Three weeks after being arrested, WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) activists, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, have finally been released from Mlondolozi Prison. They report horrific conditions and have had to share cells with mental health patients and were subjected to body searches everyday while male prison guards wandered around.
“The extreme hunger experienced by most prisoners means that even orange peels and the scraps on dirty plates are fought over. There is also no privacy for the female prisoners. Male prison guards are allowed to wander around the female prison and can see into washing facilities. Prisoners in Yard Two are also stripped naked every day for inspection by prison officers as they are locked down. At least three minors (aged 15 and 16) were being kept in the same cell as Williams.”
Life on the outside of prison is not that great either. Apart from women being invisible in the media and political landscape they are also living to survive a life expectancy of just 34 years. Living to survive physical and sexual violence and 300 million per cent inflation (don’t even bother to do the maths) forage for food and scrape through the days. Shereen Essof comments on the political infighting and manoeuvring over the past six months none of which has addressed the needs and priorities of women and therefore the freedoms of everyone:
‘The polarisation of Zimbabwean politics means that women only have two options (now three in truth, with the split in the MDC producing MDC Tsvangirai (T) and MDC Mutambara (M), along with the ruling ZANU-PF). If you take the time to examine the parties’ constitutions, election manifestos, and programmes, none adequately addresses or expresses a commitment to the priorities and needs as identified by women, thus none provides a really viable alternative for a new dispensation that seeks alternatives that allow for the freedom of all. For this freedom is not something to be decreed and protected by laws or states, it is something that we shape for ourselves and share.’
But despite the very real dangers, women are also struggling hard against the daily tyrannies of living. How many have survived these past months and years is incredible as the odds against them are high on every level not just from the tyranny of the state and their truncheon-carrying battalions of bullies, but also from sexism and local patriarchies and – as Essof describes – a country ‘being held hostage by three men’.
‘The ‚ “eternal”, according to Spinoza, “is now”, and women in Zimbabwe are living history and taking it very personally. The worst cruelties of life are its killing injustices. Zimbabwean women‚ acceptance of adversity is neither passive nor resigned. It’s an acceptance that peers behind the adversity and discovers there something nameless. Not a promise, for women know that (almost) all promises are broken; rather something like a hiatus, or parentheses, in the otherwise remorseless flow of history. And the sum total of these parentheses is eternity and in that the knowledge that ‚ “on this earth there is no happiness without justice”.’
Despite the horrors of gender violence and the enormity of the struggle facing the people of Zimbabwe, it is my firm belief that it is only through the struggles of women– mothers, workers, activists, feminists, academics, and farmers that a new Zimbabwe can emerge.