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Women-led churches in Zimbabwe



IN Zimbabwe, there are women who have founded their own churches and ministries which they run and lead.

According to Chitando (2020:78), at the inception of African theology in the 1980s the space was male-dominated.

The male African theologians failed to articulate women’s concerns effectively and in the 1990s African women theologians emerged and formed the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (CCAWT).

The purpose was for women to come together under CCWT and advance their concerns as well as to support each other in every facet of life. Post the formation of CCAWT, women began to occupy key top and middle influential positions in the church.

However, within the African independent churches (AICs) and Johanne Marange Apostolic Church (JMAC) in particular, women are having their rights grossly violated.

The research evaluated and identified the positives made by women led churches in Zimbabwe. Much emphasis is on Mai Chaza (pictured) who defied patriarchal and colonial odds by being the first woman to lead a church.

When Mai Chaza became a church leader, it was a religious taboo. Western-founded churches began to recognise women’s role in 1962 after the Vatican II declaration by the Pope. This highlights reasons behind the emergence and rise of female-led churches in Zimbabwe.

The objective being to understand from a literature review, what exactly is motivating females to start their own churches and the effectiveness of such churches towards gender imbalances and women’s rights.

According to Ratidzo (2015:11), Mai Chaza formed a church in 1954 and grew through faith healing and contributed to the growth of women led churches.

In the aftermath of Mai Chaza, a number of prophetesses emerged. Mai Chaza became an influential figure who influenced other women to take up key positions in the church in Zimbabwe and beyond.

According to Peaden (1996:71) in the 1950 some women in Africa founded their churches. In Zambia, for example, there was Alice Lenshina Lumbar. There is a sense in which the continued marginalisation of women in patriarchal churches led to the formation of women-led churches.

Of note, her Methodist links inadvertently influenced the rise of women in the Methodist church itself (Hastings, 1979:1). Hence, Mai Chaza broke the chain that men had natural gifts which were not intended for women.

The study noted that women-led churches play a very pivotal role in helping women to occupy positions in the church and the society. In these women-led churches, women are not looked down upon, but the church provides a platform where women come together and share their life experiences.

Women-led churches are there to address key issues being faced by women in society. The presence of female-led church leaders is a positive stride towards gender equality and equity.

While she later became a key religious figure, she suffered in the hands of a patriarchal society. According to Muchena (1979:4), Mai Chaza was chased by her husband’s family, who accused her of being a witch.

Mai Chaza established Guta RaJehova, a pro-women church which helped barren women to conceive (Zvobgo 1991:16). In African Traditional Religion (ATR), barren women were divorced, scolded, described as witches, and discriminated against, amongst other things.

There is a ligament that connects theological feminism to female-led church. These female-led churches represent women’s rights and they promote pro-women theological teachings, beliefs, rituals and practices.

It is important to note that Mai Chaza challenged a number of theological practices that impede on the rights of women.

However, not much is known about their theological exposition with regard to children’s rights. Mai Chaza fought all forms of discriminations against women and unlike patriarchal or male led AICs, she was against polygamy.

This is despite the fact that it is a custom that is part of African ways of life. According to Redzo (2015:18), African tradition did not consider polygamy as unclean and evil. Polygamy was a way of expressing wealth and power and also it was a way of economic productivity.

The earliest AICs did not see anything wrong with polygamy, but Guta ra Mwari did not allow polygamy at all.

In the same way that AICs were formed to challenge Western-formed churches, women led church also seek to challenge patriarchal systems within the broader AICs. It is like a revolution within a revolution as women are beginning to push for their religious self-determination.

According to Ramphele (1990:9), the majority of women are suffering due to patriarchy and power relationships, and their impact on the lives of ordinary people. This is in line with the thrust of this research of removing all the barriers that block women and children from enjoying their full theological rights within the broad spectrum of AICs.

Church Women’s Organisations (Ruwadzano, China Chemadzimai, Fellowship) refer.

The Church Women’s Fellowship is a very important arm of the church wholly led and attended by women to discuss their challenges. The platform provides women with interactive and exchange programmes were women from various backgrounds converge and identify problems being faced by women in their day-to-day lives, be it their private life, social, economic, religious and political well-being.

According to Shoko and Mapuranga (2020:155), the Church Women’s Fellowship plays a key role in issues of public health especially on HIV and Aids. The two believed that the Zimbabwe Council of Churches would not have succeeded to be an important organ in providing public health education on HIV and Aids without being augmented by the Church Women’s Fellowship.

Chitando (2007:5) asserts that church women’s groups have been the unsung heroes in responding to HIV and Aids. Some have formed child care homes and/or old people’s homes as a way of addressing the epidemic. Some of these go a long way in accommodating the infected and affected (ibid: 2007:5).

Of note, China Chemadzimai or Ruwadzano is now part of many churches, be it mainline, Pentecostal or AICs.

However, in JMAC, not much is known about women’s fellowship as the church is wholly patriarchal. The JMAC believe it is the only genuine church in the world and all other churches are heretical hence the church’s position not to align itself with fellowships or church councils. These are some of the research gaps identified by this study. 

To make matters worse, JMAC does not believe in HIV and Aids, but believes that there is no disease the church cannot heal. According to Igo (2009:147), the framing of diseases by churches is a very important aspect.

For example, HIV and Aids is being viewed by some churches as a curse, punishment from God and a reward for irresponsible sexual behaviours. Women in JMAC follow blindly the church’s theological teachings because they are not receiving civic education about HIV and Aids.

This demonstrates the overarching role and importance of women leadership and women led fellowships. This is against the Constitution of Zimbabwe on the right to information access, a gap that can be bridged through women organisations.

According to Bam (2005:13), the concept of women fellowship is now a trans-boundary issue as in South Africa they call it Manyano. He alluded that, without space on the pulpit, and in the lecture halls, many women use the prayer time and prayer space for the Manyano meetings to express themselves and their dreams for the church.

Despite the patriarchy that dominates the church, these women’s organisations, or mother’s unions, greatly help women find their feet in Christianity. Chitando says these organisations help women with “alternative space where they have greater latitude to express themselves” (Chitando 2007: 27). It is within this context that many women in the Ruwadzano division of the church have contributed to the overall response to the wellbeing of women.

About the writer: Matthew Mare is a Zimbabwean academic who holds two bachelor’s degrees, five master’s qualifications and a PhD. He is also doing another PhD and has 12 executive certificates in different fields. Professionally, he is a civil servant and also board member at the National Aids Council of Zimbabwe.

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