ZIMBABWE: The Word on Women - Defending Women's Human Rights In Zimbabwe: Examining The Complexities

Thursday, October 6, 2011
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) in Zimbabwe are routinely arrested, unlawfully detained and subjected to ill-treatment whilst in prison, all for engaging in peaceful protest. AWID tries to unravel the complexities of the context in which they work to understand how WHRDs are affected by politically motivated violence, the land reform process and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

On June 28, 2011, FrontLine issued an urgent action concerning the suspected poisoning of members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). Eight WOZA members were hospitalized following a visit to their property used for meetings, where they were overwhelmed by chemical smells. When WOZA arrived at the house, which had been occupied for 12 days by the Zimbabwe Republic Police, they found suspicious articles, damage to the premises and items were missing. A women's rights organisation with over 75,000 members across Zimbabwe, WOZA has been targeted for repression in the past for their work in defending women's human rights.

The WOZA case is just one incident concerning WHRDs in Zimbabwe on which AWID has recently taken action. In addition to the FrontLine alert, in March 2011 Amnesty International expressed concern about widespread repression of dissent in Zimbabwe and reported that repression against human rights defenders is intensifying. At the same time, WHRDs in Zimbabwe are also gaining recognition for their work, as in the case of Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, winner of this year's Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) Women Human Rights Defenders Award. In this week's Friday File, AWID examines the case of Zimbabwe's women human rights defenders and tries to untangle some of the complexities of the context in which they work.


President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party has been the ruling party in Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from the British in 1980. After independence, fighting between Mugabe's government and the dissident Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) led to a “pacification” campaign known as the Gukuruhundi that killed at least 20,000 civilians. The ZANU-PF and its political allies have often used violence as a political tool and ordinary Zimbabweans, civil society activists and human rights defenders (including WHRDs) often get swept up in the fight.[i] The perpetrators – mainly ZANU-PF supporters, so-called “war veterans,” youth militia and state security forces[ii] -- go largely unpunished for this violence which includes unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment.[iii]

Politically motivated violence has historically intensified around elections, and has included gender-based violence against WHRDs and women who are, or who are assumed to be, politically active with the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC has shared power with ZANU-PF since the disputed elections in 2008 and has refused to participate inMugabe's recent election call. They cite fear of violence against supporters as a key concern and urge the adoption of electoral and security sector reforms, as well as a new constitution, as prerequisites for national elections.

Another source of political tension is the controversial Fast Track Land Programme, aimed at rapid land redistribution to address the disparity between white and black land ownership and use in the country. A Human Rights Watch report describes the human rights violations associated with the fast-tracking aspect of the land reform process, which includes: violence during land operations, assaults against white farmers, attacks on black farm workers including rape, use of farms as bases to harass opposition supporters, failures of due process and police protection, discrimination in land distribution, displacement and marginalization of farm workers and disruption of the activities of rural organizations. The forced evictions associated with the program have particularly affected women, who represent 70 percent of farm workers and the majority of small traders in rural areas, restricting their access to income, food, health, education and housing.[iv]

The HIV and AIDS pandemic also affects Zimbabwean WHRDs when they are denied antiretroviral (ARV) drugs while in detention, when they risk contracting HIV as a result of sexual assault and/or because they must often care for dependents in addition to their human rights work. This is particularly the case in Zimbabwe which experiences one of the worst rates of HIV and AIDS infection globally (around one in ten people are HIV positive), while at the same time there is little access to ARVs and the country's health sector in general barely functions. Women reporting sexual assault by security forces or political factions have also reported being turned away by medical staff who cite fear of reprisals by perpetrators if they treat the women, resulting in further violation of their rights.[v]

WHRDS in Zimbabwe

Women in Zimbabwe have a strong history of mobilizing against injustice, having lobbied since independence for the adoption of laws and policies that promote and protect their rights. They have fought for reform of marriage and discriminatory inheritance laws, have achieved recognition of the legal age of majority for women and the passage in the lower house of a Domestic Violence Act.[vi] It is also partly through fighting for their rights to food, housing and health[vii] that women in Zimbabwe often become human rights defenders.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) emerged in 2003 as a social justice movement concerned with the disproportionate impact of Zimbabwe's economic decline on women's access to basic goods and services such as food, water, health care, electricity, and education. Encouraging women to stand up for their rights and freedoms, WOZA supports women as they speak out about the issues that affect them and helps them gain confidence to assume leadership in community decisions. As a result of their advocacy and peaceful protestsagainst the actions of government officials, service providers and the police, WOZA members have been repeatedly arrested, detained (sometimes while pregnant or with small children)[viii] and charged under repressive legislation. Members have also been denied access to subsidized maize in rural areas as punishment for their activism.

Since 2003 hundreds of WHRDs in Zimbabwe have been arbitrarily detained or arrested for organizing marches, meetings or other peaceful demonstrations[ix]and human rights organizations are often subjected to unwarranted state surveillance and interference. Repressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Miscellaneous Offenses Act are used by police to deny human rights defenders permission to hold peaceful demonstrations or to arrest or detain them arbitrarily. These laws violate WHRDs rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly and undermine their legitimate human rights work.

During arbitrary arrest, detention or harassment, Zimbabwean WHRDs have reported experiencing sexist verbal attacks, humiliation, psychological and physical torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, including being housed indeplorable conditions, being denied food, access to legal counsel and medical care or medication.[x]

Differences among Zimbabwean WHRDs such as race, class, ethnicity, veteran status and region, among others, also affect how they are treated and experience human rights violations. For example, rural women reported experiencing property destruction, displacement, rape, and torture more frequently than urban women, who reported a greater number of assaults, unlawful detentions, and death threats.[xi] WHRDs are also more likely to experience violence by state forces, while politically active women were more likely to be targeted by members of opposing political parties.[xii]

WHRDs are protected by the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders for their work in defense of human rights. But in this context of high levels of political and gender-based violence, it is not simple to unravel the human rights violations of WHRDs from politically motivated violence (which often results in human rights violations). In Zimbabwe, WHRD's defend women's rights, and work to highlight the impact of deteriorating economic, political and social situation on women. As they speak out about their rights, WHRDs in Zimbabwe often get swept up in politically motivated violence affecting partisan actors. Though they experience similar types of human rights violations as their male counterparts, their experiences and the impact of these violations are gender-specific.

Amid uncertainty around new elections, it will be important to monitor the situation of WHRDS on the ground and to continue to bring attention to their work. For organizations like WOZA, continuing their human rights work requires reforms that end impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations and enacting policies that promote women's human rights to food, security, health, and education, among others.