Being horrified by statistics and incidents that reflect the plight of the average Zimbabwean is all too familiar. In recent years, Zimbabwe has become a state infamous for breaking records. This is the country that brought us unparalleled hyper-inflation, unemployment approximating 90 per cent and the lowest life expectancy rate in the world. A country ruled by a deluded president in denial whose party, despite the façade that is the unity government, has complete control over proceedings.
Yet on 23 November the limelight shifted away from the abhorent activities of the state. WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) representatives Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu met President Obama in the White House to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Two years ago the New Internationalist recognized the worth of this women’s movement by awarding them a gold medal in our Human Rights issue. The organization was founded in 2002 in response to the increasing infringements on basic rights in Zimbabwe. WOZA, which now consists of over 75,000 members, is a strong voice for women’s empowerment and against the actions of a corrupt government. Since its creation the group has staged over a hundred demonstrations, with Mahlangu being arrested over 30 times. ‘I know I am not alone, the world is watching and one day Zimbabwe shall be a normal society – with the determination of the members of WOZA, anything is possible.’
On the day that the ceremony took place, I arrived back in Zimbabwe for the first time in two years. The decline over the last decade is vividly represented by potholed roads and uncollected heaps of rubbish. Any movement advocating human rights and justice has a massive struggle on its hands, operating in a country where the state ignores its obligations to its people and forcibly silences dissenting voices. Vendors on the side of the road do what they can to get by, some even selling the state-controlled Herald, a publication that exists with the purpose of unashamedly upholding the status quo. Yet whilst the streets speak of a collapsed state, last week Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in embarking upon 16 days of activism against gender violence. The event was held at the Book Café in the centre of Harare, where female musicians and poets performed with a vigorous energy to a packed audience. During that same week a women’s film festival, open to the public, was taking place. This provided a space where Zimbabweans, notably women, witnessed obstacles faced by women from many different countries and cultural backgrounds.
I met with Kuda Chitsike who is the Director of the Women’s Programme in the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) in Zimbabwe. As we sat in her office on the outskirts of the city centre, Kuda reiterated how severely women here are affected by the current situation. Whilst finding a job is next to impossible and domestic abuse is rife, she was eager to emphasize that ‘we should not forget that violence is perpetrated in the public sphere because of political association’. In a short film, Hear Us, co-produced by RAU, it is estimated that during the election period of May-July 2008 over 2,000 women and girls were raped, among other violations including abductions and torture. However, Kuda feels that this is probably a grossly underestimated figure. The problem in Zimbabwe is one of silence. Not only are women afraid to come forward for fear of stigmatization within their communities but, as with so many atrocities, the police force are part of the repressive machinery. As a result, a trip to your local police station would not only result in inaction on their part, but also the likelihood of, as has often been reported, being arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’, a charge favoured by Mugabe’s foot soldiers. Rather, it is the co-operation and action taken up by groups separate from the state that are dedicated to unearthing the many buried stories of gender violence. RAU, who work closely with the women of WOZA, have produced numerous reports to this effect and are in the process of conducting a survey aiming to highlight such travesties.
Kuda told me about one of the screenings of Hear Us. After the film a woman stood up and shared her harrowing story of rape. She had never felt able to do so as she did not know where to go; however in this space she felt comfortable enough to speak. This exemplifies the vile miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the Zimbabwean state. Yet even more it shows how the women’s movement in Zimbabwe refuses to be silenced. During these 16 days of activism we can be inspired by their efforts to effect positive change in a lawless state. When I asked Kuda what it meant to the women of Zimbabwe for WOZA to receive such a prestigious accolade she smiled and said ‘success for one Zimbabwean women’s group is success for all of us’.