Zimbabwe, Age of Consent, Same-Sex Marriage and Other Issues
By Alex T. Magaisa
On Saturday 27th June 2015, I conducted a straw poll among my community of friends and associates on the social network, Facebook. I wanted to get a sense of attitudes of fellow Zimbabweans, mostly, to important social issues.
A question that had always played in my mind was whether we could be regarded as a conservative society or one that has become more liberal over the course of time. I thought gauging opinion on various socially important issues might be a useful starting point. There are various other issues but I limited them to only 6 for now. We may do more in future.
Having been involved in writing the new constitution, I was also aware that those of us sitting at the table had had to form opinions very quickly on what Zimbabweans thought, based on data which was mostly inconclusive.
Sometimes, we also looked at international best practice and relied on international human rights instruments to include what we believed to be the correct and acceptable standards. I realise however that international best practices are not always consistent with the prevailing views in a particular society, as indeed this straw poll shows.
The poll does not purport to be representative of Zimbabwe generally, a task that would require a far more rigorous process and scientific tools and financial resources to accomplish. But this straw poll serves my initial purpose.
The “Yes” and “No” options to the questions may not have suited everyone or every question, but it was necessary to frame them that way to ease the process. I am aware, for example that on abortion, there could be more alternatives, such that those who otherwise disagree with it might agree only in certain circumstances, for instance where pregnancy is a result of rape.
In that sense the Yes or No option might have been limiting. Nevertheless, what I have provides me with some useful general indicators of public opinion.
One key observation in all this is that Zimbabweans do have opinions and they can express them if given an opportunity. I was overwhelmed by the response rate and the desire you demonstrated to be heard. It gives a kick to the view that Zimbabweans are apathetic on issues.
If given a free and fair platform, they will happily express themselves! I think politicians had better take note and not take people for granted – they have opinions and they want to be heard!
I am happy to open this to further debate, so that those who have views on certain issues can express them – why for example do people support corporal punishment on male juveniles? Why do so many oppose same-sex marriage? Why do so many support 18 years as the suitable minimum age of consent? Why do you think churches should be taxed?
Issue 1: THE DEATH PENALTY
Total Valid Votes (182)
71,4% oppose the death penalty with only 28,6% in support of it.
There is overwhelming opposition to the death penalty. When we were writing the constitution, there was divided opinion on the death penalty and data was not very clear. This resulted in one of the worst clauses in the constitution with s. 48 which discriminates on the basis of gender as it reserves the death penalty for adult males under the age of 70 and exempts all women. While the use of the death penalty was severely restricted, it being reserved only for cases of aggravated murder, still the gender-based discrimination defies sense. This is a matter that would be ideal for a referendum so that it is settled once and for all. If this straw poll is any indication, then the death penalty would be unlikely to survive.
Issue 2: ABORTION
Total Valid Votes (193)
50,3% support abortion compared to 49,7% who oppose it.
Opinion is almost evenly divided on this issue. This was also the case during the constitution-making process, as again, the data was inconclusive. Based on the predominant theme of promoting women’s rights, I thought it was fair to respect the right to choose and more importantly the right to control one’s own body. These concepts were not universally understood or accepted. In the end, the provisions were designed to prohibit abortion but that the law could permit it in certain special circumstances, as has always been the law on termination of pregnancy. There is still room however, through s. 52 on the right to personal security, to promote a more flexible approach.
Issue 3: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT ON MALE JUVENILES
Total Valid Votes (188)
70.7% support corporal punishment on male juveniles with only 29.3% in opposition.
On reflection, it might have been a good idea to frame another question in respect of female juveniles to see what the attitudes are to that. This is one case where attitudes differ sharply from what we tried to include in the constitution. Notwithstanding a recent Constitutional Court pronouncement, the constitution actually prohibits corporal punishment on male juveniles. This is an issue that we have previously addressed and I intend to make written submissions to the Constitutional Court on this issue.
Nevertheless, as this straw poll shows, people seem to be more in favour of corporal punishment, which is a reflection of the predominance of conservative beliefs especially in family matters. This support for corporal punishment probably reflects society’s attitudes towards retaining stronger parental control in which corporal punishment is seen as a useful method.
Issue 4: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
Total Valid Votes (212)
78.8% voted against same-sex marriage, with only 21.2% supporting it.
There is overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage. This is a topical issue in view of the most recent landmark ruling of the US Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriage across the US. I wanted to gauge what Zimbabweans thought of this issue. I knew from my experience during the constitution-writing process that there is still intense opposition to gay rights in Zimbabwean society, and all of this led to s. 78(3) which prohibits same-sex marriage. This straw poll appears to confirm that attitudes to gay rights and same-sex marriage have not changed. This is one issue that demonstrates the very conservative character of Zimbabwean society.
Issue 5: TAXATION OF CHURCHES
Total Valid Votes (213)
57.7% support taxation of churches with 42,3% in opposition.
This is an interesting issue, made more relevant in recent years by the rise of popular Pentecostal churches. It would not have been much of an issue in quieter era of traditional churches. This is not to suggest that the traditional churches are any less wealthy – they are probably still wealthier than the Pentecostal churches. The differences probably lie in the fact that heads of the Pentecostal churches often flaunt their wealth and are engaged in activities such as selling holy water, anointed oil or anointed bricks, making them look like semi-business ventures. Another issue is the charitable work and community service in the various churches, with traditional churches having a more established record regarding school, hospitals and care homes. Taxation has therefore never been a big issue until more recently. It is interesting that the straw poll shows greater support for taxation. It would be interesting to have a deeper and more nuanced debate on this issue.
Issue 6: AGE OF CONSENT TO SEX
Total Valid votes (218)
12 years (0)
16 years (72)
18 years (146)
There was not even a single vote for 12 years as the minimum age of consent. By far the majority (67%) preferred 18 years. I should note that, although not asked in the poll, there was a further 8.2% of the total votes cast showing a preference for 21 and above. Only 33% preferred 16 years as the minimum age of consent.
This issue has recently been in the news following comments made by the country’s Prosecutor General, Johannes Tomana who suggested that girls as young as 12 could make decisions on sex and marriage. He was heavily criticised for his reckless and thoughtless comments. This straw poll indicates that most people favour at least 18 years as the age of consent, far more than what Tomana suggested. It is also notable that 18 years is the minimum age of marriage that is stipulated in the country’s constitution. While age of marriage and age of consent are not necessarily the same thing, this straw poll seems to suggest that there is consistency between what people prefer and the age of marriage as provided for in the constitution.
I am aware of course that on this particular issue, it would be useful to get a more representative opinion across age groups, gender and location – unfortunately there are few rural dwellers in the social network community. Nevertheless, the greater preference for a higher minimum age limit for consent to sex yet again shows the conservative character of society.
Listening to the People
Overall, a quick survey of the results of this straw poll suggests a socially conservative society. There are many other factors and variables that explain people’s views on these issues and these would be worthy of further investigation.
But more importantly, the straw poll and the overwhelming response to it showed that people are keen to express their opinions. Unfortunately, politicians often take people and their views for granted. They do not consult them. And if they do, they do not listen to them.
More often that not, they simply think on their behalf because they think they know what the people think and want. In many cases, they are wrong. If there is anything to glean from this poll, it is that politicians and policy-makers in government must speak to the people more and hear their opinions.