As momentum gathers for renewed talks between Zimbabwe's rival political parties, civil rights groups have highlighted the impact of the ongoing political and economic crisis on the daily lives of women in the country.
Crisis in Zimbabwe (CZ), a consortium of NGOs, has called for the greater participation of women in the proposed talks, arguing that any negotiated settlement between the government and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would lack legitimacy if women were excluded from the process.
"Today women in Zimbabwe find themselves at the confluence of the political, economic and HIV/AIDS crisis. It is imperative that any future dialogue between the government and the MDC includes women as key players," CZ spokeswoman Everjoice Win told IRIN.
In a recent paper, "Crisis in Zimbabwe: A Women's Perspective", the advocacy group noted that the current economic crisis had left scores of women without work, while the high cost of living had "very specific gender dimensions".
"To illustrate just how affected women are by the crisis, all one has to do is consider that a packet of 8 sanitary pads now costs, on average, Zim $5,000 (about US $6). Most domestic workers only earn Zim $5,000" Win said.
The price of a packet of 3 male condoms - more commonly used by women to prevent pregnancy and HIV infection - costs Zim $2,000 (about US $2). "Women are having to compromise their own health, just so that they can feed their families," Win noted.
CZ also drew attention to the effects of government legislation on the ability of women's groups to organise themselves. For example, the introduction of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) had reversed many of the gains women had made in the first years after independence.
"Women's organisation that have outreach activities in communities are finding it difficult to reach the women, thereby denying women space to participate in their own development programmes," the NGO said.
There were also concerns over increased sexual violence. The organisation said the rape of women by ruling party militia was well documented.
"Poor black women have borne the brunt of this violence; in the townships, on commercial farms, and in the rural areas. Documentation by the NGO Human Rights Forum shows that scores of women have been raped, gang raped, beaten up, taken into forced concubinage by state trained and sponsored 'Green Bombers', and young women in particular now face the prospect of HIV/AIDS infection," the paper alleged.
Win said talks between the MDC and ZANU-PF should focus on revisiting the constitution. "It is imperative that a comprehensive constitutional review takes place, and in that process women want to represent themselves. We want to see a constitution that gurantees our right as Zimbabweans."