to the men (fathers, brothers, husbands, in-laws, patriarchal leaders) who represent these institutions. The payment of lobola, through which uxorial rights are transferred to the husband and his family, effectively grants a man the right to demand sex from his wife. The woman is left with very limited (if any) power to resist her husband’s demands, and a challenge to his authority is often the basis for gender-based violence within marriages. Inherent in this practice are silences around women’s sexuality and the absence of reproductive and sexual rights in marriage because women feel obliged to fulfil their wifely responsibilities against all odds. The religious narrative that “we [the married couple] are morally upright” further undermines women’s ability to raise suspicions of infidelity or to negotiate safe sex and entrenches their vulnerabilities.

Photo: New Zimbabwe

In addition, the values that are central to the establishment of a family – which also regulate ownership over women’s bodies and their reproductive capabilities – are deeply embedded and experienced within traditional and religious institutions. In order to simultaneously extend the clan name and fulfil the biblical injunction to “marry and multiply”, the family sustains women’s procreative function as mothers. Married women who belong to the Apostolic faith sect, for example, fulfil their reproductive obligation by not making use of contraceptives or gynaecological health services. Relying on divine power for all their family planning concerns, they end up with limited time even to breathe between pregnancies. In addition to the effects of rejecting biomedicine, their reproductive and sexual rights are further compromised by the sect’s endorsement of the traditional practice of polygamy. Consequently, a married Apostolic woman makes few decisions concerning her fertility and sexuality as she endeavours to meet all the traditional and religious expectations placed on her body – irrespective of the risk of contracting HIV in polygamous unions or the impact of uncontrolled pregnancy cycles.

Closely linked to the religious discourse of “marry and multiply” is the traditional natural birth-control method of “breastfeeding-weaning”, described by women from an older generation as mupise dire, a metaphor that refers to brewing traditional beer over a fire. When the beer is cooked, it is poured into another container to allow fermentation to take place and to make space for the next pot of beer to be brewed. In the same vein, women breastfeed and wean a baby in preparation for next conception. Framed this way, women’s reproductive and sexual roles become a repressive tool that impedes their say over their bodies. From a religious and traditional perspective, family takes on the image of “a brewery for patriarchal practices” where women and men are socialised to accept sexually differentiated roles”. It is within this landscape that battles for reproductive and sexual rights in Zimbabwe are engaged. Women find themselves struggling to subvert longstanding gendered hierarchies that are deeply entrenched in and reinforced by patriarchal traditional and religious structures.


Photo: Guengl

Coerced sex is implicit in these gendered sexual power struggles. Although rape within marriage was legally recognised as a crime in Zimbabwe with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of 2001, the interplay between law and tradition in Zimbabwe deters women from fully utilising the provisions of this Act. That intersection illuminates how the state institutionalises the control of women’s reproductive labour by men. For example, from a cultural perspective, it is problematic for a married woman to report marital rape. To fulfil her procreative function, she cannot terminate the pregnancy, even if she gets pregnant as a result of coerced intercourse – and even though the law recognises marital rape and her right to abort in the Termination of Pregnancy Act No. 29 of 1977. Thus, a woman married under the Marriages Act (Chapter 5:11) and the Customary Marriages Act (Chapter 5:07) cannot fully exercise the sexual and reproductive rights subtly enshrined in these Acts. This paradox illuminates the tensions and contradictions between these rights and some cultural and religious beliefs, norms and values, and exposes how a married woman’s rights are undermined by the cultural mores and ideological constructions of her societal context. These gendered realities indicate that the declaration of the 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe13 to nullify “all laws, customs, traditions and cultural practices that infringe the rights of women” is far from realised.

The UN Children’s Fund has estimated the number of illegal abortions performed in Zimbabwe at 70 000 per annum. Although this figure is contested by government representatives, it points to a sharp increase from the “5 450 women who sought treatment for incomplete abortions in Harare in 1992 alone.” Despite these alarming figures, a strong pro-life lobby exists in Zimbabwe, constituted predominantly by key political and religious leaders who are influenced by the socio-legal and spiritual dilemmas of abortion. These two quotes demonstrate how contested the discourse is: Dr Henry Madzorera, then the minister of health and child welfare: “The Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1977 still stands. By approving post-abortion care to those who could have experienced or practiced unsafe abortions, we are not giving people [women] the right to abort. We are only trying to save lives. The fact that abortion is illegal means it is not a right for women to abort.” A local priest: “As a Christian, there’s no grey area: abortion is murder. The foetus, from conception, has a life, a soul, and we, as human beings, have no right to kill it.”

Photo Zambia Centre for Communication Programme

The discourses discussed above are deployed by both institutions to police ways in which women access their reproductive and sexual bodies within and outside of marriage. In the eyes of religious and traditional authority figures, women who fall pregnant out of wedlock and abort are forever deemed unholy and unfit to hold any respectable positions in society. The label mapoto women is often attached to women who are sexually active outside of marriage, especially those who move in with men before they are married customarily. The constructs of tradition and religion emerge as powerful vehicles through which women are perpetually silenced and subordinated in their gendered and sexualised bodies.

Beyond Tensions and Contradictions

The image of women as reproductive and sexual objects is also somewhat contested in contemporary Zimbabwe. Emerging discourses of female sexual pleasure and women’s agency to initiate sex deconstruct the generic representation of women as compliant and sexually inferior beings whose primary responsibility is to please men. Empirical research shows that Zimbabwean women have always been expected to derive pleasure from the traditional practices of labia elongation and the sexual accessories that a woman received just before marriage. Unlike the “use of herbs/substances to dry, contract and heat the vagina for enhancement of [men’s] sexual pleasure” – regardless of the increased risk to women of cancer and HIV-infection – women wore bead belts around their waists that had great sexual significance, rubbing against her body during sexual intercourse to enhance her pleasure. However, due to taboos and silences around sexuality in Zimbabwe, such knowledge has only passed through the generations in very private coaching circles. This limits its potential to challenge the mainstream discourse that reserves sexual pleasure for men or to reconstruct women as beings who derive sexual pleasure from a traditional practice.

Furthermore, the predominant Christian religious institutions in Zimbabwe have had an influence on traditional values and moral systems over the years. Traditional practices such as widow inheritance, forced and early marriages, and polygamy have faded away, publicly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, which celebrates monogamy. In the context of HIV and AIDS, this seemingly positive development has not only given legitimacy to the church and won it support from other progressive religious organisations, it has also advanced the debatable view that “church affiliation alone diminishes pre- and extra-marital sex levels.”

Photo: Julia Pernet /European Humanist Federation

It is, however, imperative to note that conservative anti- contraception and antiabortion church policies also aggravate the incidence of HIV-infection and AIDS, and negatively impact women’s rights. Despite the diversity within these religious institutions, their principles and practices collectively influence the experience of women in Zimbabwe.



Broad engagement with the complex politics of control and ownership over women’s bodies in Zimbabwe has revealed that society, through traditional and religious institutions, inherently grants men authority in reproductive and sexual matters. Patriarchal ideologies simultaneously reduce women to objects whose primary function in marriage revolves around their procreative ability. The state’s failure to recognise women as central agents in sexual and reproductive decision-making limits women’s access to, engagement with, and ownership of their bodies. Its role in addressing gendered inequality will be highly questionable if the government fails to ensure that the provisions of the 2013 Constitution bridge the disconnection between doctrine and practice. For instance, the government should explicitly ensure that these constitutional amendments are directly enshrined in legislation, as mentioned above, that currently sustains patriarchal ideologies that undermine women’s reproductive and sexual rights. Targeted legal reform emerges as a key strategy to ensure that Zimbabwean women’s control and ownership over their bodies in the face of traditional and religious opposition is improved.

This article was first published by the Heinrich Bohl Stiftung and is republished here with their permission.

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