Women's Safety A Concern For Zimbabwe Elections

woman voting in Zimbabwe

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.


Board Member Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka appointed UN Women Executive Director

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

The Global Fund for Women congratulates our board member, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on her new position as Executive Director of UN Women.

Global Fund Board Chair Leila Hessini said UN Women picked the right leader for the right time in the life of UN Women. “Phumzile has always had an eye on women’s human rights, even in her work before South Africa’s independence.”

Fellow board member Gay McDougall called Mlambo-Ngcuka’s selection, "...an inspired choice, a dedicated leader. She will work hard for women."

Mlambo-Ngcuka was appointed Deputy President of South Africa in 2005, the highest office ever occupied by a woman in the history of her country. Prior to her role as Deputy President, she was the Minister of Minerals and Energy where she consistently won praise as one of the most effective ministers in the South African government. Mlambo-Ngcuka has been a long-time advisor to the Global Fund and joined the Board last year.

Mlambo-Ngcuka told us she is both excited and honored by her new role. “I took some time off after serving as Deputy President of South Africa to reflect on what to do next. I really want to continue my human rights journey by focusing much needed attention on women. So this is the right job at the right time.”

The Time is Now

Political, social and economic turmoil around the world coupled with “wars on women” on every continent, Mlambo-Ngcuka will shoulder daunting responsibilities as she leads UN Women into its next phase.

Formed in 2010, UN Women was established in part by Global Fund board member, Charlotte Bunch via the Center for Women’s Global Leadership as a way for the international community to organize around women’s human rights.

Michelle Bachelet, UN Women’s first Executive Director, gave the organization strong roots and now it’s prepared to grow, poised to reach its full potential as the strong and effective advocate for women’s rights envisioned at its creation, said Bunch.

Bunch added the head of UN Women must be an “institution builder,” someone who can, among other things, mobilize resources and hold countries and the UN accountable for their rhetoric about women.

"[She will need to] make women a central component of all UN system activities, from climate change to the rights of minorities and the elimination of poverty,” said Bunch. This has to be done at, “the global level as well as through a strong presence for women within all UN operations on the ground."

Global Fund for Women President and CEO Musimbi Kanyoro celebrates Mlambo-Ngcuka’s appointment and added, “This is one strong woman succeeding another strong woman. Now, for UN Women to succeed as envisioned, donors from the private and public sector must seriously invest in women. Phumzile will need to remind people that UN Women isn’t just about women, it tackles issues that affect the economies of countries and the health of their people.”

Staying Connected

Sitting on the Global Fund’s board is one way Mlambo-Ngcuka could stay connected to grassroots women’s movements, enabling her to advocate at a high level for women-led solutions.

"Staying connected means that she can have the audacity, strength, and risk to be able to say ‘I know organizations on the ground doing exceptional work,’” said Kanyoro.


Egyptian Women Want Democracy Not "Ballotocracy"

Egyptian protestors on July 3, 2013.

Reporting from Egypt: Hoda Elsadda, Global Fund for Women board member and Vice President of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, emailed us to say that international media is missing the point. Demanding the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t the end of democracy in Egypt, rather it is democracy in action:

"[The international media’s] insistence on repeating the Muslim Brotherhood mantra that the ouster of the first democratically elected president is the end of democracy is a gross abuse of the essential meaning of democracy and a reflection of the trivialization of democratic processes by reducing them to electoral politics only.

If this is the situation of democracy in the U.S. then you are well advised to take a step back and learn from Egypt. Egyptians refuse the definition of democracy as elections only (one brilliant Egyptian coined the term 'ballotocracy' to describe this abuse of the concept).  

Mohamed Morsi has impeached himself by violating the contract made between him and the people who elected him. And just as a reminder, Hitler was also a democratically elected president whose election cost millions of lives and a world war. Well, we Egyptians want to get rid of Morsi and his clan right here and now and save the world and ourselves more bloodshed and agony.

A final word to the American administration: please, please, stop supporting dictators."

Documenting Sexual Violence and Gang Rape

As Egypt rejects “ballotocracy” in Tahrir Square, getting to this point was fraught with violence. Women have documented at least 101 cases of sexual violence in six days, according to Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Nazra for Feminist Studies.

Unfortunately, sexual violence and rape during times of conflict is not news for Global Fund for Women and our grantee partners. Fortunately, with social media, women’s organizations are documenting sexual violence in real time. Nazra for Feminist Studies has been instrumental in promoting anti-violence hotlines like Operation Anti Sexual Harassment and other support services for women being raped in the streets.

A Movement Demanding Democracy

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the impact of 20+ years of vital core support from Global Fund for Women played out in a big way. It helped build strong networks of women’s rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa, enabling women like Hoda and Mozn Hassan to mobilize quickly and lead during turbulent times. Today, these are the networks demanding democracy in their country today and standing against rape and violence as an intimidation tactic.


Firsthand Account of Violence in Istanbul

Turkish protesters wave national flags with portraits of Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk as they take part in an anti-government rally on Sunday, June 9, 2013.

Police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on a crowd of almost 5,000 people in Taksim Square Tuesday night, according to Deniz Nihan Aktan of Istanbul Feminist Collective and Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Filmmor.

Speaking to Global Fund for Women from her house near Taksim Square, Deniz described the scene as “horrible,” with police “attacking to kill the protestors.”

The demonstrations began over a plan to tear out the last green space in the center of the city, Gezi Park in Taksim Square, and to replace it with a mall. They quickly progressed into a movement critical of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his administration, well known for restricting the freedom of expression in civil society.

Deniz and her feminist colleagues organized in the park to take a public stance for women’s human rights. The group voiced their opposition to the government’s attempts to ban abortion, political violence against the LGBT community and the rising rates of violence against women.

Filmmor's protest area before the police broke up the demonstration: a group of women holding hands in front of a pavilionThe same area after the violence, showing wreckage of the pavilion, garbage, flags strewn aboutFilmmor's Taksim Square protest, before and after the police broke it up

“We put up a tent in the park to claim our voice amongst the crowd, and we conveyed our demands in a legal way,” said Deniz.

Deniz’s voice cracked over the phone as she recounted her experience. It was 3:00 a.m. in Istanbul and she had witnessed many of her friends wounded by police that are supposed to protect citizens.

What should have been a peaceful protest, a solidarity movement among environmentalists, left wing activists, regular citizens, women’s and LGBT rights advocates, was met with escalating police brutality.

“He [Erdogan] is more concerned with holding onto his power than he is for the rights of his people,” said Deniz. “What they [the government] are doing is illogical and illegal.”

Read more about the protests in Turkey

Global Fund advisor and grantee partner, Nevin Öztop of Kaos GL, reflects on the movement against Erdoğan’s racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and policies. Nevin writes:

How could the idea of a single park being demolished get a nation so angry? How could resistance unite all the streets of a country? How could people become so unafraid of getting beaten up and tear gassed day and night? And more importantly, how could this nation still have so much fun and laugh at everything about the brutality and rapid unrest?

"This gas feels fantastic, my friend!", "You banned alcohol, the nation sobered up!", "Welcome to the 1st national gas festival!", "Tear gas works wonders on your complexion!", “Hey Starbucks, this movement prefers the coffee of the independent shop owner on the corner!” are only a few of the thousands of declarations on the walls of over 40 cities now. In only a few days, graffitis and sprayed messages became a part of our daily lives. The smashed police “riot control” vehicles vandalized by football fan clubs are on sale all over the internet. Emptied tear gas bullets are used as the new vase homes of flowers. Read the full story here »


An Inspiring Night

View photos and videos from our 25th anniversary galas in San Francisco and New York, where we recognized extraordinary women leading the way for equality and justice worldwide.

San Francisco Gala

New York Gala

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour emceed the sold out event and the Hon. Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the keynote speech. Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood Federation of America presented the inaugural Charlotte Bunch Human Rights Defender awards to three extraordinary women: Mónica Roa from Colombia, Mozn Hassan from Egypt and Staša Zajovic from Serbia. Jennifer Buffett and Jacquelyn Zehner were honored with Global Philanthropy Awards.

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