One year after the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) embarked on the campaign on mobilisation, education and protection of female activists at grassroots level, it is time to take a moment to look back at what we have achieved so far.
The ACT NOW Against Political Violence, Torture and Rape campaign has gained momentum, in particular in terms of mobilisation of female activists, who have been beaten down from years of repression.
“Women are strong and believe we need to continue the struggle for democracy. Activism is within us and we will never move backwards. We will continue the fight until we have a people driven constitution in Zimbabwe” says a leading female activists in NCA.
NCA National Spokesperson, Madock Chivasa, speaking about the ACT NOW Against Political Violence Campaign
Mobilisation and education of women
In the past year, the NCA has embarked on a national outreach programme to encourage an open dialogue about the risks and challenges facing women and provide a platform for women to share their personal stories about the physical, mental and social attacks by the law enforcement agencies, militia and youth gangs.
Around the country women and men has gathered in small groups to break the silence and talk about the trauma resulting from being targeted by the state in response to their call for a people driven constitution. This has contributed to building women’s self-esteem as individuals and as active participants in the movement for a genuine democratisation of Zimbabwe’s repressive regime.
Responses to police brutality
In spite of the courage and unity of the democracy movement, activists are still putting their lives on the line when they take up the fight against repression. Many female activists have been faced with police brutality, and women who choose to become active in NCA are acutely aware of the risks of physical assaults, arrest and torture. By teaching women about their rights they have become better prepared for how to react, when the police interrupt demonstrations and NCA meetings.
“Women now stand firm against the police. We tell them that we will not run away, so they can just go ahead and arrest us all. If one of us is arrested we stand together as a group and tell the police men to arrest us all. The police will leave us alone because we stand firm” says one of the women, who has educated grassroots women.
Protection and support to female activists
No matter how firm the women stand, the effects of the medical and psychological trauma from political violence cannot be underestimated. In the past year, NCA has scaled up the efforts to provide counselling, medical and legal support for women, who have been subjected to political violence. No woman should be left alone with the physical, mental and social wounds from violence, rape and torture. Therefore NCA has put a system in place, where women can report any incidences of political violence to the local offices, who will then refer them to medical, counselling and legal support.
Unfortunately the Zimbabwean police and court systems are under Robert Mugabe’s control, and it is not possible to report cases to the police or take the perpetrators to court. The police routinely refuse to investigate any cases of political violence against civic activists, who are perceived as being affiliated with Mugabe’s political rival, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Prosecution of perpetrators of political violence is therefore rare, and in the few court cases, the political elite has sought to threaten or pay the judges to rule in favour of the perpetrator. However, human rights lawyers and doctors still document all the cases, and are preparing to take them to court as soon as the political control of the court system is reduced. Attempts have also been made to prosecute perpetrators in other countries.
The women of Zimbabwe are not alone in their fight against repression. Throughout the past year, NCA and Africa Contact have put pressure on policy makers in Southern Africa and Europe to push for an end to political violence in Zimbabwe.
NCA has held a series of demonstrations around the campaign in Johannesburg. When the Southern Africa Development Community held an extraordinary summit in Johannesburg in June 2011, NCA handed in a petition calling on SADC to pressure Zimbabwe to put an end to political violence.
NCA Activists on their way to hand in petition to SADC
NCA Chairman Lovemore Madhuku and International Coordinator Munjodzi Mutandiri visited Copenhagen in December to mobilise support for the campaign. Civil society arranged a conference to address the issue of women’s political participation, and the Danish Government opened the doors to discuss the current political situation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs took note of NCA’s analysis of the Government of National Unity’s failure to provide stability and security for Zimbabweans, and NCA stressed that there is an urgent need to ensure that all Zimbabweans are free to choose their leader and contribute to building the future of the country.
In February, NCA’s partner Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), went to Geneva to engage the United Nations in the fight against political violence. During Zimbabwe’s review by the Committee on the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), RAU successfully lobbied the Committee to condemn the systematic use of political violence against women. The CEDAW Report called on the Zimbabwean Government to end political violence.
On the International Women’s Day and May Day, activists from Africa Contact took to the streets to urge Danish citizens and policy makers to show their solidarity with the women of Zimbabwe. More than 500 Danes showed their support by having their picture taken for a virtual petition on Facebook.
Danes calling for an end to political violence against women in Zimbabwe
The events caught the attention of Danish policymakers and the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Lene Espersen said: “I think we should fight all attempts at trying to misuse women for political purposes. So let’s speak up and speak up loud for the Zimbabwean women”, when she had her picture taken for the petition.
Strengthening the movement for a democratic Zimbabwe
The campaign has not only contributed to improving the situation for female activists. It has also strengthened NCA as a movement. The fear and consequences of political violence is something that is present in the lives of all activists. By initiating discussions about political violence at all levels of the organisation, NCA has become even more relevant for its grassroots supporters, because the organisation acknowledges and seeks to assist the physical and psychological risks the membership face.
“The campaign against political violence is the first of its nature in NCA. We have always campaigned for a people driven constitution, and our members were positively surprised to see us talk about political violence. It has helped us mobilise our grassroots, especially women“, says a member of NCA’s Task Force.
But the struggle does not end here. Political violence, especially against women, has become integral to Zimbabwe’s political battleground as is still used as a tool to silence critical voices. It is expected that Zimbabwe will have a referendum on a new constitution this year and elections next year. Mugabe is not expected to give up power without a fight and is likely to launch a new campaign of intimidation and violence against the democracy movement. We need to prepare ourselves to protect women and provide support for the victims of political violence – and speak out to the international community on the continued human rights violations in Zimbabwe.