An International Labour Organization (ILO) project on gender equality in Zimbabwe has helped traditional leaders understand the benefits of involving women in economic and social activities.
Traditional chiefs play an important role in Zimbabwe's rural communities. In addition to their customary functions, they are empowered to allocate land, settle disputes and ensure that cultural rules and values, inherited from their ancestors, are preserved.
Given their influence within their communities, training sessions have been organized specifically for them, as part of an ILO project on gender equality.
The problem is, however, that most traditional chiefs in Zimbabwe have a vision of society based on male domination.
According to Hopolang Phororo, Director of the ILO Country Office for Zimbabwe and Namibia, "any change in behavior towards women requires the involvement of men in our gender equality programs".
Madamombe, a traditional leader, is chief of the village of Ward 1, located in the Murewa district, some 75 kilometers from Harare, the country's capital. According to him, the women of his community have always been treated at a lower level than the men, to whom they are expected to submit. In the same vein, he has always believed, whatever he says, that women must obey without question, and that they are not even allowed to take part in discussions.
Things began to change, however, when he took part in training sessions organized by the ILO as part of the United Nations Joint Program for Gender Equality.
Training topics included: self-esteem, confidence-building and leadership; livelihoods and food security; entrepreneurship; gender equality; women's rights; women's working conditions; sexual and reproductive health, including child marriage; gender-based violence and domestic violence; and HIV and AIDS issues.
Although the broader aim of the project is to promote women's economic empowerment, the first step was to organize training in behavioral change with regard to the respective roles of men and women.
At first, Madamombe found it hard to accept the very idea of taking part in the training. His first reaction was that it was a waste of time and money, in the firm belief that women were not capable of any kind of economic activity.
"I found the training very difficult at first because I had the impression that they were trying to put me down to the level of women." Madamombe, traditional chief
However, as the training progressed, he realized that the intended purpose was completely different. "I began to realize that the purpose of the training was to help me understand that a woman is capable of doing everything I do myself." It was from this point on that Madamombe began to think about the woman's contribution to the household.
"I realized that, most of the time, the men spent their time doing nothing or meeting up in the village (at the local store) to have fun with their friends, while the women worked at home, fetched wood or tried to find work to do on the farms in exchange for enough to feed their families," he adds.
Chiefs now testify that the women's participation has radically transformed the community. The women selected for this program were among the poorest in the community, but today they have bought livestock, built houses and toilets, and have enough money to pay their children's school fees.
In the Murewa district, there has even been a reduction in the number of acts of violence perpetrated against women, as a result of both the training and the fact that women are now generating income from the kitchen garden projects.
Madamombe has become an "example of masculine behavior" in his community, championing the cause of women with other traditional chiefs and community members. He has even introduced a quota system for the committees he chairs: women now make up 50% of committee members, enabling decisions to be made that take into account the needs of both women and men.