It's still winter in Zimbabwe; the days are short and the nights reach brutally low temperatures close to the zero degree mark. There isn't a time of year when Zimbabweans need electricity more than during this harsh season. Yet its painful absence is felt most during the long, cold and dark nights as candles flicker uncertainly throughout millions of forlorn homes.
Power cuts have become a feature of Zimbabwean life; one only needs hear the excited screams of children, a routine event, to know that the long-gone power is back. Yet with the debt of the national parastatal, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), running into its millions of US dollars, it doesn't look like this nation's children will understand how mundane a day of uninterrupted electricity supply should feel.
Recently, the Ministry of Energy and Power Development stated that ZESA owed the Mozambican power utility US$80 million. At one point Mozambique threatened to cut off power supply to Zimbabwe because it has been servicing its debt slowly.
Outdated machinery also continue to cripple local power stations based in Hwange and at Kariba Dam. It is estimated that Zimbabwe needs about 2 200 megawatts of electricity daily at peak winter consumption levels but only generates about 1300 megawatts, almost half of the nation's need.
As Mernat Mafirakurewa, writing for the Daily News newspaper recently opined, "Zimbabweans across the country and in all spheres, from housewives to businesspeople, have a sad story to tell about the power cuts they experience every day in their homes and in the factories." Mafirakurewa aptly captures the woe that has become ZESA power cuts which are generally not selective in how they affect ordinary Zimbabweans across a range of professions and locations.
But a special thought must be spared for women and how lack of access to electricity affects the dual productive and reproductive functions that they often perform within Zimbabwean society.
In every society there are activities, roles and responsibilities that are assigned to women and men largely on the basis of sex. These roles generally fit within two categories, productive work (production) and reproductive work (reproduction). While productive work entails production of goods and services for income generation, reproductive work meets domestic needs, such as maintenance of household order through cooking, cleaning, bearing and taking care of children.
While both areas of work are important to maintaining society's functionality, productive work generally receives wider and better recognition than reproductive work. For that reason, productive work is often well-paying labour pursued by both men and women, while reproductive labour usually represents free labour 'offered' by women. In other words, this means that many women already involved in gainful employment endure a double workload schedule as they still have to return home and carry out domestic chores.
The dual roles that women play and that erratic supply of electricity affects the effectiveness of these women most needs to be acknowledged.
Imagine Chiedza a 30-year-old secretary in Harare with two young children. She is a single mother and cannot afford to hire a maid and has to, upon picking up her children from crèche, get home to cook a meal for the small family. On rare occasions, there is power when she gets home. But usually, she is not so lucky and has to start a fire to be able to cook. Once done cooking, she has to heat water for her children's bath and then bathe them. After these chores, she has to then wash up the dishes by candlelight. Chiedza knows that generally, the electricity comes on around midnight; she didn't have a chance to do some ironing over the weekend due to urgent family commitments and now neither she nor her children have pressed clothes to wear the following day.
She decides to stay up and wait, lest the electricity come on earlier than she expects it to. She is wrong and the electricity only comes on just before 1 am. She spends an hour-and-a-half doing some ironing and then tiredly retires to bed at 2.30 am knowing that there might not be any electricity when she gets up at 5 am in preparation for the new day. She is correct, and once more, she has to wake up in the freezing cold dead of the morning to make a fire to heat bath water and cook morning porridge. By the time she gets to work, she is already exhausted as she had enjoyed no respite from work in all its guises.
This is, unfortunately, the untold life story of many Zimbabwean women; women whose lives are controlled by the erratic nature of power - and often, water - supply. It seems a glaring omission within women's organising, that this lack of access to power, electrical power, that is, has not taken up its rightful position as an issue for advocacy and activism. Without access to electrical power, how are women to be empowered; how is the dual labour function of the nation's women being undervalued and undermined?
At the beginning of winter, the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission & Distribution Company, a subsidiary of ZESA holdings, released a winter load shedding programme for 2012. While it seems like a well laid out plan which codes and provides load shedding schedules for suburbs in major Zimbabwean cities and provinces, the programme has thus far, been poorly adhered to. For instance, where the programme can tell you to expect to have electricity in your area from 1pm onwards on a Wednesday, the opposite of this may be true and the electricity many only come on after hours.
Thus poor scheduling and implementation render planning impossible for most ZESA subscribers, save those privileged to own generators. And when planning is vital for so many women in Zimbabwe, the inability to do so creates a variety of complexities - not only for women such as Chiedza, but women who get beaten up for not cooking their men's meals well, women who damage their eyesight studying by candlelight in efforts to secure a better future for themselves, women who have babies who require heated baby food all hours of the night; women whose lives are ruled by the incompetence of a power supply authority.
Due to erratic supplies of electricity, the media has reported on women giving birth by candlelight at major hospitals in the past. Surely, the women of this land deserve better for the work, acknowledged, and unacknowledged, that they conduct every day in Zimbabwe.
What are we going to do to make access to power - in all its forms - a feminist issue?
The writer is a Zimbabwean writer and blogger.