/ 10 March 2004

Sisters, you let us down

Dear sisters, Happy International Women’s Day. The 8th of March is meant to be a day to celebrate how far we have come as women worldwide. But for us, North of your border, we have no cause to celebrate. I am writing to you, woman to woman. I believe in other women. I don’t buy into the oft-heard refrain that ”women don’t support one another”. I celebrate your presence in the highest offices of your land and want to continue to have faith in other women.

I am making a lot of assumptions in writing to you; that you are in leadership to promote and protect the rights of women. I assume you feel for other women. We vote women into high offices assuming they will stand up for our collective rights. But if you are not interested in the rights of women wherever they are, whoever they are, then stop reading here.

Sisters, you are letting us down. The women of Zimbabwe are hurting. Thousands have been physically abused and raped. Millions are groaning under the weight of oppression. Honourable Dlamini-Zuma, I am not talking about the British ”kith and kin” that you like talking about so much, I speak only of your kith and kin. Black women. Women who in pre- and post-colonial times never owned land and who now have not been given any of the redistributed land. Our president is on record as saying that women cannot be given land in their own capacity. These women know their rights are violated day in and day out in the name of this land.

The poor black women who worked on the former commercial farms have lost their means of survival. You and I can argue, from the safety of our jobs, that they were being exploited by the Rhodies. But to them it was a question of half a loaf is better nothing. Now it’s a case of no bread! In the absence of alternatives they resort to commercial sex work, with all the dangers it entails (your government’s denial around HIV/Aids not withstanding here; in Zimbabwe we are quite clear that one in every three people has HIV).

Since the 2000 elections hundreds of female nurses and teachers have fled their rural posts because of the politically motivated and organised violence that has engulfed our country. Most of them are still unemployed because the government refuses to allow them to transfer. Those who stayed in their posts endure emotional and physical violence from so-called war vets and the Green Bombers. Young girls, some as young as nine or 10, have been raped and infected with HIV by gangs of marauding state-sponsored thugs. There are no figures of how many black women and their families have been displaced from their homes.

Have you ever wondered what daily life is like for an ordinary black Zimbabwean woman? Let me share with you what I know. A packet of 10 sanitary pads costs Z$10 000. A domestic worker in Highfield township earns Z$15 000, if she is lucky. I’ll leave the horrors of her monthlies to your imagination. Saying hello to a doctor is now Z$50 000; 10 good painkillers will cost you Z$15 000; and a one-way trip into town from the nearest township by combi costs Z$500. Most women walk back and forth every day. The women have to cook, clean and take care of everyone. Add to this the effects of the HIV crisis — it is the women who care for the sick and for their babies; it is the women who are denied their reproductive rights. We are also back to the old system of pulling girls out of schools because poor families cannot afford to pay the fees for both boys and girls. Our gender roles and rights issues haven’t simply gone away because we are in a political crisis. They have gotten worse.

You have probably seen various videos and read countless stories about what is going on in Zimbabwe. I know many of you doubt their authenticity, given the ”messengers”. But you and I know the price women pay for speaking out about the human rights violations they suffer. We know the questions asked: What had she done? What was she wearing? Where was she going? Can we believe her?

In the case of Zimbabwe’s political violence against women add another set of questions: Which party is she from? Are you sure she wasn’t paid by the British? Is it really true that Robert Mugabe, a liberation war leader, can do that? And in the case of the socio-economic crisis: Surely these figures are exaggerated? Isn’t this just Western propaganda?

That, my sisters, is why you are letting us down. We are dismayed at the comments some of you, particularly Dlamini-Zuma, make about our situation. Any woman in a violent situation will tell you there are no prizes for speaking out. If anything, you are ostracised by your own family or community. You are branded a bad woman or, worse, violated several times over for daring to open your mouth.

Your public denials and accusations against those of us who dare to speak hurt. Telling us that what we are going through is ”British propaganda” is the same as accusing any South African woman who is raped of telling lies. Your silence and quiet diplomacy do more harm to us emotionally than the physical wounds we carry.

This is what you and your government are doing to the women of Zimbabwe. Partly blaming the victims, mostly silencing them. As you celebrate International Women’s Day, think about the women and the girls of Zimbabwe — the more than six-million nameless, faceless individuals. Go beyond Bob and Morgan. Talk to us. We are here.

As our rights continue to be violated in the name of ”national sovereignty”, we ask you not to deny us our pain. Don’t silence us and deny us the space to name our violations and our violators. May what we are going through never happen to any one of you or to any woman in South Africa.

Everjoice J Win is a Zimbabwean feminist activist. She is a former Commonwealth adviser to the commission on gender equality