On March 17, 2014, police in a residential area of Harare arrested nine women – Chipo Nyamanhindi, Chipo Mwedziwendira, Lorraine Marapira, Beuty Kaseke, Tionesei Nyaude, Dorcas Linda, Selina Shoko, Memory Muchena and Colleter Chisedzi – for the `crime’ of being women out after dark. The arrest was part of Operation No to Robberies and Prostitution, which `swept’ the after-dusk streets of urban Zimbabwe clean of any scent of a woman by declaring that any woman out alone at night must be a sex worker. The nine women collectively said NO! NO to criminalization of women’s bodies and lives. NO to the trashing of the Constitution whenever women are involved. NO to the sexual and gender reign of terror. And yesterday Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court agreed with the women, and stopped the prosecution. While the decision officially addresses only the case of these nine women, it has major implications for women across Zimbabwe, and, beyond that, is a major victory for women everywhere.
The women argued that the whole process – arbitrary arrest, detention, prosecution – violated their Constitutional rights. Though the police claimed the women were arrested for solicitation, no evidence was provided, other than standing on a street. They argued that police indiscriminately arresting women for the `crime’ of being out at night violated their right to freedom of movement. Finally, the women argued that the State never actually provided any material evidence of any actual solicitation, by deed or word. There was no there there, except for the women being there.
The Justices agreed, declaring that the police action amounted to a deprivation of liberty and a denial of the right of citizens to the protection of the law, as guaranteed by the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
Police harassment of women is nothing new. In the early 1980s, the State went into a moral panic about gains women had made with independence, and so, on October 1983, the State launched Operation Clean-Up, which captured women and girls in a single move. The ostensible target was `prostitution’. According to Zimbabwean feminist Shereen Essof, “Operation Clean-Up was dramatic enough to provoke a change in Zimbabwean women’s consciousness. It appeared that state patronage allowed little room for the advancement of women’s rights and with this gradual recognition a different kind of women’s organisation was born.”
In 2007, the State again clamped down, swept the streets, and hunted women for their political activism and for being women. This time, however, instead of searching `prostitutes’, the police went after “Tsvangirai’s whores.” (Morgan Tsvangirai was the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.”
For Zimbabwean feminist Everjoice Win, the structural abuse of women in Zimbabwe is the intersection of colonialism, patriarchy, and heterosexism. In response the Constitutional Court, Win tweeted, “So #ZRP [Zimbabwe Republic Police] had to be told not to arrest women under the pretext BLACK women on their own in cities after dark’re sex workers? Let us just name #ZRP actions against black-single women in cities for what it is; policing women’ bodies & imposing outmoded moral values. Truth is #ZRP only targets BLACK younger women. This comes from colonial history, mindset, which saw all of us as `vectors of disease’. They say ‘Zim will never be a colony again’. Colonialist-hetero-sexism rules #ZRP. Random arrests of black women=enforcing colonial rules.”
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, who represented the nine women in court, noted, “The landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court is likely to be welcomed as a major reprieve by gender equality and human rights groups that for years have been seething with anger at the gender discrimination associated with the ZRP’s operations and help bring to an end the notorious police practice of indiscriminately rounding up women under the guise of clamping down on prostitution.”
Indiscriminately rounding up women under the guise of clamping down on prostitution is more than common police practice in every global city in the world. It’s part of State urban development policy. If you live in a global or just a big city, visit your local women’s jail and see who’s there, and find out why. You’ll see. And if you do, tell the women there about the Harare 9, about the victory that occurred this week in Zimbabwe and what it could mean for women everywhere. Tell them we are seething with anger and hope.
(Photo Credit: Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe)