JOHANNESBURG - "It’s not possible that women can be at par with men," said the incoming chairman of the African Union, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. He made the controversial comment in Addis Ababa on the eve the African Union summit, which begins Friday. Many are debating what the 90-year-old leader meant to convey by this statement.
Mugabe's remarks on women not being on par with men, fittingly, come as African Union leaders tackle this year’s summit topic: women’s empowerment.
He spoke to VOA Zimbabwe Service reporter Sandra Nyaira on the side-lines of the summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
"When it comes down to the ground, it's not easy for them. They get married, they must have babies, they must live at home, that's a problem… I’m saying it’s not possible that women can be at par with men. You see, we men; we want children. We make the very women we want in power, pregnant. You see, and we remain. It’s not possible -- that aspect only,” said Mugabe.
It’s not entirely clear from these comments alone whether Mugabe is lamenting the longstanding inequality of women and calling for change -- or if he believes that this is the natural order of things.
But it would not be the first time Mugabe, who turns 91 next month and has spent more than three decades in power, has courted controversy on gender. In 2013, he insulted his political enemies by calling them “mere women.”
Muddling the picture further, Mugabe went on to call for equal pay for women and for better maternity benefits.
“They must be paid if they are employed, they must be paid, and for that period, and not for the companies or government to say ‘ha ha ha we will give you only three months.’ It must be nine months right through,” he said.
One of Zimbabwe’s top human rights lawyers, Beatrice Mtetwa, is a woman. Her first reaction to the president’s comments -- which VOA News played for her -- was incredulity and peals of laughter.
But, speaking to VOA via Skype from Harare, she said if he meant that women should be inferior, that is no laughing matter. And Zimbabwean law, she said, supports equality.
“I don’t believe the president could say anything like that. I mean, someone is pulling my leg. That is not possible, because there is a constitution that he signed only in 2013 and made into law which basically gives women in Zimbabwe every possible power and every possible equality clause with men,” said Mtetwa.
She also noted that if Mugabe’s comments were meant to denigrate women, then they effectively disqualify Mugabe’s rumored successor -- his wife.
“So if she had any illusions that she might be a powerful, respected political leader, she must go back into the maternity ward and start making more babies,” she said.
So what did the president mean? Was he bemoaning centuries of subjugation and calling for change? Was he reminding women to remember their place -- which is apparently not in the halls of power, but in the home? Or is he reiterating what women around the world have heard for centuries: families and careers are not compatible, and in the opinion of men, family comes first.
What do you think President Mugabe meant, and what do you think it means for women's rights in Africa? Let us know in the comments below.