Bernadette Chipembere promoting the rights of women

Bernadette Chipembere promoting the rights of women

Date: December 7, 2010
  • SHARE:

When the judges at the first Gender Justice and Local Government Summit in Johannesburg in March 2010 reviewed Bernadette Chipembere’s entry, it defied simple categorisation. One thing they knew for sure: she deserved a prize for her multifaceted work to promote the rights of women. So it was that the judges created an exceptional award for this “special interest” councillor who takes up cases of land rights for dispossessed widows; fights the eviction of market traders; has started a campaign against trafficking, and intervenes with local police in domestic violence cases when these get botched.

Being a “special interest” councillor means that the minister appointed Chipembere to the council for her skills. It is space that Chipembere, also deputy chair of the Zimbabwe Women in Local Government Forum (WLGF), puts to good effect. “Not answering to any political party means that I can advocate for women’s rights in council,” she explains. “I cater for all women.”

At a WLGF meeting just prior to the publication of this study in November 2010, Chipembere proudly showed off the laptop she won and the good uses to which she has put it. In less than a year, the Chiredzi councillor had obtained an E Mail address, becoming the main “send and receive” box for all council documents. She receives and distributes information from the GL list serve, and coordinated the 2010 Sixteen Day cyber dialogues in Chiredzi. You will also find her on face book where she had 200 friends at the time of writing this report.

Most important, the work on the ground is steaming ahead. When GL first met Chipembere in early 2010, she had taken on the district administrator who is the chairman of the land board at district level because Land Officers were taking away farms from vulnerable groups despite there being a policy clearly stating that in the event of a death all properties left behind become issues of inheritance. She took on the plight of the women and children because they had no-one to turn to in the face of repossessions.

Chipembere assisted 72 widows to write their problems and forward these to the district land board. Frustrated by not getting anywhere using formal channels she decided to contact the Sunday mail reporter Emilia Zindi who started running her story in the paper and also helped by lobbying for urgent response at ministry level.

The councillor had to dip into her own pocket for trips to Harare and accommodation for meetings; cell phone bills; accommodation and meals for three days for three reporters who went to Chiredzi to cover the story plus fuel and farm visits. Finally the government sent the national task force to Chiredzi for three weeks. And following the publicity she received after winning the award, the minister himself visited Chipembere, ensuring resolution to all 72 cases. “This was the end result of six months hard work,” she reflected. “I could not believe my eyes when eleven cars from the national lands inspectorate converged at the offices of the town council, and one after the other solved the cases I had raised.”

Moreover, the district now has a woman District Administrator, appointed, she suspects as a result of “all the noise we make here. If you talk about gender in Chiredzi, yes we do make a noise.” Chipembere and her colleagues made it clear that they would expect the support of the new DA by organising a welcoming party with the support of the local business women’s network that is also helping Chipembere to host the 2010 Sixteen Day cyber dialogues in the hot and dry Sabi Valley of south east Zimbabwe, well known for its sugar plantations and large scale irrigation schemes.

One problem solved sparks many more challenges. Laughing that she is the unpaid legal advice centre for women, Chipembere reels off a number of domestic violence cases in which police (in cohorts with perpetrators) have lost the files of women or otherwise frustrated the prosecution of cases. “I am telling the police they must get on top of their game,” she says. “These officers know that when Mai (mother) Chipembere comes along, there is going to be a lot of noise. I will not allow the police and perpetrators to win when they should not.”

When cholera broke out in Chiredzi and council officials pounced on women selling food at local markets, Chipembere intervened to find solutions short of evicting the women from their stalls. “When council officials look at women vending food, they see cholera,” Chipembere observed. “I see women working to send their children to school.”

Bernadette Chipembere receives and award at the Gender Justice and Local Government Summit

Information, she reflected, is empowering. For example, while at the Gender Justice and Local Government summit, Chipembere learned of the plight of South African women traders harassed by police ahead of Soccer 2010. Later she read an article on the GL list about how these women had sought redress. “When you read something like that it inspires you,” she said.

The versatile councillor stumbled on Face book while tinkering on the Internet, followed the instructions and signed up. “The friends have not stopped coming,” she laughed. “I have met so many interesting people, feminists, gender activists, who want to network with me. I am learning so much about gender through these networks.”

A pragmatist who looks for solutions to every day challenges, Chipembere is also concerned about the long-term empowerment of women. For example, she and the business women’s forum (of which she is patron) have started a campaign to get women to share among themselves. ‘We are saying at this time of economic hardship that if you have ten pairs of shoes surely you can afford to part with one. If you have nappies in the cupboard because your children have grown up, surely you can share them with a mother using newspapers because she cannot afford nappies.”

But when you ask her about the key challenges of her council, the Chiredzi women’s rights campaigner cites bringing about gender balance to a council comprising two women and seven men in the next election, as well as mainstreaming gender in the work of the council. Chipembere sees gender budgeting as a critical tool for ensuring that the needs of women are catered for. “Women need to have a strong voice in decision-making,” she said. “They also need to be empowered to exercise their rights.”



Comment on Bernadette Chipembere promoting the rights of women

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *