Last week, the Dutch Embassy of Zimbabwe hosted an event to celebrate the launch of a new publication titled, ‘Resilience In Adversity: The Changing Face of Women’s Activism in Zimbabwe 2000-2014’. The event was well attended by members of Zimbabwe’s women’s movement and included brief speeches by – among others – the Dutch Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Gera Sneller, Virginia Muwanigwa (Chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe), Ireen Dubel, Grace Chirenje (Programmes Coordinator at Zimbabwe Young Women’s Network for Peace),Sally Dura (Women’s Coalition Coordinator) and Winnet Shamuyarira (Programme Officer at Katswe Sistahood). The conversation was steered by Bella Matambanadzo.
The 50-page document was produced by Anouka van Eerdewijk and Teresa Mugadza and looks at women’s organising between 2000 and 2014, documenting opportunities, achievements and challenges since the turn of the new millennium with its accompanying socio-political uncertainty. Its explicit focus is on women’s organising within NGOs. The publication also pays less attention to women’s wings of political parties and professional associations, which the authors note will require documentation with time.
The history and future of women’s organising
The document is segmented into four parts, namely a timeline of women’s organising since independence, key legal developments affecting women’s rights, women’s organising and mobilising since 2000 (with a particular focus on young women’s activism) and a final section that looks at emerging insights around the women’s movement. As such, it tracks the trajectory of women’s organising from a more state-oriented mandate (for example through work with the Ministry for Community Affairs and Women’s Development, a portfolio established in 1981) to a space expressing an increasing critique of the state as evidenced through the emergence of organisations such as Women’s Action Group (1983), Musasa Project (1988), the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN, 1989) Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN, 1990). The publication notes the emergence of more organisations in the 1990s which included Girl Child Network and Zimbabwe Women’s Lawyers Association (ZWLA) and states that by 1995, there were over 25 registered women’s organisations.
While the publication looks at various moments in the trajectory of women’s rights in Zimbabwe, the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly in 1997 and the launch of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe and the MDC in 1999, it is the year 2000 on which the analysis pivots.
With the ‘no’ vote following the Constitutional referendum of the time and as a result, an ensuing period of political instability which saw the co-optation of the women’s movement into volatile party politics, the researchers note a period during which the women’s movement began to splinter with many activists either leaving the country or beginning to censor their critique.
As such, the publication seeks to understand and document new modes of organising beyond this trying period. The work of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) – founded in 2003 to advocate for social justice and civic education – is noted alongside that of Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU, founded in 2001) which provides support to women in politics, while raising attention on issues that entail women’s participation in political decision-making.
Young women’s organising
There is, however, a particular focus on the innovation of young women to articulate a new consciousness, with documentation of various initiatives including Katswe Sistahood, Sexual Rights Centre and Pa Kasipiti who have tackled issues including sex worker rights and LGBTI rights, which had not previously been very visible.
As van Eerdewijk and Mugadza note;
“It is worth nothing that while in the past it may have been adequate to raise the subject of women;’s equality as an issue on its own, with the new generation of young women it has become important to unpack the meaning of rights. Young women are pushing for clarification in the discourse on rights. If there is talk of violence against women, for example, the question is not just how many women are violated, but ‘which women, where, how and by whom’. Further, they have shown that not all young women are interested in politics and public participation; some are more interested in education or sexual and reproductive health rights.” (pg 28-29)
Other organisations, such as the Zimbabwe Young Women’s Network for Peace (ZYWNP) were founded to empower young women to participate in conflict mitigation and to practice tolerance across political divergences following the brutality of political, and sexual, violence in the early to mid 2000s.
The researchers also note that,
“Local and international economic trends have influenced how younger women organize. In Zimbabwe, the effects of the global economic decline are intertwined with the national socio-economic decline of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Employment is no longer guaranteed, and this has pushed young women into entrepreneurship and other economic activities by design rather than by choice. Given the challenges in patriarchal societies, young women have started to organize to have a collective voice in lobbying for favourable business conditions and access to resources.” (pg. 27)
This, the researchers note, has led to the emergence of forums like the Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD) which was founded in 2009 to create space for young women to engage in national processes such as land reform and indigenisation.
The researchers also note the role of new technologies and social media as modes for new organising. Her Zimbabwe is mentioned as one of the platforms using new media to engage young women in issues.
They do, however , observe that while SMS and Whatsapp have potential to mobilise women on a larger scale, there has been little uptake of these tools with their use observed more in public health messaging.
New ways of looking at women’s organising
The research documents a range of issues and provides pertinent food for thought 15 years since the socio-political and economic collapse that it seemed Zimbabwe would never emerge from. Observations include the need for ongoing re-strategising and repositioning of the women’s movement across multiple generations of women, the younger of whom do not “… feel accountable to their predecessors or bound by their previous ways of working…” (pg. 40)
While the research acknowledges the heterogeneity of the movement, it also observes that schisms and fragmentation do exist, especially in the context of sexual and reproductive health and rights to do particularly with abortion and LGBTI rights; the rise of Pentecostalism and religious fundamentalisms is juxtaposed against these observations, while a loss of a feminist consciousness with “incorrect understandings of the term feminism” (pg. 41) also being noted. Also observed is the lack of documentation of the emerging role of women as breadwinners (particularly in informal trade) as a result of the the economic decline of the era.
And while new technologies are given leverage as important tools for activism, the research notes their pitfalls in laying women open to new forms of abuse and their potential to tend towards more individualistic (and personality-driven) organising at the expense of the collective. Professionalisation of women’s organising as a result of a push towards meeting the needs of increasingly limited donor funding (described as “follow-the-money” mode by the researchers) coupled with a restrictive employment environment means that there is increased potential for apathy and work for the sake of it.
Amid all these challenges, the research notes important watershed moments amid great adversity. These include women’s unified voice to fight for greater gender provisions in the adoption of the new Constitution in 2013 and the enactment of laws such as the Sexual Offences Act (2001) and the Domestic Violence Act (2007).
In 2012, HIVOS – in collaboration with Just Associates (JASS) – convened a brainstorming meeting with 18 key voices in the women’s movement in order to situate and frame the history and trajectory of the work of the women’s movement. The process also led to the discovery of an unpublished manuscript – by Shereen Essof – which has since been published into a book titled ‘Shemurenga: The women’s movement, 1995-2000’. You can read a Her Zimbabwe review of Shemurenga here. All photographs are the property of Fungai Machirori.