Trials and tribulations of Zimbabwean women.
What started as a day full of hope and great expectations, ended in near tragedy when button stick wielding police officers descended on a group of women who were commemorating the ONANDI Women’s Festival on March 7, 2009.
The ONANDI Women’s Festival is a local initiative hosted annually to mark International Women’s Day. This is the only women’s festival in Zimbabwe and is an opportunity for us to celebrate womanhood and women’s achievement in Zimbabwe. It is aimed at giving women a chance to take stock, reflect, think ahead and move forward in ending violence against women and promoting women’s health. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilise for meaningful change in upholding women’s rights.
As a feminist activist working for a women’s organisation, I had participated in the planning process for the ONANDI festival and was also involved in the implementation process. Every participating member was full of excitement about this event. It had taken us long and taxing hours to put together the logistics for the commemorations. Now was the time we had all been waiting for, to see the results of our sweat. We were sure going to show the country and the whole world that Zimbabwean women can stand for themselves and present their cause.
We were in a jovial mood. The T.M Hyper bus terminus, the rendezvous for the commencement of the march was a hive of activity. Yellow T-shirts dawned with messages on celebrating womanhood could be seen all over the place. There were also purple scarfs, banners and fliers with messages related to the commemorations. Every woman present was raring to go. Then, out of nowhere, two shabbily uniformed police constables from the Zimbabwe Republic Police emerged from behind a nearby building and menacing approached us ordering that the commemorations must stop pronto as it was not sanctioned by their office.
‘If you do not disperse immediately, we will arrest and detain you. Your gathering is in violations of the laws of this country and therefore illegal,’ ordered one of the police constables.
Soon, four more male officers arrived and one pounced on one of our documentalists and grabbed away the video camera that was being used to record the proceedings. Our first reaction was to panic and disband. However, there were a few courageous women who stood their ground, ordering the police to leave us alone. Even those who had been shaken by the sight of button sticks, helmets and teargas canisters recovered their courage and regrouped, demanding that the police vacate the venue of the march. In show of force, the officers viciously handcuffed one of the participants but this only served to strengthen women’s resolve to challenge the illegal action by the police.
After much back and forth, the police gave up and departed. We all heaved a sigh of relief. At least no one had been seriously injured serve for the documentalist who was bleeding from the handcuffs injuries. After all the Zimbabwe Republic Police is notorious for its heavy handed manner in silencing civic groups and members of the public. The ONANDI commemorations proceeded well, with the presence of plain clothes officers of cause, but every one of us was shaken by the earlier police fiasco.
This incident opened up a new dimension in my life. I had read stories of Zimbabwean police brutality before. Several people, including some of my friends and relatives had told me stories about their encounter with the police. One of the much publicised cases of the brutality of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is the abduction, detention and torture of a fellow journalist and Human Rights activist, Jestina Mukoko who is also the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Mukoko is one of the women who inspired me to study journalism. As a news anchor for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation, she was a beacon of hope for many young women.
Mukoko was abducted in a dawn raid on her home in Norton, 45 Kilometres outside the capital city of Harare, by 15 armed men in civilian clothing. They assaulted her caretaker and took her away. She was detained at a secret location for more than three months and was later brought to court by the police on charges of plotting to topple President Robert Mugabe's government. But the charges were widely discredited and seen as an attempt to stifle criticism of Mugabe. Mukoko is now suing Attorney General Johannes Tomana, the Ministers of Home Affairs and Defence, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner General and intelligence chiefs for USD220,000.
The 52-year-old mother says she was denied access to medication and lawyers and was tortured during her detention. The Minister of security in the President’s Office has since refused to name the abductors ‘for security reasons.’ The abductors are still roaming free in the streets.
The other high profile case of police brutality against women is that involving fellow activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). On May 28, 2008, WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu were among a group of WOZA activists arrested by police during a peaceful demonstration calling for an end to the violence that followed the general elections in which President Robert Mugabe lost the elections to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) President, Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai. Police reportedly beat and arrested WOZA members, and those arrested were detained in deplorable prison conditions. Authorities released most of them soon after, but Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu were held in custody for two months before they were released.
In another incident involving women from WOZA, the Zimbabwe Republic Police officers assaulted and detained four women from the organisation for participating in a peaceful march held to commemorate International Refugee Day, on 20th June 2008. Law and Order officers instructed that the detained and seriously injured activists were not allowed to receive medical treatment. Their lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, was informed by Law and Order officers that this was because Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) had “stage-managed” the peaceful protests to embarrass the authorities during the visit of Amnesty International Secretary-General, Irene Khan. Ms Khan had been giving a press conference just prior to the start of the protests before leaving the country.
Jestina Mukoko, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu’s stories are just a tip of an iceberg. There are other documented and undocumented cases in which the police are involved in the detention and torture of innocent women.
This iron fisted approach on innocent women has caused a lot of anxiety among women and women’s groups. Together, we have resolved to fight for inclusion of sections that are friendly to women in the new constitution that is currently being drafted.
The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, the umbrella body representing women and women’s groups in Zimbabwe, after a wide consultation with every concerned member, has come up with a position paper to be presented to the parliamentary committee that is driving the constitution making process. As a communication practitioner I have contributed in this process through preparing reports of meetings that have been held and circulating the reports to other partners.
As women we have realised that the current constitution has no provision for the protection of women. In one of the meetings, women categorically called for the inclusion of the following sections in the new constitution: the right to be protected from family, community and politically motivated violence and the removal of section 111B of the current constitution which does not allow for the automatic ratification of international statutes and conventions into law in Zimbabwe.
Other sections that we want included in the constitution include the strengthening of national machinery for gender through the creation of a national Gender Commission for enhanced promotion of women’s right and the right of women to hold political posts with a quota of 50 percent of the posts being specifically allocated to women, that is in Parliament, in Commissions such as the Human Rights Commission and Electoral Commission.
The current constitution has no provisions for economic, social or cultural rights and this has contributed towards the marginalisation of women in all spheres of life.
While the building up to the drafting of the constitution-making was exciting for women activists, a dark shadow emerged at the Harare International Conference Center, the venue for the First All Stakeholders Conference. Scores of liberation veterans of the 1970s war, who are President Mugabe loyalists, disrupted the meeting with singing war songs and shouting slogans at the top table inside the conference hall and drowned out Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) speaker of parliament Lovemore Moyo's opening address. They hurled empty plastic water bottles, forcing Moyo to leave the podium. Two prominent legislators from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) led by President Robert Mugabe also marshaled some young men to violently disrupt the process. They declared that Zimbabwe would never have a new constitution as long as the United States, Britain and their allies have not lifted the sanctions imposed on the country.
These utterances sent a shockwave to the women’s movement in Zimbabwe. We had embraced the constitution making process with a lot of expectations. After the First All Stakeholders Conference debacle was restored to normalcy, the worst was still to come. During a televised press conference by the three principals to the Zimbabwe Unity Government, President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirayi and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, the trio declared that there was never going to be any investigations into the violent disruptions. This is clearly an affront to justice. No one is above the law, not even the war veterans. The women’s movement had hoped that since the perpetrators were captured on camera, they would face the full wrath of the law for disturbing an important government programme. After all, it was the hard earned tax-payer and donors’ funds that were put to waste. The country is facing an acute shortage of foreign currency for the provision of the most basic needs and yet can allow resources to go down the drain in such a manner. Over 4000 guests had been invited to attend the conference and all their expenses were paid for by the government.
Prime Minister, Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai was quoted by the Reuters news agency saying, ‘The question of whoever orchestrated that disruption is neither here nor there, we need to move forward for the benefit of the people. Let us put national interests above partisan interests.’ Surely pursuing national interest can never entail breaking laws and bending to the whims of criminals.
This is a clear message that some perpetrators of violence are above the law as long as they are pushing the agenda of the ruling elite.
Justice for Zimbabwean women is still a pipedream as political skullduggery continues to dominate Zimbabwean life. But as women we now know that fear is our greatest enemy. We need to continue to aggressively push our agenda so that the country can have a democratic constitution that embraces our concerns. We need to tackle the bull by its horns to liberate ourselves and our country.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.