In seeking to provide more direct contributions to the war effort, other Zimbabwean women threw off the "feminine" or "natural" labels assigned to them by serving as guerrilla soldiers. Like their female counterparts in Mozambique, who participated in Female Detachment (DF) or the League of Mozambican Women (Lifemo), these women played critical roles in warfare by planning, executing, and participating in the organization of several militant campaigns. In both countries, civilian women supported warfare by running errands, cooking, washing, and supplying sexual services on demand.

In military camps where gender divisions were largely suspended, many Zimbabwean women claimed to have experienced gender equality for the first time, an experience "that proved both exhilarating and problematic." Still, during the fighting, one female soldier recalls being told by a male superior, "A gun is not an object for you to use as an instrument to show off; neither is it a certificate that you are equal to men compadres."

Liberation, but Not Necessarily for Women

Immediately after independence from British rule in 1980, ZANU's Women's League—the premiere women's organization in Zimbabwe—was directly tied to the ruling regime. Like those in South Africa, Mozambique and other African nations, the league was run, according to Aili Mari Tripp, "along patronage lines and composed of the female relatives of male leaders in the regime."

Women were not expected to rally for rights or equality, but rather were instructed to concentrate their efforts on generating support and votes and encouraging the female population to attend parties, rallies, and meetings. During special events, League members were responsible for entertaining and serving dignitaries and other guests.

Upon returning home, moreover, many female ex-combatants found that a disapproving attitude towards gender equality remained widespread. Several revealed that members of post war-society labeled them not as heroines, but instead as "loose" women who would not make good wives. Despite all their sacrifices and their willingness to die for the liberation of their country, the rhetoric about the immoral nature of female activists was pervasive.

Women too enforced and reinforced these gender hierarchies. Rather than challenge a political leadership that once promised the emancipation of women, many Zimbabwean women came to support initiatives like "Operation Cleanup"—when 6,000 unmarried or unemployed women were jailed in 1983 out of concern that they were prostitutes—when they thought that it would help to strengthen the family.

Even today, ideas about "modern women" who are out to "corrupt and destroy African familial values" remain ubiquitous. This kind of language developed during colonialism and continues to be used today to discredit and dismiss WOZA and other women's groups in Zimbabwe who fight for political inclusion and gender rights.

Although Zimbabwe can now boast of having one of the highest levels of female education in southern Africa, women's ability to achieve social, political and economic mobility remains largely frustrated. And while the war for independence has ended, older views about women's roles have remained intact.

Such views have not only led to governmental attempts to thwart the power of female politicians, but also increased the opposition and resentment they face from female members of their constituency.

Reflecting back on her time as a guerrilla fighter in the liberation war, Joyce Mujuru, now Zimbabwe's Vice President, claims her current struggles with the male-dominated bureaucracy and the public are indeed the tougher fight. In 2009, she expressed the need for women to "start supporting fellow women" in order to overcome the "cultural and religious beliefs that have aided the trampling of women in the country."

All the female politicians interviewed during the 2000 parliamentary elections echoed this view, claiming that their political aspirations caused them to be subjected to verbal abuse and harassment by male colleagues and society at large.

Women's Organizations after Independence

Experiences like these have led a large number of Zimbabwean women to forego politics altogether. In 2008, although women comprised 52% of the population, they made up only 10% of the Parliament. Over the past three decades, much like they had done during the liberation war, women in Zimbabwe have come to express themselves through their efforts in women's groups.

In a time of "great uncertainty and violence," as Mahlangu portrays it, these women's organizations decided to eschew political advocacy and radical legislative changes. Instead, they focused on community issues, social welfare, or projects unrelated to the state as a way to resist repression.

Yet, in 1985, with the United Nations Women's Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, several Zimbabwean women's groups began to forge a new path. Having been introduced to several radical political perspectives, attendees returned home where they encouraged and founded groups with expanded agendas to voice their varied concerns.

No longer willing to limit themselves to safe issues like those of children's rights, several of these groups began to push for radical initiatives like the decriminalization of abortion and the political inclusion of women and gender equality. By 1990, the women's efforts were facilitated by the requirements of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank that single-party states in Africa who sought loans had to demonstrate that they were working towards multi-party systems. The close relationship that existed between the women's movement and the state soon deteriorated.

In the early 1990s, women's organizations combined their efforts with their recently appointed female representatives in government to challenge existing gender policies, such as bringing new legislation to level inheritance and land and property ownership between men and women. They were met with strong opposition.

President Mugabe accused these women of making "culturally unacceptable demands." Instead, he encouraged the female population to continue to uphold African customs. He reminded them if they wanted to be married women, they should make sure not demand the right to own family property. As he put it, the families of their deceased spouses would take care of them in "true African tradition."

Not to be deterred, women's activism spread across regional lines. Leading up to the second United Nations Women's Conference held in 1995 in Beijing, female activists in Zimbabwe recognized the importance of speaking with a unified voice and began working with fellow activists from Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa, to name a few. The actions of Zimbabwe's women were critical in creation of the 1995 "Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa" within the African Human Rights Charter and other human rights initiatives at the global level.

Although at the end of the twentieth century, women activists were loudly expressing their discontent with Zimbabwe's poor state of affairs, the first decade of the twenty-first century has by contrast shown a drastic decrease in these types of actions and agendas.

Given an "environment of brutal and unrelenting state oppression," as WOZA describes it, many women's groups in Zimbabwe have once again developed a focus on local interests or non-controversial agenda items (similar to women's groups of the early 1980s). In both rural and urban areas, mutual-aid, self-help, benevolent, and market groups provide services for their members and engage in welfare activities that offer training in practical skills. Many more serve as valuable support networks and operate child-care facilities, while the large majority functions as AIDS support groups and savings clubs.

This type of work is low risk, mostly approached in an apolitical manner and unlikely to attract unwanted attention. Yet, although these types of organizations are the most numerous, representing the largest group in African civil society, their members, especially those in rural areas, are often plagued by family concerns, a lack of time, or expertise. Thus, they are often unable to communicate their interests to female representatives and other prominent decision makers.

Other problems faced by women's groups include poor resources and intense competition. Beginning in the 1980s, outside donors began to place a greater emphasis on aiding organizations in civil society. Of these, women's organizations were and still are among the main beneficiaries. As new women's groups continue to form on a nearly constant basis and are in need of resources, these organizations have entered into rivalry with one another for both funds and for "tokenism" (the incremental involvement of women in political affairs).

The result has been an excessive duplication of agenda items and the ignoring of others, like public advocacy. As well, there is often unwillingness on the part of many to support female politicians belonging to groups other than their own. As Gisela G. Geisler explains of women's movements in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana, slander and the labeling of female politicians as "Sell-Outs" "Queen-Bees" and "Elitists" have also been widespread.

It is also true in the last few years that many women's groups in Zimbabwe, like WOZA, have become more aware of these shortcomings and are making efforts to address them. Like members of other women's organizations in Zimbabwe, WOZA members recognize that the general population deserves better. Through their work they are trying to bring this to fruition.

In accepting the 2009 Human Rights award, both Mahlangu and Williams passionately proclaimed that "they were not afraid of Mugabe's degrees in violence." Rather, they uphold their "degrees in non-violence" as ways to ensure freedom for all the nation's citizens. And as citizens, the women assert: "We deserve to have a roof over our head, food in our stomachs, our children in schools and the nation working. We deserve to live in dignity and free from fear."

Still, Mahlangu and Williams foresee dignity and proper food, shelter, and education occurring only with the formation of a new government—one that is transparent and includes women. WOZA's approach, then, is quite different from several of its peers. Many of WOZA activities engage directly with the political sphere and are centered on advocacy and broader institutional building.

At the RFK Human Rights award ceremony, Williams described her disappointment in government leaders in Zimbabwe who continue to disregard women's concerns and democratic aspirations. In capturing the spirit that led the Women's League of the ZANU and female guerrilla fighters to risk imprisonment and even their lives to ensure their own independence, WOZA's members remain committed to building a "strong, new, African democracy where respect, tolerance and accountability are key." Like their forerunners, the group members claim that they are "not fighting a revolution in Zimbabwe," but instead, leading an "Eve-volution that utilizes civic education as the tool to evolve the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans."

For their efforts, the group has captured and held international attention for the past three years. In March of 2007, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice awarded the International Women of Courage Award to Williams. In November of 2008, WOZA won the 5th Human Rights Award from the Amnesty International German Section. Exactly one year later, Obama bestowed upon the group the RFK Human Rights Award, which will ensure another six years of support for the organization.

The Political Ends of Human Rights Awards

WOZA's second visit to Washington in November 2009 was more than just recognition of their travails and triumphs, but also an active move for American foreign policy in the region. Both WOZA and the U.S. President were using each other for their own ends.

WOZA leaders used the event to continue to garner international attention for their efforts. They encouraged viewers to support their choices and to help implement them. Particularly, they described their fears of continued cycles of violence that had grown since Mugabe's political deal. They highlighted the criminalization of the informal trade that has grown out of the daily struggle for people to feed themselves and their families.

For women in Zimbabwe, the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, not only validates their work, "it amplifies their voices." As Williams put it "WOZA can take care of speaking out, and the freedom to express, but we need help to make sure there is freedom after expression." Partnering with the US may help to ensure that this comes to pass.

In recognizing WOZA members, Obama has continued American efforts since 2003 to bring attention to the actions of many Zimbabwean women seeking to provide "tough love" to political leaders in Zimbabwe, while also addressing the plight of the larger population in what has been called "the world's fastest shrinking economy." Although, several South African countries suffer from similar problems, especially in terms of chronic food insecurity, many world leaders, including President Obama, argue that in Zimbabwe's case governmental policies may also be to blame.

Even more, the award can be viewed as a "back door effort" to undermine Mugabe's power since both the US and EU have failed to garner any meaningful UN condemnation. By encouraging members of civil society, especially women's groups, to continue their protests against a regime's "pervasive and systematic abuse of human rights," the Obama administration may be hoping to entice a nation to action.

Most importantly, the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award ceremony provided substance to "development" language that realizes the centrality of women. In her speech, Williams remarked, "We are mothers of the nation, longing for the award of dignity, and a bright future for our children."

For his part, Obama recited an old proverb: because "God could not be everywhere, he created mothers." As "mothers of the nation," Zimbabwean women continue in their fight to overcome impediments to women's progress, promote national development, and hold up their "half of the sky."


Author's Note This article benefited from the insight, feedback, and support of many, including the Origins editors, Nicholas B. Breyfogle and Steven Conn; participants in Ohio State's Public History Seminar, Fall of 2009; and Stephen G. Hall, Claire Robertson, Franco Barchiesi, Rachel Wortman, and Jessica Forman.