The Other Half of the African Sky: Women’s Struggles in Zimbabwe

Jenni Williams (Left) and Magodonga Mahlangu (Center) of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) receiving the Robert F. Kenndey Human Rights Award from President Barack Obama in November 2009.

Jenni Williams (Left) and Magodonga Mahlangu (Center) of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) receiving the Robert F. Kenndey Human Rights Award from President Barack Obama in November 2009. While Zimbabwe's economic collapse has focused global attention on President Robert Mugabe and other male politicians, women's organizations like WOZA have been tenaciously trying to improve the lives of both women and men in Zimbabwe, as they have done for much of the country's recent history.

Editor's Note

Late in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to the organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). While the economic and political crisis of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe has drawn attention from around the world, the award served as a reminder that women in Zimbabwe have not only been suffering the burdens of economic meltdown but working in a variety of ways to bring political change to the country. While many people had probably never heard of WOZA when President Obama honored them, this month Brandy Thomas examines the rich history of female activism in Zimbabwe and argues that any solution to Zimbabwe's collapsing economic and political system must take groups like WOZA into account.

For more on the recent history of Africa, please see these articles on the Darfur Conflict, Piracy in Somalia, Violence and Politics in Kenya, the World Cup in South Africa. Readers may also be interested in this article on Women's Rights in Afghanistan.

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.

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.

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Suggested Reading

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Iris Berger, "Rebels or Status Seekers? Women as Spirit Mediums in East Africa," in Readings in Gender in Africa, edited by Andrea Cornwall (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2005), 148-155.

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Susan Geiger, "Tanganyika Nationalism as Women's Work: Life Histories, Collective Biography, and Changing Historiography" in Readings in Gender in Africa edited by Andrea Cornwall (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2005).

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Gary Seidman, "Women in Zimbabwe: Postindependence Struggles" Feminist Studies 10, No. 3 (Fall 1984).

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Aili Mari Tripp, "Women in Movement: Transformations in African Political Landscapes," in Andrea Cornwall's Readings in Gender in Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).

Stephanie Urdang, "Women in National Liberation Movements," in African Women South of the Sahara, edited by Margaret Jean Hay and Sharon Stichter (London; New York: Longman, 1995).