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Women’s Rights Movement Building in Zimbabwe

Movements are informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues. They aim at challenging, resisting or undoing the status quo to construct egalitarian societies.

The last decades have witnessed shifts in the women and conflict discourse globally as evidenced by an upsurge of feminist mobilizations to combat inequalities and gender violence. The advent of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (1325) created a ‘crisis of conscience’ that has helped women move focus and attention from the mainstream where war was seen as men’s business, towards a conscious analysis of the gender differentiated impact of conflict on women and men.
Using 1325 as their guiding tool, and combining it with local initiatives; women globally have engaged states as sites for struggle against gender oppression and violence. Reference can be made to women in Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan and Liberia. Although 1325 has not been utilized in Zimbabwe, women here have built strong alliances with other committed non state actors to form relevant women’s groupings that interrogate patriarchal and militaristic hegemony.

Below I highlight efforts of individuals, organisations and women’s groups in raising the flag against politically motivated violence in Zimbabwe. I simultaneously trace and theorize on how these various actors forge subjectivity and agency to strengthen their agenda, in the process building a strong movement for women’s empowerment.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA): WOZA is a social justice movement borne out of women’s mobilisation against the disproportionate impact of economic decline on women’s access to basic goods and services in the past decade. Its membership currently stands at 80 000 . Using strategic non -violence for mobilization, the organization creates space to assist Zimbabwean women articulate issues individuals may fear or find difficult to effectively tackle alone. It exists across ages, sectors and locations, and is dedicated to strengthening women’s voice, visibility and collective power to change the norms and policies that perpetuate inequality and violence. Since its formation, WOZA has consistently led community action to press for solutions to the current crisis in Zimbabwe, holding more than 100 demonstrations against the social, economic and human rights situation. It has carried out consultations on social justice across the country, translating findings and resolutions into a people’s charter addressing human rights issues, that has been published electronically and in print in three local languages. WOZA women face incarceration in crowded cells for long periods under unbearable conditions, even when the rest of the country is cowed by fear, subverting the patriarchal stereotypes that woman are weak. Whilst in prison, Jenni Williams, the leader of WOZA takes advantage of the space and time to conscientise other female inmates; non-members of her group, on their rights, as well as to help those women unlawfully detained for long periods apply for bail. Zimbabwe is notorious for detaining prisoners for unreasonably long periods of time before they go for trial.
The actions of WOZA have helped unearth horrific issues that could never have been known, bringing them to both local and international attention. A case in point is the deplorable condition of Zimbabwean prisons. Conditions such as lack of sanitary pads and toiletries have a gender specific dimension for women, designed to demoralize them and make activism work difficult. A WOZA former inmate testified thus in one of the RAU advocacy reports,
…. you get wounded on your private parts. You cannot walk properly and you smell like a dead rat. … my private parts were swollen because of the continued use of the same piece of cloth without washing it and without bathing. My whole body was painful and weak.
The coping strategies of the WOZA women were articulated by Jenni Williams herself,
We smuggled tissues and pads into the cells so that we could use them or give others when they start their periods. We have learnt these survival tactics after a lot of arrests and suffering. ……. The other alternative is to wear many pads when you go for a demonstration because they will become useful when one is arrested.

The climax in the growth of WOZA was in 2006 when men, after being challenged by the brevity and organizing power of these women, joined the demonstrations, and formed Men of Zimbabwe Arise (MOZA), the men’s wing, which tackles the same agenda as WOZA.

The agency and strategies of WOZA, besides revealing the characteristics that constitute their womanhood, can also be liberating and empowering if read and understood by other women as basis for action. Threatening situations are aggressively manipulated and incorporated into an individual identity, which in turn influences the identities of other actors, resulting in group effort against oppression, in turn affirming the feminist adage, “the personal is political!”

The Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU): RAU is an NGO providing specialist assistance in research and advocacy in human rights, democracy and governance. It has been a key ally in women’s actions to fight politically motivated violence against women in Zimbabwe. RAU has consistently followed up on and documented the activities of WOZA and other women, be them individuals or groups. RAU has also linked survivors of politically motivated rape to relevant networks, assisting them to access HIV/AIDS, testing, counseling, treatment and care, and facilitating the possible prosecution of perpetrators. The work of RAU is deep and difficult, exposing ZANU PF’s patriarchal and militaristic tendencies, as revealed in the testimony of one survivor they interviewed:

The ringleaders instructed the women to take off all of their clothes. The six men assigned to me forced me to lie down where we stood. I did everything they said because I was very scared. I lay against my husband’s back and all six of the men … took off their pants. One man pushed his penis into my vagina, another put his penis in my mouth, another in my ear, and the rest on other parts of my body. I began to cry in pain. As they raped me, they said I must join the ZANU-PF and defect from the MDC party. As this was happening, I could see and hear other women being raped around me simultaneously .

This survivor and many others who took part in the RAU campaign against politically motivated violence came together and formed a self-help organization for women survivors of politically motivated rape, The Doors of Hope Development Trust, DHDT.

I conclude this paper by shedding light on the lessons learnt from the above experiences:

• Concerted efforts of individuals and organisations above, and achievements, prove that movement building is a process requiring synergies from a critical mass of both individuals and groups of people with a common cause.

• The second lesson is that achievements of movements building require a qualitative analysis. Movement building is a process rather than a once off event.

• Although it is not a women’s NGO per se, RAU has made the fight for women’s rights an organizational niche, tackling women’s issues with a commitment and style some women’s NGOs still find difficult to adhere to. It doesn’t matter what space you belong to, what matters is the driving force and agenda behind your thinking. Arguments that dismiss mainstream NGOs as unsuitable allies in movement building for women’s empowerment purely on that basis can be simplistic, limiting and retrogressive. This argument, which is my last, also opens a can of worms on NGO-isation as opposed to movement building.

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