In Zimbabwe, Linah Pfungwa said NO! to violence against children … and won!

Linah Pfungwa is the mother of a six-year-old girl. Recently, the girl came home from school with multiple bruises. Linah Pfungwa’s daughter reported that her teacher had beaten her with a rubber pipe because she did not have her parent’s signature on her homework. Linah Pfungwa took pictures of her daughter, posted them to local social media, discovered that the practice of beating children in school was widespread, and said, NO! With support from the Justice for Children’s Trust, Linah Pfungwa sued not only the instructor but the entire school system and, beyond that, the entire nation. Last week, the High Court of Zimbabwe agreed with Linah Pfungwa and declared that adults hitting children is a violation of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

As Linah Pfungwa explained, “I believe that corporal punishment is violence against children and I do not believe that children should be subjected to any form of violence. I further believe that corporal punishment is a physical abuse of children. It amounts to deliberately hurting a child, which causes injuries such as bruises, broken bones, burns or cuts. In my opinion, there is no excuse for physically abusing a child. It causes a serious and everlasting harm and in some cases death.”

Linah Pfungwa further noted that because of the beatings, her daughter couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to go to school, and was generally traumatized and afraid. That is not only wrong, it’s a violation of the Constitution, she argued. As a parent, mother, woman, human being, Linah Pfungwa said that the way to engage with children, including when they should be disciplined, is through dialogue.

The High Court agreed, “The imposition of corporal punishment and any form of physical punishment to children by any person or persons including teachers, parents or relatives is ultra vires the provision of section 81, 51 and 53 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.”

This meant, first, that a provision that allowed for teachers’ use of corporal punishment was declared unconstitutional and that that also extended to parents. Linah Pfungwa’s lawyer, Tendai Biti, said, “We are very proud of the ruling as the papers showed there has been heavy assaulting of children in school.”

While much remains to be done, from a further hearing at the Constitutional Court to retraining teachers – and parents – concerning the rights children hold to educating children themselves about their rights, this is a landmark decision and day, and we all owe that to the great work and labor of Linah Pfungwa. And yes, we all owe her praise and gratitude. With this decision, Zimbabwe joins 52 other nations that have outlawed corporal punishment, the most recent being France last December. Linah Pfungwa is one of the women – as women, citizens, residents, mothers, caregivers, witnesses and more – who are leading Zimbabwe, and the world, into a kind new world in which dialogue replaces violence, in which education means learning how to conduct ourselves as loving, decent, dignified human beings; how to encourage sharing and dialogue, rather than repression and violence; and how to form welcoming community.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC / AFP)

Yvonne Musarurwa smiles, saying NO! to the tyrants of Zimbabwe

Yvonne Musarurwa immediately after being sentenced

On Monday, in Harare, Yvonne Musarurwa and two comrades were sentenced to twenty years in prison. Photos show Yvonne Musarurwa immediately after the sentencing, and she’s smiling, perhaps laughing. As it was in Hades and then Algeria, so in Zimbabwe today, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a woman’s heart. One must imagine Yvonne Musarurwa happy.”

In 2011, 29 MDC-T supporters were arrested on suspicion of having killed a police officer. In 2013, 21 were acquitted because of lack of evidence. There was no evidence, and yet they remained behind bars, in Chikurubi, some for more than two years. The High Court Judge Chinembiri Bhunu took great pains to discuss the case of human rights activist Cynthia Manjoro. Manjoro had been released on bail in 2012, after a State witness testified that Manjoro had been arrested “as bait” to lure her boyfriend into a trap. Cynthia Manjoro spent May 2011 to October 2012 in prison. That left eight in the hellhole of Chikurubi. In August 2013, Rebecca Mafukeni died … or was killed. Rebecca Mafukeni had meningitis, she was clearly deteriorating quickly when the judge repeatedly refused bail and all appeals for medical attention were rejected.

Yvonne Musarurwa was with Rebecca Mafukeni in Chikurubi Prison and recalled the ordeal: “The first weeks in police custody were the toughest. We were being interrogated, beaten and tortured. I’ve never felt so much pain in life before. I sustained a broken hand; lacerations all over the body and the only thing I got for all that were a few tablets of paracetamol. They said we were MDC and that there was every chance we would influence the other prisoners and clash with others from ZANU PF. This is why they kept us in solitary confinement. The conditions though were very bad. We stayed in cells that had raw sewage passing through and we cleaned that up using our bare hands. That was the most difficult part and I told myself the day Zimbabwe is free from tyranny, I will personally go to the Minister of Justice and those in charge of prisons to tell them exactly what needs to be done.”

That was 2013. This week, three years later, Yvonne Musarurwa, Tungamirai Madzokere, and Last Maengahama were sentenced to 20 years, despite eyewitnesses stating in court that the three were innocent, despite a complete lack of evidence, despite video evidence that Last Maengahama was in a church miles away when the officer was killed. According to Beatrice Mtetwa, who leads the defense team, the three were convicted based on the doctrine of common purpose, an archaic doctrine by which one may be found guilty of another’s crime. The State went to great lengths to convict Yvonne Musarurwa and her colleagues.

Yvonne Musarurwa is 29 years old. She has spent the last five years in the clutches of the State for a crime she never committed. How many more years until Yvonne Musarurwa, and the rest of Zimbabwe, are freed from prison for a crime they never committed? In Zimbabwe, the State is the crime. For now we must continue to imagine, and see, Yvonne Musarurwa smiling, knowing exactly what needs to be done.

Yvonne Musarurwa

 

(Photo Credit 1: Nehanda Radio) (Photo Credit 2: Nehanda Radio)

A victory for Prisoners’ Rights in Zimbabwe!

Once again Veritas, a nongovernmental organisation based in Zimbabwe, which provides information on the work of the Parliament of Zimbabwe and the Laws of Zimbabwe and makes public domain information widely available has succeeded in advancing human rights through the Constitutional Court.  This time the rights are those of prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment.  Yesterday 19th July, 2016 in a landmark judgment in the case of Makoni v Commissioner of Prisons and Another, brought by Veritas, the Court ruled that life prisoners will now be eligible for release on parole like all other prisoners.

The parole system allows the Minister of Justice, on the advice of a Board, to grant prisoners early release from prison before they have fully served their sentences.  Prisoners can be released on parole on various grounds – for example humanitarian reasons – that they have become too old or ill to be kept in prison, or, that their good behaviour in prison shows that they have reformed and will not return to a life of crime.

Only one class of prisoner was completely debarred from release on parole:  prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment.  Under section 115 of the Prisons Act the Minister was permitted to release any prisoner on licence – i.e. on parole – “other than a prisoner who has been sentenced to death or to imprisonment for life”.  What this meant was that however young a person might have been when sentenced to life imprisonment, he [and they were almost all male] would remain in prison for the rest of his life.

It was this that Veritas challenged in the Constitutional Court, arguing that sentencing someone to prison with no hope of release violated the person’s dignity and amounted to cruel or inhuman punishment in contravention of section 53 of the Constitution.

The key question for the CC was what standard to apply in determining prisoners’ rights. A high standard would mean that more prisoners’ rights will be recognized in practice. A lax standard, would mean placing a burden on prisoners that is difficult to meet, which might mean that prisoners’ rights are more theoretical than real. In this case it seems the CC has marked out a distinct approach to the question of prisoners’ rights. The CC has abandoned a cautious approach and deference to prison administration. This is a hallmark of a CC that is really trying to take a progressive approach.

The Constitutional Court agreed with Veritas’ arguments.  In a unanimous judgment delivered by Judge Patel J the Court decided that:

  • The Constitution ushered in a departure from the old approach to punishment, which emphasised retribution, towards one of social re-integration and rehabilitation of prisoners.
  • “Whole life imprisonment”, i.e. imprisonment for life without the possibility of release, constitutes a violation of human dignity and amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment in breach of sections 51 and 53 of the Constitution.
  • The power of the President to order the release of life prisoners under his power of mercy in terms of section 112 of the Constitution is entirely discretionary and cannot be enforced or questioned by courts of law.  As such it does not afford adequate redress for the purpose of enforcing such prisoners’ fundamental human rights under the Constitution.
  • There was no justifiable reason, based on the public interest, to distinguish between life prisoners and other prisoners in the matter of parole; hence the exclusion of life prisoners from the parole process contravened their right to equal protection and benefit of the law under section 56(1) of the Constitution.

The court accordingly ordered that, until the Prisons Act was amended to bring it into line with the Constitution, its provisions should be applied so as to extend the right of parole to every prisoner, including those sentenced to imprisonment for life.

This case highlights the limitations of the archaic Prisons Act in its failure to respond to and redress human rights abuses and the need for redress to protect and advance the status of prisoners’ rights.

The judgment is a landmark in the advancement of human rights in Zimbabwe.  It serves as a reminder that prisoners, however heinous their crimes may have been, are human beings entitled to humane treatment. This decision of the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court is a contribution to the progressive constitutional jurisprudence which the court is building up for Zimbabwe.

 

(Image Credit: Veritas)

Zimbabwe: Now you have starved the women, you have struck their pots, you will be crushed

On Saturday, July 16, Zimbabwean women will go to the streets to protest hunger, starvation, deprivation, degradation, violence and all the other State programs in Zimbabwe. Like the women of Burkina Faso who carried giant spatulas and took to the streets two years ago, the women of Zimbabwe will carry and beat their pots, hoping to make the walls come tumbling down. The women are saying they have had enough of programmatic hunger and poverty, which targets women and children particularly viciously. They say, “Wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo! A hungry woman is an angry woman.”

The past two weeks have seen major demonstration and protests, and police violence, in Zimbabwe. Over the past three months, Zimbabwe has been visibly simmering. In March, Pastor Evan Mawarire went to his Facebook page and recorded a four-minute lamentation, on the occasion of the nation’s 36th independence celebration. Cloaked in Zimbabwe’s flag, Mawarire described the symbolism of the flag’s colors and the reality of everyday lived experience in Zimbabwe. Within days, #ThisFlag appeared across Zimbabwe. As before, people said they had had enough, and, at the same time, they said that as Zimbabweans, they deserved better. They deserved to live and to thrive, with real access to decent food, education, health, employment, safety, well-being, everything.

Protests started at Beitbridge, on the border with South Africa, in response to a new government ban on certain small imports that are a mainstay and a lifeline in many communities. Cross-border traders protested, and were dealt with harshly. Then people demonstrated in Harare, and, again, were dealt with harshly. Videos started circulating showing police targeting, beating, and torturing women and children. In Bulawayo, an eighteen-month-old toddler is reported to have died of suffocation, caused by breathing in tear gas. These protests were followed by a daylong stayaway, last Wednesday. #ThisFlag begat #ZimShutDown2016. Meanwhile, across the country, youth have been organizing under the hashtag #Tajamuka.

More and more people started coming into the streets, concerned at reports that the government is out of money. Zimbabwe announced it would start issuing `bonds’, aka zombie money. Meanwhile, 4 million people in the rural areas face starvation.

Women have been organizing, and are saying enough is too much. According to Grace Chirenge, “Women bear the brunt of political violence, as they are at the centre of transformation in society … We are tired of being victims and survivors of this male dominance that is doing us no good.” Samukeliso Khumalo agrees, “Tomorrow’s female war veteran won’t be the one who allegedly gunned down a helicopter but a hungry woman who definitely rode on the back of a policeman.”

Through non-violent means, women are taking the battle to the streets because the war is already in the streets and homes and kitchens and pots and empty stomachs. Across Zimbabwe, women are organizing to beat their empty pots in the streets of Bulawayo this Saturday. “Wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo! A hungry woman is an angry woman.” Zimbabwe, you have starved the women, you have struck their pots, you will be crushed. The time is now. #BeatThePot.

 

(Photo Credit: Twitter / Trends Zimbabwe) (Video Credit: YouTube / Zimbabwe HOPE TV)

Chikurubi = death. Tear it down!


“In the endless moments that I spent in the cells at Highlands police station, I did not imagine that I could ever be in a worse place. That was before Chikurubi. As it turns out, hell is other people, especially when those other people are your fellow women prisoners and there has been no water for a week and flies are buzzing over the gamashura and the only ablution possible is to run a dry towel across your body, hoping that the dirt and smell will somehow be absorbed by as inadequate an object as a prison-issue towel with a visible thread count”
Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory: A Novel

This is the Republic of Chikurubi, aka Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe pardoned more than 2000 prisoners this week: “The amnesty has freed all convicted female prisoners … leaving Chikurubi Female Prison literally empty. Only two females serving life sentences have been left behind.” No one was freed, but they were released from prison, and the prison is not literally empty, both because there are still women prisoners inside and because we have been here before and we know Chikurubi is not empty until Chikurubi is torn down once and for all.

These prisoners were sent home ostensibly because the prisons are overcrowded, but the prisons in Zimbabwe have always been overcrowded and toxic. In 2013, the Deputy Commissioner of the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services reported that 100 or so prisoners had died that year due to lack of food and medication. They died slowly, starving and writhing in pain, and so in February 2014, Robert Mugabe “freed” thousands of prisoners. In 2009, Robert Mugabe “freed” 2,513 prisoners, due to overcrowding.

Meanwhile, Chikurubi still stands. Built by Rhodesia in 1970, the year that entity declared itself a republic, and maintained since by Zimbabwe, from the first day to today, Chikurubi has been “notorious for its filthy, freezing and overcrowded cells infested by maggots and rats.” It’s the one constant, and that’s why Zimbabwe is truly the Republic of Chikurubi. Half the population dies of starvation one year, and there’s barely a murmur. A two-year old child, Nigel Mutemagawo, is abducted and held in custody for 76 days. He was held in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison for close to two weeks: “Medical reports show that during his abduction and continued detention for charges of banditry and terrorism, two year-old Nigel was assaulted and denied food and medical attention by his captors.” He was two years old. Prominent human rights and women’s rights advocates, such as Jestina Mukoko, are tortured in Chikurubi. What of it? Women like Rebecca Mafukeni are denied access to necessary medication and die in Chikurubi. Too bad. Rosemary Margaret Khumalo, affectionately known as Makhumalo, died, waiting for the new Constitution to be followed. Bad luck.

While it’s a relief to the women and their families and friends and communities to no longer have to sit in the hellhole that is Chikurubi, the flies are still buzzing over the gamashura. Don’t call it freedom. There is no freedom in the Republic of Chikurubi until the Chikurubi prison is destroyed, first the buildings and then structures. Don’t fix it; be done with it. Chikurubi = death. #ChikurubiMustFall

(Photo Credit: International Business Times / Jekesai Nijikizana /AFP /Getty Images)

In Zimbabwe, the Constitutional Court supports girls who say NO! to child marriage

On Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court banned child marriages, outlawing the marriage of children below the age of 18. In November 2014, Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed a suit in Zimbabwe in which they charged that the situation of “child brides” violated girls’ constitutional rights. They named Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community and the Attorney General’s Office as respondents responsible for implementation of the Customary Marriages Act, which allows for girls to be married at 16.

Age prohibitions are like speed limits. There’s the letter of the law and then there’s the car on the road. Ruvimbo Tsopodzi was married off at 15: “I’ve faced so many challenges. My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible. I want to take this action to make a difference. There are a lot of children getting married.” Tsopodzi is the mother of one child.

Loveness Mudzuru was married off at 16. By the time she was 18, she had given birth to two children: “Young girls who marry early and often in poor families are then forced to produce young children in a sea of poverty and the cycle begins again. My life is really tough. Raising a child when you are a child yourself is hard. I should be going to school.”

The Constitutional Court decision has been described as revolutionary. Tendai Biti, who represented Mudzuru and Tsopodzi, said, “It’s an amazing judgment. The court has passed a revolutionary judgment for women, girls and children. The court should be congratulated for that,” said Biti, who is also opposition PDP leader. I am very pleased to be part of this great history. Parliament should have done this 36 years ago. It has taken a bold decision by a bold court. Marriages before 18 years are no longer possible. This is a revolutionary ruling since the birth of the Constitutional Court in 2013.”

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, ZLRH, agreed and cautioned, “Although the ruling is a victory and the fact that the primitive practice of child marriages has been recognised and outlawed, ZLHR feels that a lot needs to be done in implementing it and educating Zimbabweans about the legal position so that everyone is aware of this position.”

Veritas, a local NGO who, along with Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support, ROOTS, initiated the Child Marriage case, commented, “The Constitutional Court this morning delivered its long-awaited ruling on child marriage.  The application to outlaw child marriage succeeded.  This is a great day for gender equality, women’s rights and children’s rights and the fight against poverty … This progressive decision is a mark that the Zimbabwe Constitutional Court is building up a body of constitutional jurisprudence which will also be quoted in other jurisdictions and should assist the Africa-wide campaign against child marriage. Congratulations to the lawyer Tendai Biti who argued the case extremely well before the Bench of the Constitutional Court on January 14th 2015. Well done to the applicants Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi for having the courage to describe their experiences of child marriage in affidavits for the court.”

Well done, indeed! As Zimbabwean women’s organizations know, more than courage is needed. Action is needed. This court case is only one part of the campaign for women’s equality and emancipation, in Zimbabwe and beyond. In the same month that Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed their suit, the young women’s movement Katswe Sistahood began a parallel campaign, “Give us books, not husbands.” They’re still organizing; that struggle continues. Girls, not brides. Books, not husbands. They should be going to school. Another world is necessary.

 

(Photo Credit: ChannelsTV.com)

Nine Zimbabwean women say NO! and win a victory for women everywhere!

 

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)

In Zimbabwe and South Africa, girls say NO! to coercion and exploitation

In November last year, Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed a suit in Zimbabwe in which they charged that the situation of “child brides” violated girls’ constitutional rights. They named Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community and the Attorney General’s Office as respondents responsible for implementation of the Customary Marriages Act, which allows for girls to be married at 16.

Age prohibitions are like speed limits. There’s the letter of the law and then there’s the car on the road. Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, now 18, was married off at 15: “I’ve faced so many challenges. My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible. I want to take this action to make a difference. There are a lot of children getting married.” Tsopodzi is the mother of one child.

Loveness Mudzuru, now 19, was married off at 16. By the time she was 18, she had given birth to two children: “Young girls who marry early and often in poor families are then forced to produce young children in a sea of poverty and the cycle begins again. My life is really tough. Raising a child when you are a child yourself is hard. I should be going to school.”

Across the border, in South Africa, the Western Cape High Court this week upheld the conviction of a 32-year-old man on various charges related to the trafficking and rape of a 14-year-old Eastern Cape girl. He tried to argue that the girl was not kidnapped and that there was no rape, but rather they were husband and wife, by a customary practice known as ukuthwala.

The Court rejected the man’s appeal and, more broadly, the argument that customary or traditional law allows for violence against girls and women: “The practice of ukuthwala has in recent years received considerable public attention… inasmuch as its current practice is regarded as an abuse of traditional custom and a cloak for the commission of violent acts of assault, abduction and rape of not only women but children as young as eleven years old by older men.”

Speaking of so-called child marriages, African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, commented: “We cannot downplay or neglect the harmful practice of child marriage, as it has long-term and devastating effects on these girls whose health is at risk.”

While these stories describe girls living in poverty and struggling against physical and structural violence, they also speak of the courage and determination of precisely those girls, who speak for themselves. They say they deserve education, health, well being, safety, and peace. They say as well that individual and collective dignity and justice begin and end with informed consent. They say NO! to all forms of coercion and exploitation of girls, and boys, and they mean it.

 

(Photo Credit: http://kamerkongosa.com)

In Zimbabwe, women activists are not surprised by the abduction of Itai Dzamara

 

In Harare on Monday, Itai Dzamara – journalist, pro-democracy activist, leader of “Occupy Africa Unity Square”, and a real pain for Robert Mugabe – was kidnapped, in broad daylight. On Tuesday, Dzamara’s wife, Sheffra Dzamara, went to the High Court and filed an urgent habeas corpus. Today, the High Court ordered the State to “search” for Dzamara. Talk about the fox guarding the chickens.

Reporting on this incident, and reporting on Zimbabwe more generally, suggests that State-sponsored violence has significantly reduced since the dark days of the 2008 elections. Jestina Mukoko, National Director of the National Peace Project, and Beatrice Mtetwa, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, would tell it differently. In 2008, Jestina Mukoko was abducted by State agents, and held and tortured for three months. Beatrice Mtetwa has also been a guest of the State, for having committed the crime of asking the whereabouts of one of her clients.

But that was then, and this is now. Right?

In an International Women’s Day celebration honoring Mbuya Felistas Chinyuku, a staunch anti-eviction women’s rights and human rights activist and organizer since 1991, Beatrice Mtetwa noted that in the past 24 months, 1390 local women human rights defenders had been arrested. The women activists’ crimes generally involved staging street protests or petitioning and litigating government with the aim of pressing for political, social and economic rights.

Beatrice Mtetwa explained, “When these women were arrested they were trying to assert their rights as women first and foremost and as citizens of Zimbabwe.” Jestina Mukoko added, “I do not know why the state thinks that we will be fighting against them. We do not intend to fight against the state but to remind them that we are people whose rights are being violated. But by just reminding them to recognize and respect people’s rights you will find yourself in jail.”

Beatrice Mtetwa and Jestina Mukoko made those remarks last Friday, three days before Itai Dzamara was kidnapped. Activists, and just plain folk, in Zimbabwe are worried and rattled by the abduction of Itai Dzamara, but they are not surprised. They have been struggling for the past two years with all varieties of disappearance, for the crime of being women and of being citizens. #BringItaiHome

 

(Image Credit: Twitter / Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition)

In Zimbabwe, Samukelisiwe Mlilo says NO to the criminalization of women living with HIV

Samukelisiwe Mlilo and lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights went to court this week to challenge the constitutionality of a Zimbabwean law that criminalizes “HIV transmission.” The story of Samukelisiwe Mlilo is the story of one woman in one household, and it is the story of criminalization of HIV transmission as part of a global assault on women.

On every continent, countries have passed laws that criminalize something called intentional HIV transmission. Each time, the law is draped in the language of protection: of society, of women, of `us’ from the monstrous `them.’ The specter that haunts these laws, however, is not predatory monsters, but rather women.

In Zimbabwe, the law that adjudicates “deliberate transmission of HIV” is Section 79 of the Criminal Law Code: “Deliberate transmission of HIV: Any person who, knowing that he or she is infected with HIV; or realising that there is a real risk or possibility that he or she is infected with HIV; intentionally does anything or permits the doing of anything which he or she knows will infect, or does anything which he or she realises involves a real risk or possibility of infecting another person with HIV, shall be guilty of deliberate transmission of HIV, whether or not he or she is married to that other person, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding twenty years.”

This law sits at the intersection of legal arguments, made last week by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which point to the unconstitutional vagueness of the language of the law; and women’s lived lives, call it the existential tragedy, which is the story of Samukelisiwe Mlilo. Both the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Samukelisiwe Mlilo argue that the law targets women.

Samukelisiwe Mlilo is 36 years old, a mother of three young children, HIV positive, separated from her husband. In August 2009, Mlilo was pregnant with her second child. She went in for prenatal care, and was found to be HIV positive. She struggled to accept her status, and then, fairly quickly, informed her then-husband. At first, things were ok, but soon the two began fighting. According to Samukelisiwe Mlilo, her husband became violent and physically abusive, but he did stick around and help with childcare, after the second child was born. Finally, in 2010, Samukelisiwe Mlilo went to the police, reported her husband’s abuse, got a restraining order, and they formally separated. Her husband was given visitation rights, and so the fighting and abuse continued. When the two separated, Samukelisiwe Mlilo was three month pregnant, which neither she nor her husband knew. He rejected the child, who was born June 2011. Then, out of the blue:

One day I was summoned to Entumbane police station to answer charges of deliberately and knowingly infecting him with the HIV virus. I informed the policeman that I disclosed my HIV status to this man who accepted it. Now he is lying saying I didn’t disclose my status to him because we had separated. Honestly I did not know what was happening … I had no one to ask to take care of my children. I stayed alone with my children and the child minder. There was no one to take care of my children … It was difficult, especially when the case was covered in the newspapers. I could not work. I could not face my co-workers. I requested for emergency leave, which was denied. I was forced to interact with people, despite the difficult situation I was in. People were calling me names. It was indeed a difficult time. At that time I was also supposed to continue looking after my children. I had to face people and attend to phone calls from relatives, who had seen the story in the paper. If I had not been a woman, I would not have faced any of these challenges.”

Due to requirements women face when accessing antenatal care, women more regularly learn their HIV status. Thus, the burden of informing has been placed largely on women, and women then have to do the calculus. Around the world, women who inform their partner that they are HIV positive often face violence and death, expulsion, homelessness, stigma, and poverty. Additionally, they are more often than not left to care for the children on their own in a hostile environment.

Criminalization adds two elements to this toxic brew. First, it allows for the violation of the right to privacy and confidentiality. We should not know Samukelisiwe Mlilo’s name, but `thanks’ to the criminalization laws, we do. The second toxic element is prison. While prison for any woman is a terrible thing, her imprisonment is a living death sentence for her children.

Last week, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights released a video telling the story of Samukelisiwe Mlilo, and of women around the world. It concludes: “Say NO to criminalisation of HIV. Criminalisation harms women.” In the words of Samukelisiwe Mlilo, “If I had not been a woman …” Being a woman is not and cannot become a crime.

 

(Video Credit: YouTube / Zimbabwe Lawyers Committee for Human Rights / HIV Justice Network)