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Rape, Polygamy, Lovechildren: Jacob Zuma is bad for women

February 17, 2010

Photo: AFP/GETTY

I don’t think it’s a coincident that a leader with dismal ratings on the feminism scale would also have dismal ratings on the prevention of HIV, an increasingly “feminized” epidemic.

The health and status of a country’s women is integrally tied to the health of the country overall.  Jacob Zuma, while not great on HIV prevention issues, is worse at women’s issues.

This op-ed by Colleen Lowe Morna, the Executive Director of Gender Links, gives a comprehensive and snarky run-down of the harm that South African President Jacob Zuma has wrought to the ideals of feminism, HIV prevention, respect for women in the blink of his tenure, since taking office in 2009.

Jacob Zuma begs the question: when will the world hold leaders accountable for their treatment of women, as a clear litmus test of their strength as leaders, visionaries, and human beings?

Zuma has a laundry list of ridiculous and insulting incidences relating to women, but has made headlines most recently after admitting that he’s fathered a child (his 20th, with a friend’s daughter) out of wedlock.  Sure he’s not the first or last male in power to do so, but it’s the lump sum of his deeds that reveal his terrible record on women’s rights.

Zuma started his presidency with a bang and brought the polygamy debate to a new global level as he took office with not one but three wives in tow. He’s been repeatedly grilled about his polygamy since then, including at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos.

I don’t think polygamy is necessarily, inherently bad for women.  BUT, polygamy has more often than not been used as an institution to shield misogyny, abuse, and the oppression of women.  Therefore to have a country’s leader parading it as a paradigm of cultural pride – especially a country where lack of condom use and multiple partners perpetuate a grave public health threat – is problematic.  South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.

In 2006, Zuma was tried and “exonerated” of rape charges, after he gave a cultural defense that he could not simply resist having sex with the young woman after she “signaled” her arousal by the skirt she wore.  What was worse, he claimed that after unprotected sex with the woman, who was HIV positive, he showered as a precaution against infection. Double ugh.

As Morna puts it,

“The issue is not whether or not Zuma should step down as president, but the fact that if we had included attitudes towards women as a key test of leadership — a point many of us made at the time — he should never have been president!”

Time for a smidgeon of accountability, or perhaps the bright idea that improving attitudes toward women will be a key first step to tackling South Africa’s grim HIV/AIDS epidemic…and bad reputation in the eyes of global feminist.

2 Comments
  1. Farley permalink
    February 19, 2010 10:22 pm

    I love the line about the treatment of women as a litmus test for one’s strength of leadership. AMEN!

  2. May 12, 2010 6:20 am

    I would have rathered read the same content in this article written by a black South African female, I’m sure you could have found one. I am a foreigner living in South Africa and need to work hard everday to come to terms with the cultural realities here without being racist or blinkered in my appropriation of Western values or expectations onto a different paradigm. This article makes statements that are exaggerated and others that just aren’t true. Zuma was found not guilty of the rape charges and the reasons this article gives for that are incorrect. Women, as well as men are complicit in cultural practices and decisions and as Westerners we shouldn’t see something as wrong just if it seems wrong to us.

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