At the centre of the future

She had lots of energy and enthusiasm for life. I don’t know where she got it from, given what she had been through. She never let the past drag her down.
The one thing she looked forward to was the day Zimbabwe would be “free for us women”, as she put it.

Sadly, my good friend and colleague Sheba died in 2006, before that day dawned. Sheba, whose last name I will not mention, passed away before anyone was held accountable for raping her—in 1979, and again in 1984.

Both incidents were not random acts of violence. The first time, Sheba was raped by members of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian forces. One of her uncles was a well-known fighter for Zapu (Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union). When the Rhodesian army came to the village homestead asking questions about him, the villagers did not give them what they wanted. Three of the soldiers raped the young girl to “set an example” of what would happen to all the women if they continued to send their children to join Nkomo.

Independence came, reconciliation was declared by the new government, and Sheba and countless other women victims were left to get on with their lives as if nothing had happened.

In the second incident, Sheba was raped by two members of Robert Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade. Again, as it was for many women in her community, Sheba’s rape was meant to send a political message to the people of Matabeleland that they should submit or be “punished”.

Once again, nobody was held to account for such atrocities. The Unity Accord was signed and the women just had to move on.

Thousands did, with pain in their hearts, infections in their bodies and some with unwanted children.

Reading stories on Zimbabwe or even watching footage on television, one would be forgiven for thinking that it is a country inhabited only by men. Women hardly make the news and the issues that concern them are not deemed newsworthy.

The first thing I would expect in a post-Mugabe era is the high visibility of women and women’s rights issues. The country is teeming with women who have excelled in business, civil society and education. There are also millions of women who form the backbone of the agricultural sector. And yet women are barely present in decision-making processes.

Women must be guaranteed equal access and control over productive resources such as land. Ever since land was “redistributed”—starting from the 1980s—women have largely been excluded from benefiting. In communal areas, women continue to be at the mercy of husbands, brothers and other male relatives when it comes to access to land.

Women want to realise their economic rights. Operation Murambatsvina destroyed the livelihoods of poor black women, whose main source of income was informal trading. Most recently, the registrar general’s office has stopped issuing passports, claiming that there is a shortage of materials. This has yet again affected women who depend on cross-border trade to make a living.

The deteriorating economic situation has seen thousands drop out of the education system. It is no wonder black women’s life expectancy is down to 34 years as many have sought “refuge” in sex work, where HIV and Aids decimates them.

This includes the semi-educated young secretary whose wages can no longer sustain her, or the primary school teacher who may make better money from sex work than from her profession. It is well known that HIV and Aids have a woman’s face across Africa.

How can we expect women who have home-based patients to care for to even consider marching for their rights? Where does a woman living with HIV and looking after children get the energy to participate in politics? Which queue would she rather be in—the one for antiretroviral drugs, or the one to cast her ballot?

Whatever “deal” is worked out to resolve Zimbabwe’s crisis, women and their rights should be at the centre of it. We want feminists—women who care about the rights of other women and who are prepared to rock the patriarchal boat—to be in leadership positions and to be there when the deal is made.

Women want a new and comprehensive Constitution that guarantees their rights. This includes a provision which clearly states that customary law and tradition must not violate international human rights, norms and standards.

We want to see a complete overhaul of a political system that has seen women reduced to political cheerleaders, or worse, sex workers with few economic prospects and the lowest life expectancy in the world.

Most importantly, Zimbabwean women deserve accountability for the human rights violations they have been subjected to by various governments and armed forces in the past 50 years. As I write this piece, Grace Kwinjeh and Sekai Holland are still in a Johannesburg hospital. They suffered severe beatings and torture at the hands of the police a few weeks ago.

The country will never be at peace with itself if Grace and Sekai, like Sheba and scores of other unnamed women who have passed on, never get to confront the people who violated their rights.

Everjoice J Win is a Zimbabwean feminist activist. She has worked with various women’s rights movements and organisations in her country and beyond

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