Three days before Americans gathered around their tables to carve their Thanksgiving turkeys in 2009, President Barack Obama held a special ceremony in the East Room of the White House. The occasion was to honor female activists who "undermined their oppressors' power with their own power" and "sapped a dictator's strength with their own."
The "dictator" Obama spoke of was Zimbabwe's current leader, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has dominated Zimbabwean politics since 1980, having come to power on a wave of popular support developed during the liberation movement against white-minority rule. The heroines being honored on that day were activists of the organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA).
The acronym, WOZA, is also an Ndebele word meaning "come forward." The group was founded "to press for solutions to the current political and economic crisis" and to give voice to women's particular struggles, such as a lack of equality in employment and pay and other obstacles that limit women's political participation.
Since its creation in 2003, WOZA has grown from a handful of activists encouraging women and their families to stand up for their rights to a membership of almost 75,000. The organization has also conducted hundreds of demonstrations that have involved thousands of women and men.
WOZA's protests center on the devastating impact of Zimbabwe's failing economy. The economic situation is partly the result of a dramatic decline in agricultural production tied to Mugabe's highly criticized fast track land reform in 2000. As Mugabe explains it, the purpose of his bill was to redistribute land, largely to the poor and dispossessed. Yet, in reality, large tracts of the land have ended up in the hands of a few governmental elites and the entire economy has suffered.
Beginning in 2002, several of the country's economic allies, including the European Union and the United States, withdrew aid and levied sanctions on the nation, accusing Mugabe of corruption and mismanagement. By that time, Zimbabwe's gross domestic product (GDP) had been shrinking significantly for several years.
Since then, the nation has faced an economic and political crisis, which has left the vast majority of Zimbabweans disenfranchised and impoverished. For this, the country's officials blame international actors. President Obama is not convinced, seeing the pressure of international financial institutions as largely symbolic. Instead, he contends that it is "the actions and politics of certain members of the Zimbabwean government that continue to undermine Zimbabwe's democratic processes."
As this debate has carried on, so have chronic food shortages. In September of 2009, hundreds of WOZA members—along with the Men of Zimbabwe Arise (MOZA)—took to the streets, marching several blocks to the Mhlahlandlela Government Complex in Bulawayo.
As in their other public demonstrations, the crowd was made up of domestic servants, hairdressers, produce sellers, and seamstresses. The music they generated came not only from song, but also from drumming on empty pots carried to illustrate to the Mugabe administration how high food prices kept them in constant threat of hunger. Several female activists held brooms that symbolized their desire to sweep clean the government and start anew.
President Obama likened WOZA members to civil rights activists around the world, but especially those of the civil rights movement in the United States and apartheid struggles in South Africa—Zimbabwe's neighbor. The president spoke passionately about the trials that WOZA activists endure in making their concerns known, including being "gassed, abducted, threatened with guns, and badly-beaten—[and] forced to count out loud as each blow administered." Many more have spent nights in police custody, frequently being dragged into lice-infested cells with their children strapped to their bodies.
After describing the courageous acts of WOZA activists in painstaking detail, President Obama invited Mrs. Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, to co-present the 2009 Human Rights Award.
The award, instituted in 1984 and named in honor of Robert Kennedy after his 1968 assassination, honors human rights defenders "across the globe doing a wide range of urgent work," which includes, "fighting to end apartheid, advance democracy, empower minorities and indigenous peoples, and promote free speech and elections and more." Recipients of the award are guaranteed five years of on-going legal, advocacy and technical support through a partnership with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
In accepting the award, WOZA's founders and leaders, Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, immediately joined the ranks of past awardees like Winnie Mandela of South Africa and Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Abdallah of Sudan. Still, in her speech, Mahlangu expressed, "even as I stand here, humbled and grateful, for the recognition, I find little to celebrate." Looking squarely into the lenses of news cameras, Mahlangu told citizens the world over about her group's aims to improve life in Zimbabwe through non-violent means.
The women's concerns revolve not only around the devastated economy, but also the Global Political Agreement. This agreement is the power-sharing deal that Mugabe crafted with opposition leaders after his political defeat in late 2008. Signatories guaranteed that by August of 2010, Zimbabwe's government would be more democratic for all its citizens, including women.
As the women explain, however, little "has been done …to ensure there is a secure environment for people to participate" in the democratic process. Mugabe and other leaders' failure to respond to the dire needs of the Zimbabwean public has the women concerned that social justice and democracy will remain only a figment of their imagination.
For this reason, WOZA members have resolved to continue the fight despite continuous repression for their outspokenness. In conscious practice, they refuse to be beaten down. When being repeatedly struck to the ground and "beaten black and blue" by the batons of Mugabe's police forces, the women quickly rise to their feet and resume chanting and singing freedom songs.
Since much of the worldwide press attention on Zimbabwe has focused on men and the high political machinations of Mugabe and his opponents, women activists have rarely received the sort of attention and accolades that Washington has showered on the women of WOZA for their bravery and crucial role in Zimbabwe's current troubles.
Women for a Cause: Zimbabwe's National Liberation War
This is by no means the first time in Zimbabwe's history that "the other half of the sky" has taken such a stand against political oppression and economic troubles.
During Zimbabwe's National Liberation War (1965-1980), Zimbabwean women participated in all aspects of the fight against their colonial "masters."
Like men, the women were fighting against racial policies put into place as early as 1890, when Cecil Rhodes and his police force of the British South Africa Company, colonized then Mashonaland. Believing in an ideology of innate British superiority, Rhodes claimed that placing the region's ethnic groups under the rule of an all-white government would lead them to a higher level of civilization. These ideas also served as justification for discriminatory colonial policies, including the disfranchisement of Africans and segregation of public spaces.
Almost immediately, British colonizers introduced their own ideas about women's nature and proper sphere, leading to the creation of a legal structure that distorted the preexisting flexibility of customary laws. Before colonization, women—especially those of the two major Bantu-speaking groups, the Shona and the Ndebele—had been able to achieve economic and social independence through both agricultural and non-agricultural pursuits, even when their gender often excluded them from land ownership and formal leadership. Other women gained authority as "spirit mediums," which allowed them to assert more control in both religion and society.
The extent of female independence that characterized many of these ethnic groups horrified colonial legislators, who in turn made women the target of several of their policies. Throughout the country, the elites of the colonial regime refused to acknowledge female leaders, demanding instead only to work with male representatives.
Still, the British colonial regime offered some degree of "emancipation" for women by outlawing child marriage, setting limitations on bride wealth, and prohibiting the marriage of women without their consent. Seeking protection offered by these new laws, several Zimbabwean women ran away from their homes to missionary stations.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, chronic labor shortages soon forced officials to reconsider their policies. Interested in obtaining large supplies of African male labor, the colonial regime reinstated—and in many ways recreated—the powers of African chiefs, headmen, and other male elders.
In working to appease these men and undo damage to local authority structures, the colonial state agreed to work collaboratively with African leaders who sought to control the physical mobility of women in order to counter alleged promiscuity. This led to a deeper entrenchment of gender inequalities and made women economically dependent upon their husbands. Additionally, experiences with education and urban migration under British rule, further shaped women's roles in their families, larger kin groupings, and the economy.
Thus, by the 1960s, when the nationalists' vision of freedom was radicalized, women were not only motivated by the conditions that affected their ethnic groups, but their gender specifically. President Mugabe, then a leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), further elicited female support for the war efforts by claiming to recognize their subordination and the need for this injustice to be corrected. Like nationalist fronts in other southern countries, ZANU promised universal services for all, including emancipation and free access to education for women.
Despite all the hardships and troubles of the resistance war, such promises of improvement made it a hopeful time for Zimbabwe's women. For many female activists and fighters, national liberation held forth the tantalizing prospect that it would transform, indeed revolutionize, women's lives and change the relations between the genders. They hoped that it would offer the sorts of equality and opportunity that had eluded many of them in the social practices of their ethnic groups and British rule.
Along with other members of society, women expected the transition from colonial rule to democratic government to be accompanied, in the words of Anne Marie Goeta and Shireen Hassim, by "greater social equality, broader political participation, and of course the resolutions of conflict by peaceful means." This, of course, included more than just the replacing of colonial male masters with local ones.
In seeking to facilitate the transition, countless Zimbabwean women served as membership recruiters for nationalist organizations, or as presidents and secretaries of women's leagues and other women organizations. Like African women in other parts of the continent, Zimbabwean women showed their support by participating in rallies and marches and by raising money. In this way, they were similar to the Women's Section of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) in Tanganyika and the Federation of Southern African Women (FSAW) and the Women's League of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.
For nearly all women in Zimbabwe, despite their level of participation, daily life was taken over by threats of imprisonment, restriction, torture, and most tragically, brutal assassination at the hands of a both racist and sexist British colonial regime.
Moreover, as men traveled to find jobs and to participate in warfare, several women were left alone "to contend with all of the problems of poverty, work, and child rearing, together with the additional problems of homelessness and all of the hideous distortions of life that these impose," as Hilda Bernstein describes the similar experiences in South Africa. The repercussions of these dislocations are still widely evident today.