By Rufaro Gwarada, Program Coordinator for Sub-Saharan Africa
I moved away from Zimbabwe almost 15 years ago. In the early years I inhaled all the news I could; watching in shock as my home country descended into crisis. Each visit home and conversations with friends and family became about what used to be, and with that came a resignation of sorts to the status quo as we carried on with our lives.
As Zimbabweans go to the polls in already controversial presidential and parliamentary elections on July 31, I write this with mixed emotions. I’m keenly aware of my position as a quasi-outsider, and feel unqualified to speak on happenings on the ground – I am not there, plus I have no desire to add to the general din of opinions and usual portrayals of Zimbabwe as a lost cause.
Being a Zimbabwean woman “experiencing” the election from thousands of miles away, I am watching, holding my breath, knowing I can’t cast a vote, but hoping that the civil society-led “Feya Feya Campaign” for free, fair, and credible elections will succeed. I hope that the shameful and dehumanizing specter of violence and intimidation, particularly against women, that characterized the disputed elections in 2008 will not rear its head again. I will myself to truly believe that unlike 2008, and in the wake of a peaceful and momentous constitutional referendum in March, these elections will not be contested in and on women’s bodies and that rape, physical assault, torture, and imprisonment will not be tolerated or excused.
The March referendum marked a milestone in the three decades since Zimbabwe’s independence as 95 percent of registered voters approved a new constitution. On paper, the new constitution bodes well for Zimbabwean women and girls, emphasizing gender equality and including legal changes and affirmative action measures that benefit women in the public and private spheres. For example, women are now guaranteed 60 seats in Parliament, out of 201 seats, and now have equal parental rights in guardianship and custody of children who are minors. But in the afterglow of the referendum and lead-up to presidential and parliamentary elections, prominent human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa was arrested for “obstructing the course of justice” and has since been navigating the legal system amid numerous contradictions, awaiting her fate.
Ms. Mtetwa’s experience is hardly isolated and reflects systematic intimidation, disregard for rule of law, and infringement of the rights of the courageous women and men activists, advocates, and change agents who believe in and envision a free and prosperous Zimbabwe. In their highly publicized State-led persecution and imprisonments, women like Beatrice Mtetwa, Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, and Jestina Mukoko have become the public faces of a non-violent women’s struggle for peace, justice, and freedom that has been met with violence. Yet many more women suffer in silence or have lost hope for change.
Five years ago, Zimbabwean women who were opposition supporters; believed to be opposition supporters; whose male relatives, spouses, and partners were opposition supporters; or who came from areas considered opposition strongholds, bore the brunt of intimidation and retaliatory political violence leading up to and in the aftermath of a tightly contested election and the run-off that followed. As chronicled in a video by Global Fund For Women grantee partner, Research and Advocacy Unit, women who experienced so called “politically motivated” violence suffered in silence, or when they spoke up, did not get justice for the crimes committed against them.
So, even as Zimbabwean women celebrate victories won in the new constitution, and courageously gear up for the upcoming elections, there is still uncertainty around women’s safety. It is therefore important for us to stand with Zimbabwean women champions for change, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, saying 2008 is not forgotten and we will bear witness and speak out against, and demand accountability and redress for any violations of their rights, minds, and bodies during this election cycle and moving forward. Here’s to Feya Feya in Zimbabwe’s elections and beyond.