Mothers in charge: tragedy of female headed rural families


Many women today are heads of households, either as unmarried single women, separated, divorced or widows.

Tendai Makaripe
CHIPO struggles to fight back tears. Her head weighty through dark, hopeless contemplation rests propped in filthy scarred hands as she sits outside her own hut. Petrified of going in, she attempts to put off the inevitable. Inside, the inquisitors wait in anticipation, questions ready.
She has no answer for any of them and so she delays the torture to her broken heart. The inquisitors are her starving children looking to her to sate their hunger but she has nothing in hand, just her heavy burdened head.
No education, no qualifications, she only has only her labour to sell, yet in rural Mrewa, no one has the luxury to hire her so she has no answer to her questioners. They will ask when father is coming back home and she will lie because they are too young to bear the horrible truth that he abandoned them for a newer model not ravaged by three child births and several miscarriages.
So she bears that alone also. The sun going down, she forces herself to go in for she is now father, mother, protector and nurturer. What a heavy burden to bear alone.
Her husband, a builder by profession, has since relocated to Mrewa centre where he is staying with a single mother of two and has redirected his energy at taking care of the two children his mistress has while turning his back on his own children.
Efforts to claim maintenance have proven futile.
“I went to report my case to the police and we were told to help each other look after our children by making monthly contributions towards their upkeep. Up to now my husband has not contributed anything,” said a visibly shaken Chipo.
AmbuyaZaranyika, an elderly woman living close to Chipo said the unfortunate lady has become a basket case.
“The husband left his family for a young woman and his family is in serious poverty. His children are also not going to school.People in this area have been donating food to her for her survival,” she said.
The small garden she operates has been helpful but not so as to cater for her daily needs and things are promising to be more serious considering that the country is staring a drought right in the face.
Cases like these are not restricted to Mrewa only but are replayed in many societies across the country where unfortunate women are left to head houses not because their husbands are dead but opt for other women.
In Manyame’s ward 17 under Beatrice is an area called Tsonga. The majority of the inhabitants of this area are peasant farmers whose lives are sustained by hard labour and poverty is as fashionable as they come.
Nomatter Munyukwi’s late husband deserted her in such an area and engaged on a bed -hopping spree, leaving behind a then vulnerable 15 year old Munyukwi nursing a three month old baby.
She was the talk of the area as poverty tore into her with sheer ruthlessness.
“I went through hell because of my husband. I was married off at 14 but my husband left me for other women. He came back home with HIV /AIDS but I took take care of him till he passed,” said Munyukwi.
Such is the tragedy that countless Zimbabwean women today face as they are left with the responsibility of taking care of families in the absence of their husbands. Many women today are heads of households, either as unmarried single women, separated, divorced or widows.
Female heads of households are forced to play multiple roles and often have to bear the burden of all their problems single-handed; therefore many of them are faced with psychological problems including depression and anxiety, which can also negatively impact their productivity and job performance.
William Wilson, in his work The Truly Disadvantaged, writes that, “…female-headed families are far more likely than married-couple families to be not only poor, but mired in poverty for long periods of time.”
They are also discriminated against. In many traditional communities of developing countries, widowhood represents a “social death” for women. It is not merely that they have lost their husbands, the main breadwinner and supporter of their children, but widowhood robs them of their status and consigns them to the very margins of society where they suffer the most extreme forms of discrimination and stigma.
“Widowhood has a brutal and irrevocable impact on a widow’s children, especially the girl child. Poverty may force widows to withdraw children from school, exposing them to exploitation in child labor, prostitution, early forced child marriage, trafficking, and sale. Often illiterate, ill-equipped for gainful employment, without access to land for food security or adequate shelter, widows and their children suffer ill health and malnutrition, lacking the means to obtain appropriate health care or other forms of support.”
However, there is an astonishing ignorance about and lack of public concern for the suffering of widows and their families on the part of governments, the international community, and civil society, and even women’s organizations.
In spite of four UN World Women’s Conferences (Mexico 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985, and Beijing 1995) and the ratification by many countries of the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), widows are barely mentioned in the literature of gender and development, except in the context of aging. Yet the issues of widowhood cut across every one of the twelve critical areas of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, covering poverty, violence to women, the girl child, health, education, employment, women and armed conflict, institutional mechanisms, and human rights.
When they are faced with such challenges some women come up with unpleasant coping mechanisms.
Said Women and land in Zimbabwe lobby and advocacy officer Sharon Chipunza: “Often there is no alternative to begging except entering the most exploitative and unregulated areas of informal sector labor, such as domestic service and sex work. Withdrawing children from school, sending them to work as domestic servants or sacrificing them to other areas of exploitative child labor, selling female children to early marriages or abandoning them to the streets, are common survival strategies and will continue to be used until women access education and income-generating training for themselves and their dependents.”
Chipunza added that her organisation is working on economically empowering women.
“We are carrying out a number of projects which include value addition, irrigation projects and teaching management skills. A revolving fund of US$1000 for every group of between five and 10 women is also disbursed. To date we have given out about US$30000 which has helped about 1500 underprivileged women in the country,” she said.
To arrest the situation, Beatrice police station victim friendly unit’s sergeant Portia Masasa said: “The problem of female headed households is serious in rural areas but we are trying to bring sanity to the situation by encouraging the partners to negotiate and come up with amicable solutions. Disputes cause gender based violence which has dire consequences.”
Headman Rodias Kufandada Musonzafrom Goromonzi concurred with the Masasa highlighting that traditionally, a man is expected to take care of his wife and children and if he dies,the widow should not suffer but be taken care of by the surviving relatives.
Speaking at the sidelines of the 16days against gender based violence commemorations held at Mapfuure centre in Manyame, Tendai Utaumire, acting district development officer for Seke district in the Ministry of Women Affairs Gender and Community Development says rural women need to be empowered.
“We have a women’s development fund that has been set aside to help women carry out various projects of their choice. Once the project is approved by head office, the money is disbursed. We understand the situation in rural areas and how poverty affects widows and single parents that is why we have also introduced food processing projects for women where they are taught to make nutritious porridges, tomato sauce, vegetable drying and jam making,” he said.

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