By Gift Kugara
A recent case involving MDC-T MP Evelyn Masaiti’s failed attempt to marry her Cameroonian partner yet again illustrates the raw deal women in general and women politicians in particular receive in the media.
The narrative in some media went beyond what was really necessarily to describe the story and instead touched on sensitive issues about Masaiti’s private life which seemed to be at casting doubt on her personal integrity. It is doubtful that such treatment would have been meted to a male politician.
For example, having narrated the refusal by the Masvingo Magistrate to preside over the marriage on the ground that her prospective husband had failed to produce the required certificate of no marriage from his home country, some media reports (like New Zimbabwe.com) went on to describe how Masaiti’s previous husband, Isaac Matongo, had died. The language used seemed to suggest that Matongo had died as a result of a sexual encounter with Masaiti.
A report on (the New Zimbabwe.com) website describes in the following crude terms: “Matongo died of a heart attack on May 2, 2007, after romping with Masaiti”. The language suggests that Matongo succumbed to his death following a sexual encounter with Masaiti. This comes after a paragraph that describes Masaiti’s alleged infidelity.
Basically, the report tries to paint Masaiti’s character in unflattering terms. In basic terms it says: here is an MP, whose previous three husbands have died, including one who died in the aftermath of a “sex romp”, who has been accused of infidelity and is now seeking to marry a younger, foreign man.
At a time when Zimbabwe is apparently making strides to improve the lot of women; to change attitudes toward women and women politicians in particular, such reporting in the media is unhelpful and simply strengthens the age-old stereotypes of women in public life.
It is this type of characterisation that dissuades women from entering public life, let alone participating in politics. Besides the old stereotypes about women, it also perpetuates negative stereotypes about widows. It is unfair, morally questionable and discriminatory to treat women who have suffered misfortune in this way.
Masaiti’s treatment illustrates why the constitution must be emphatic about the prohibition of discriminatory conduct towards women on the basis of marital status. It is also the same reason why hate speech or language that promotes hostility and discrimination towards women must be proscribed in the constitution.
Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing which must be vigorously defended but it is important to have provisions which ensure that speech that encourages hate, hostility or discrimination must be prohibited and those responsible for it must be held to account.
One can imagine young women aspiring to enter politics reading such a negative story that reveals ugly and unnecessary private detail about a politician and makes hostile innuendoes. Or a widow who has ambitions to enter politics or participate in public life.
Would they be prepared to put up with unnecessary revelations about their private lives, details not about the fact that their husbands died but that seem to suggest that they were somehow responsible for it?
It’s worse even when such innuendoes are not supported by facts but reflect a reporter’s reckless and wild imagination. It is such attitudes and practices that continue to place serious barriers in the paths of women engaging in politics or public life in general.
The media has a serious responsibility to discharge in undoing the old stereotypes towards women and widows. It has a moral obligation, having so much freedom that is rightfully defended, to promote and further the cause of women.
On the issue of the refusal by the magistrate to solemnise the marriage, one would have expected a more robust and critical analysis of the law that effectively prohibits Zimbabweans (men and women, alike) to marry foreigners. Indeed, the requirement to produce a certificate of no marriage could very well be in violation of Zimbabwean citizens’ fundamental rights – to movement and association.
Magistrate Jabulani Mzinyathi is reported to have stated: “Under the law reforms, foreigners are now required to produce a verifiable ‘certificate of no marriage’ from their countries of origin before they marry in Zimbabwe.”
This measure is presumably a response to the alleged rampant abuse of the marriage institution since the landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe in the 1994 case of Rattigan and Others v. Chief Immigration Officer of Zimbabwe.
The Supreme Court ruled that “to prohibit the husbands from residing in Zimbabwe and so disable them from living with their wives in the country of which they are citizens and to which they owe allegiance, is in effect to undermine and devalue the protection of freedom of movement accorded to each of the wives as a member of a family unit.”
That ruling enabled foreign husbands of Zimbabwean citizens to be entitled to live with their wives in Zimbabwe. The various rules and mechanisms that foreign husbands needed to fulfil were therefore a hindrance to women’s enjoyment of their constitutional rights especially viewed in the context that Zimbabwean women were at the time being treated differently from their male counterparts.
However, this also opened the gates and created a problem from an immigration point of view. In efforts to control the influx of foreigners trying to exploit Zimbabwe’s lax immigration laws through the marriage institution, the state has responded by creating measures to prevent what are commonly referred to as sham marriages or marriages of convenience.
It is not unusual for foreigners seeking immigration papers to pay their way into a marriage. The state’s mechanisms to control the escalation of such marriages is to require the foreigner to produce a “certificate of no marriage”.
The public interest to control immigration must be balanced with the private interests of the parties involved, in particular the Zimbabwean citizen’s fundamental rights. Using this test, it is possible to judge whether the requirement of a certificate of no marriage is a reasonable requirement in a democratic society.
How reasonable is it to expect a certificate of no marriage to be produced before a marriage can be allowed? Does this not depend on whether the foreign partner’s home country recognises, let alone produces such a certificate in the first place? Does this mean that if the foreign country does not provide for such certificates, the Zimbabwean citizen will be unable to marry her foreign partner under Zimbabwean law?
The effect of this requirement could be such that Zimbabwean citizens intending to marry their foreign partners may be prevented from doing so under the law for no other reason except that the certificate of no marriage cannot be produced and not because of the fault of the Zimbabwean citizen or his/her foreign partner.
Arguably, this would be unreasonable. It would violate the Zimbabwean citizen’s right to freedom of association which also includes the right to relate to and marry a person of one’s choice. The fact that the chosen partner is a foreigner should not be reason enough to discriminate Zimbabwean citizen’s right.
In fact, one could ask why the same requirement is not required of two Zimbabweans intending to marry because the very existence of bigamy laws is an acknowledgement of the fact that there are people who marry illegally whilst they are married elsewhere. The same problem of a person marrying whilst married to someone else exists in respect of prospective Zimbabwean spouses as it does in respect of foreigners.
The discrimination here is not between the Zimbabwean and the foreigner but between two Zimbabwean citizens: one intending to marry a Zimbabwean and the other intending to marry a foreigner. There is no rational basis for requiring a ‘certificate of no marriage’ from one but not the other.
It is possible that the requirement can be challenged in court because it may be unconstitutional. One would expect that the media would be more critical of the law as opposed to delving into the private affairs of Masaiti, which are hardly supported by facts.
Much of it is innuendo and suggestions regarding her character and personality that borders on vilification? The media does a disservice to the cause of women’s empowerment when it perpetuates such stereotypes as we saw in this matter.
It is about striking the right balance between respect for women and a firm assertion of our laws given the current demonisation and the insensitivity demonstrated by the press.
One’s thoughts are drawn to Oliver Mtukudzi’s timeless song, Neria. The line “kufirwa nemurume hanzvadzi, zvinoda mwoyo wekushinga (to lose a husband is a difficult ordeal, my sister. It requires a strong heart).”
Masaiti and those in her unfortunate position may find some comfort in these words. But we must take responsibility; accept equality and the emancipation of women. How we treat women politicians or women in public life in general is fundamental in this endeavour.
The writer Gift Kugara can be contacted on e-mail: [email protected]