A law that bans sex toys as obscene and morally harmful is being challenged by Zimbabwean women

A woman shows a selection of sex toys she sells to women in Zimbabwe, on Friday, June, 23, 2023. Zimbabwean woman Sitabile Dewa is challenging a sex toys ban in the country which she describes in court papers filed in March as "archaic" and "repressive" laws used to arrest women for having sex toys. Her court challenge - a bold act in a society where females are usually shamed for being openly sexual - highlights the struggles endured by Zimbabwean women battling to attain sexual freedom. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
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HARARE – The possession and importation of sex toys are prohibited under Zimbabwe’s “censorship and entertainments control” law, which deems them indecent, obscene, and harmful to public morals.

These restrictions have been criticized as archaic and repressive by women like Sitabile Dewa, who has filed a lawsuit against the government seeking to repeal parts of the law.

Dewa’s case is significant because it challenges the patriarchal outlook prevalent in Zimbabwe, where women’s choices concerning various aspects of their lives, including contraception, marriage, and even clothing, are often restricted and scrutinized. Women’s rights activists argue that the issue of sex toys is not only about sexual pleasure but also about challenging deeply ingrained gender norms and the sidelining of women’s sexuality.

The enforcement of the law was evident when two women were arrested over sex toys, with one of them facing a lengthy prison sentence. The involvement of men in Zimbabwe’s political, social, and cultural spaces often leads to discomfort and resistance when women assert their sexual autonomy, as it challenges traditional gender roles and power dynamics.

Historically, prior to the influence of colonialism, African women were more sexually expressive, with greater freedom in terms of their sexuality. However, colonialism brought with it foreign laws, culture, and religion that imposed restrictions on women’s bodies and reinforced notions of impurity and sin associated with female sexuality.

Despite Zimbabwe’s independence from colonial rule, certain laws and values from that era remain in place, including those related to sex toys. Women’s rights activists argue that it is time to discard these outdated laws and embrace a more progressive approach to women’s sexual autonomy and liberation.

In a positive development, there has been a resurgence of a pre-colonial southern African tradition called “Chinamwari,” which involves sex education sessions for young women overseen by older women from their families or community. These sessions cover topics such as foreplay, sexual positions, and sexual and reproductive health, potentially empowering young women. However, the revival of Chinamwari also faces backlash and demands for secrecy due to prevailing societal attitudes toward sex and resistance from some men uncomfortable with women being knowledgeable about and in control of their own sexual experiences.

Overall, the situation reflects the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and sexual autonomy in Zimbabwe, where efforts to challenge patriarchal norms and restrictions continue, albeit with both progress and resistance.