The Zimbabwe Council of Churches and Women’s Empowerment

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches and Women’s Empowerment

This is chapter 12 in the book The Zimbabwe Council of Churches and Development in Zimbabwe, edited by Ezra Chitando and published by Palgrave Macmillan of Springer Nature Switzerland AG.

This chapter is authored by Tapiwa P. Mapuranga.

A PDF of the book may be found here. This chapter begins on page 185. References for this chapter can be found on page 195.


Since the development of African theology, the church has been called to answer and respond to the problems of Africa. Male theologians who dominated African theology until the 1980s indeed brought many critical issues to the fore. However, it appears that these African male theologians had largely not been taking women’s issues seriously. It was only with the rise of African women theologians since the early 1990s (following the formation of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians in 1989) that women’s issues were critically brought to the fore. This has enlightened the church on how it can handle women’s concerns in Africa. However, despite the calls and cries by women theologians in Africa, it has been noted that more work remains to be done by the church in Africa in order to transform Christianity into a truly African religion (Chitando 2002: 16). With particular reference to Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) is one of the church organisations that have made it part of their agenda to transform Christianity into a relevant religion in the lives of women. The organisation has, thus, among other tasks, brought women’s issues to the limelight. It is thus the thrust of this chapter to examine how the ZCC has dealt with the issues of women’s empowerment as part of the church.

Women’s Empowerment: A Brief Introduction

This chapter looks at women’s empowerment from the perspective of religious studies. Though there are quite a number of definitions of empowerment, this chapter considers it as a process by which those who have been denied the ability to make life choices acquire such ability (Kabeer 1999). With particular reference to women, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) prefers to call it ‘female empowerment’ so that it caters for young girls and adolescents as well. As such, female empowerment is achieved when women and girls acquire the power to act freely, exercise their rights and fulfil their potential as full and equal members of society. While empowerment often comes from within, and individuals empower themselves, cultures, societies and institutions create conditions that facilitate or undermine the possibilities for empowerment
(USAID Policy 2012: 3).

The need to specifically examine women’s empowerment stems from the notion that ‘to this day, women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the food, but earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property’ ( From a religious studies perspective, this scenario emerges from the fact that

Christianity and other world religions developed amid patriarchal societies in which women are treated as objects rather than persons. To this day, women have neither been accorded equal rights within the society not equal rights within religious communities. The male, in most instances, has been granted authority and power over women, especially wives, and this has led to devastating consequences for women and their health and wellbeing. (Messer 2004: 78)

It is out of this influence of religion that many women remain disempowered in areas such as education and training, economy, violence, power and decision-making and health amongst other issues. Such areas have been the concerns of African women theologians as they seek the empowerment of ordinary women by the church and other religious traditions. The next section discusses some of the concerns of women brought up by African women theologians.

Women and the Christian Communities: An Overview

African theology has been predominantly a male preserve since it came to the fore (Mapuranga 2013: 19). Unfortunately, this male dominance in African theology has been disproportionate to the challenges of women in the church. This has had some ripple effects on the misrepresentation of the needs of the women, who are the majority in the African church. As argued by Chitando (2007a: 6):

The church in Africa, paradoxically, has the face of a woman … However, churches in Africa have not actively supported women in their quest for abundant life. To begin with, the church has continued to reinforce the subordination of women to men. Indigenous patriarchal ideologies are used to buttress the oppression of women. ‘It is our culture’ is the tired refrain. Selective reading of biblical passages lubricates the process. Unfortunately, many women have internalised patriarchal readings of passages.

Despite women being the majority in the church, a number of church traditions, including wrong interpretation of some biblical passages, continue to make women subordinate to their male counterparts. Such biblical passages that promote the minority status of women include Ephesians 5: 22–24, I Corinthians 14: 34–35 and I Timothy 2: 11–15 (see Mapuranga 2012). Such biblical passages have defined men as heads of families. According to Messer (2004: 78), such theologies relegate women to secondary roles within the church and culture. It is out of such theological perspectives that the church has been called to reinterpret these texts in a gender empowering manner, where the church needs to ‘transform the concept of headship so as to encourage mutuality and companionship of partners who complement each other’ (Moyo 2005: 131).

Consequently, there have been quite a number of accusations from women against the silence of the church regarding women’s concerns. It is out of such situations that many African women have been left by the church to ‘groan in faith’ (Kanyoro and Njoroge 1996). African women theologians generally felt the need to awaken the church in Africa on matters that directly concern them. According to Kanyoro and Oduyoye (2006: 5),

Women can awaken the church in Africa to the fact that biblical history continues in the lives of God’s people. By telling the stories of the struggles and experiences of faith of the People of God today, women will be able to show that the same power of God that enabled Hebrew people to observe their stories of faith lives with us for whom the promise of the Spirit was given and fulfilled at Pentecost. As women relate their own experiences, the church in Africa will be forced to listen to a people who have until now been denied a voice. The church will not only listen, but will be enriched by talents and gifts that have remained untapped until today.

The same sentiment is echoed by Dube who sees the centrality of the church in addressing problems confronted by society. Though her argument is directed at HIV, it could be suggested that the role of the church on HIV issues is similar to such issues as gender empowerment. She argues that (2004: v)

Yet the church and its leaders, by virtue of their community centeredness, their close relationship with individuals and families, their value of holding each person as God’s person, and their role a servants of God, bearers of salvation and hope, have much expected from them. Much is laid at the feet of the church in the HIV and AIDS struggle. The challenge is in confronting the African church.

Despite these efforts, on the one hand, as noted by Chitando (2007a: 8), ‘for a long time, African women have challenged the churches to hear their cries but to little avail: the leadership of the churches has hardly budged.’ Such are the attitudes of the churches which choose to remain highly patriarchal and allow men to be in positions that are disempowering to women. However, on the other hand, some churches have heard the theologies of women who have expressed their needs in a way that has made them to be described by Chitando as operating with ‘aggrieved hearts and militant pens’ (2009: 59), as ‘visible and audible daughters of Ethiopia’ (2009: 56) who are singing down the walls of patriarchy (2009: 65). It is perhaps out of the continued contributions by African women theologians that the church is now working towards the issues of women’s empowerment. Some churches and church organisations are increasingly accommodating women’s empowerment issues in their programmes. But, does the Bible allow the church to empower women? The next section discusses the role of religion, with particular reference to the Bible, in dealing with women’s empowerment issues.

Women’s Empowerment: The Role of Religion

Throughout history, women have always struggled to emancipate themselves from the inequalities brought about by patriarchy. According to Ruether (1974: 191), ‘religion is the most important shaper and enforcer of the image and role of women in culture and society.’ For example, the Bible paradoxically presents a lot of images that influence the status of women in life. This section examines selected cases that are empowering for the women in the church. As such, through these examples, one would realise that by seeking to empower women, some churches and church-related organisations are not doing the extraordinary, but in ways that conform to the Bible.

On a positive and more empowering note, it is possible to discuss courageous women who countered the patriarchal culture of their time. Good examples include Shipra and Pauh who were the first to oppose the Pharaoh by refusing to kill their new-born sons (Exodus 1:15–21). Though their story is often ignored by theologians, it remains a critical feminist act which challenges oppressive structures. Through this example, women are empowered to make critical decisions in areas that affect their well-being. Miriam can also be regarded as challenging patriarchy when she asked, ‘has the Lord indeed only spoken through Moses?’ (Numbers 2:2b). This story also questions the male dominant roles in the church in contemporary society. Does the Lord only choose male leaders in the church, or God empowers women too?

Apart from the Old Testament, Vorster (1984: 38) argues that in the New Testament, Jesus brings a new dispensation in the biblical exhortations against women. Women were among the disciples who accompanied Jesus everywhere he went (Luke 8:1–3). Likewise, if there were women who were also disciples, then women in contemporary society can become so hopeful in taking active and empowering roles in the church and beyond. According to Beecher (1990: 11), Jesus also challenged the traditional role of women when he visited Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38–42). In this story, Mary broke the boundaries expected of women in her culture, by sitting at the feet of a rabbi, listening to his teaching (a role traditionally reserved for men). So, if Jesus could allow women such empowering roles, the church in contemporary society is indeed mandated to empower women, by breaking disempowering boundaries for women.

Having illustrated (using selected cases) how the Bible can be used to promote the empowerment of women so much , both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the next section illustrates how the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) has sought to do the same.

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches: A Brief Background

The ZCC is a fellowship of 26 Christian denominations and 10 para-church organisations that confess to the Lord Jesus Christ according to the scriptures ( It was founded in 1964. It was inaugurated on the 29th of July 1964 at St Cuthbert hall in Gweru. According to Hallencreutz (1988: 52), the organisation emerged as the result of a largely inspired African movement to create a forum where Christian leaders from different denominations tackle matters of mutual concern in an increasingly tense political atmosphere. Generally, the ZCC plays the role of creating an enabling environments for debating about issues that affect their member church organisations. It is not an implementing body, but rather consolidates member’s voices to speak out on national issues.

Since its inception in 1964, the ZCC adopted a number of programmes to respond to various political and socio-economic problems in a number of churches and Christian organisations that it brings together. Some of these programmes include the gender justice programme, church administration and management, economic justice, health justice and the justice and peace programme. It is interesting to note that the organisation has a fully fledged department dedicated to gender, and thus pays primary attention to the needs of women. In all its other programmes, one could argue that the theme of women runs through. It becomes plausible therefore to argue that the ZCC takes into consideration the need for empowerment, including specifically the empowerment of women.

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches and Women’s Empowerment

The ZCC has made some commendable effort to address the needs of women. Some of its strengths in pushing for the agenda of women lie in the fact that ‘the church is regarded as a credible institution, with a unique capacity to mobilise volunteers. Its workers are consistently well motivated, while its members have diverse professional backgrounds’ (Chitando 2007b: 86). These attributes enable the church to tackle many challenges faced by society such as HIV and AIDS, gender-based violence, poverty and, in this case, the promotion of women’s empowerment in society. As alluded to earlier in this chapter, there are various desks or departments within the ZCC. Amongst these is the women’s desk that was specifically established to deal with issues that affect women in member churches and the society at large. This section of the women’s desk was inspired by Galatians 3:26–28 which says, ‘so there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The vision of the women’s desk is to promote equality, prosperity and total emancipation of all women. Its mission is to pay attention to women’s agenda and to problems of vital importance to Christian women. The women’s desk, as stated in their vision (’s-desk.html), is to promote equality, prosperity and
total emancipation of all women. This arm of the organisation (the women’s desk) is there to make sure that women also have the same opportunity as men, taking positions of influence in order to participate in the highest decision-making bodies within their church structures. There are many activities that the ZCC has done for women’s empowerment through the women’s desk.

The ZCC therefore deals with quite a number of areas where women need empowerment. One of these areas is in HIV and AIDS education. In so many calls in African theology (see, for example, Byamugisha et al. 2012), the church has been described as the body of Christ which is HIV positive. As such, the Christian church certainly cannot remain silent in the face of HIV and AIDS. According to Igo (2009: 11),

While pastoral and medical care of those infected remain ever crucial in the response to this crisis, we Christians, with our deep faith in the incarnation and resurrection must go further and seek to eradicate this virus totally from our world. We have a very distinctive contribution to make to the whole area of prevention, because of the faith we proclaim.

This chapter appreciates the efforts by some leading theologians who have put a lot of effort to equip the church with ways of empowering women in the era of HIV and AIDS (see, for example, Dube 2003 and Chitando 2008, among others). This is because women have been affected most by the pandemic (see, for example, Mapuranga 2011). It is out of such calls for the church to act that the ZCC has been quite significant in its approach to HIV. For a long time, stigma and ignorance prevented the church from seriously getting involved with HIV and AIDS issues. The organisation started talking seriously about HIV in 1996. By 1998, the training department of the ZCC had begun to fully grasp the problems associated with HIV and AIDS ( They also conduct HIV and AIDS workshops for support groups and caregivers. From 2003 to 2005, HIV and AIDS became a priority for the ZCC. Emphasis was put on prevention, information, education, communication, counselling and home-based care.

Apart from empowering women with HIV and AIDS education, the ZCC has done a sterling job on empowering women in its member churches economically. Through its other desk on entrepreneurship and development, the ZCC targets training of member churches to acquire business skills, knowledge and other positive business attitudes. In this respect, the ZCC empowers women through projects such as making soap, baking, sewing and knitting. This is in agreement with Chirongoma (2006: 184), who argues that

The churches can also address issues of poverty by initiating income-generating projects that will economically empower the poor. Even though most rural women are uneducated and lack access to resources, they can still benefit from projects initiated by churches, such as manufacture of peanut butter, poultry production, craft work and gardening. Such projects can empower poor people financially and protect them from the vulnerability of adopting risky survival strategies that further expose them to HIV.

As such, the ZCC is quite instrumental in mobilising its member churches and organisation in promoting women’s empowerment economically. The ZCC has not waited for a ‘Messianic era before engaging in economic activities that make a difference at the local level’ (Chitando 2007a: 19).

Apart from strengthening women’s pockets, the ZCC has, over the years, facilitated workshops that empower women with life skills on issues that affect them especially as wives, widows and single mothers. As such, the organisation also coordinates and conducts workshops, seminars, consultations and conferences on themes that empower women on issues such as wills and inheritance, leadership and project management, as well as microcredit. The organisation facilitates workshops and seminars regularly to enlighten women on issues regarding violence, wills and inheritance and other contemporary challenges. This was confirmed in an interview with Mrs. Ruwona (2014), who explained that she attended the 2005 Diocese of Manicaland Mother’s Union conference which was held at St Augustine’s Mission in Penhalonga, Mutare. During this conference, the ZCC women’s desk members came to present on topics about wills and inheritance. She highlighted that she found the presentation quite insightful, educating as well as empowering.

The ZCC has also done a remarkable job with its member organisations by facilitating women’s fellowships, such as Mubatanidzwa or Ruwadzano (see the chapter by Shoko and Mapuranga in this volume). These are women’s groups in the churches that promote solidarity and empowerment amongst women in the churches. These create space for different groups of women such as clergy women, heads of denominations, pastor’s wives, widows and single mothers. These women may come together in forums such as church conventions and conferences. According to Chitando (2007b: 11),

Church women’s organizations are especially significant in the provision of voluntary work. In Southern Africa they are known as Manyano. They are found in different denominations, each with its own uniform. These organizations provide women with a sense of belonging. In turn, the women live out their faith in dramatic fashion. While men have claimed to be too busy, it is the women from church who have answered the call to serve the poorest of the poor. They cook for and bathe the sick in their villages. They lead at funerals by consoling the bereaved and feeding the mourners. (Men only appear when they want to prove their authority, especially in designing the funeral programmes.)

Though such activities done through these women’s guilds are rarely recognised as ‘work,’ it is vital to note that many women are empowered through these. Women’s guilds, through facilitation from the ZCC, become organisations with ‘friendly feet’ and ‘anointed hands’ (Chitando 2007b) as they respond to the needs of other fellow women, thus empowering them in a variety of areas, spiritually, psychologically and financially. As such, the ZCC contributes immensely to the well-being of women in their member churches and organisations through its role of facilitation of empowerment programmes through these women guilds.

Despite all these efforts, the ZCC has faced a variety of challenges in their facilitation of programmes. The next section briefly examines one of the major setbacks in the organisation’s attempt to empower women.

The Major Challenges Faced by the Zimbabwe Council of Churches in Empowering Women

In general, the ZCC has managed to empower women in its member churches and organisations in a variety of areas that include HIV and AIDS education, entrepreneurship, training in areas such as baking, sewing and knitting. The very fact that the organisation has been able to set a desk that specifically deals with women’s issues tells a lot in terms of the desired achievements of the organisation. However, though the ZCC has managed to come up with various programmes that address the challenges that women face in the church and society, the organisation suffers from the fact that it is not a decision-making body; neither is it an implementing body. What it only does to member churches is to make recommendations and it is entirely up to the leadership of member churches and organisations to implement the recommendations or not. As such, some
of the efforts may end up in vain as some churches may not implement their suggestions.

In addition, the ZCC has highlighted that it has faced major challenges in addressing the need to empower women. This is because its projects have only been implemented from the micro-scale operations of their ‘women’s desk.’ They have thus not been able to reach out to many women at a macro level. In addition, in an interview (April 2014), one member of the women’s desk indicated that their department has not done enough in addressing the concerns of women. As such, efforts are being made to establish the gender desk which will deal with the needs of both male and female with more rigour.


In as much as the tradition of the church is highly patriarchal, the ZCC stands up tall as one of those church organisations that have made significant efforts in the last 50 years towards women’s empowerment. The ZCC has empowered women socially through its facilitation of women’s guilds where women are taught a variety of life skills. In workshops facilitated by ZCC, women are also taught to eke out a living through training in areas of small entrepreneurship such as sewing, knitting and baking, amongst others. However, one major hurdle that the organisation has faced is that it is only a facilitating body, and thus cannot implement all its ideas in the member churches and organisations. This makes it quite difficult to ensure that all its recommendations to enhance women’s empowerment for its members are implemented. Despite such setbacks, the agenda of ZCC for women’s empowerment does not end at 50 years; rather, the journey to give abundance to women’s life continues to unfold. By addressing women’s issues, the ZCC is making a major contribution to the overall development of Zimbabwe.

A PDF of the book may be found here. This chapter begins on page 185. References for this chapter can be found on page 195.