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: Girls Not Brides)

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)

African Women Stand their Ground Against Big Coal

Every day Sonto Mabina walks past the dam to get to work. The dam is close to her house. No fence or wall prevents children from playing in the potentially toxic water, or stops the water from overflowing and flooding her house and the community.

For the past week, women from mining communities in South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been meeting in Johannesburg to share their experiences, strengthen their networks, map and take the way forward. They have been brought together by WoMin, African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction. They have had enough of environmental devastation, corporate predation, and State violence. They are sick and tired of living and dying in communities and households where everyone is tired, sick, and dying. And they have had enough of being ignored or silenced. They come together to say, Now is the time! They come together to make NOW the time.

In an hour long interview this week, Samantha Hargreaves, Regional Coordinator of WoMin; Nhlanhla Mgomezulu, Coordinator of the Highveld Environment Justice Network; and Susan Chilala, Secretary of the Rural Women’s Assembly, in Zambia, laid out the program. Generally, the women are calling on the State to divert its massive investments in the infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction into alternatives, particularly solar, wind, tidal, and thermal, all plentiful in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, region. All of the countries are already investing great sums of money to make mines happen. The women say: Make something else happen; something sustainable and renewable that will meet the challenge of growing consumption in growing economies.

This diversion would mean that the State would have to reconsider its comfortable relationship with those few who make huge profits at the expense of the many. This would also mean, the women said pointedly, that politicians, such as Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa, would have to address their complicity as shareholders and leaders in the mineral extractives sector.

The majority of the interview describes the impact of coal mining on local communities. Susan Chilala explained that coal mining attacks women small scale farmers most viciously. She described the impact of coal mining on farming and food security. She talked about the impact on women when their space is taken over by an industry that is so deeply male dominated, from top to bottom.

Nhlanhla Mgomezulu described the impact on women in the South African Highveld: “We women are the ones who suffer most.” Women suffer as individuals, in that their own health is endangered by poisoned water, air, and land, but they suffer even more as principal caregivers of the community. When the children are sick, women work more intensively. When the men return from the mines with asthma, kidney failure, tuberculosis, injuries and more, women are work more intensively. And this labor is `free’ and it’s 30 hours a day, 8 days a week, for life. If that’s not slavery … what is?

Last year, Greeenpeace published a report, which looked at Witbank, in Mpumulanga, in which they found that Witbank has the dirtiest air in the world. This is the gift of coal as a mainstay of `development’: “Sonto Mabina … works at a small tuck shop that’s just a short walk from her home in an informal settlement over the train tracks outside Witbank, in Mpumalanga. She’s lived here for 25 years, arriving well before the three coal washeries that now surround her house … Sonto Mabina, or Katerina as she likes to be called, lives with her husband, Andries. Their house has no electricity or water and Katerina uses a coal stove to cook their suppers, the black plumes of smoke clouding their home. A municipal truck brings water once a week, but most say it’s too polluted to drink. If you can afford to, you buy bottled water in this area of the country; if not, you boil it like Sonto does and you hope for the best. `Dust is my main problem,’ she says. `Every time my child goes to the hospital it’s because of the dust. The doctors say his chest is full of it. The doctors asked me where I lived and I told them. My other child also has problems with his nose because it is always running – the dust affects him too.’ It’s an everyday problem here.”

The women who have gathered in Johannesburg are saying NO to that everyday. They are engaging in a public dialogue, breaking down barriers, transforming isolation into community, teaching as they learn, and they are demanding a better present. Not a better future, a better present. They have lived too long with politicians and others ignoring them. They are demanding that the State take climate change, the environment, community health and wellbeing, and women seriously. African women are standing their ground and more. They are organizing and on the move. The time is now!

 

(Photo Credit: Mujahid Safodien / Greenpeace)

In Zimbabwe, women say #DontMinimizeMyRights!

 

On December 12, in Harare, a group of men attacked a woman. They were `punishing’ her for wearing a short or mini skirt. The woman was walking past the taxi rank when a man beckoned her over. She refused to answer. He called her a prostitute and then called his friends, and together they attacked her. Another man intervened to stop the men, and was threatened off. Finally, the woman paid a commuter omnibus crew two dollars and got away. The assault was captured on video, which went viral.

Women immediately organized. #DontMinimizeMyRights began to appear on social media, placards, and in the air. The full message began to circulate: #DontMinimizeMyRights. Our Cities. Our Streets. Our Dignity. Our Rights. Our Ubuntu. Hunhu Hwedu. Respect for all. Women organized a protest march, not the first one to take on violence against women that occurs within the fog of `preserving traditional culture.’ In the streets, courtrooms, police station, legislative bodies, schools, crèches, kitchens and beyond and in between, women spoke out.

Harare West MP Jessie Majome explained, “This is a fundamental women’s rights issue. It violates all known basic freedoms, freedom of movement and expression; it undermines everything and even the right to the protection of the law and the right to equality.” Tendai Garwe agreed, “For the women of Zimbabwe, this is an opportunity for us to be heard and to realise that we are coming for the rights that have been side lined for too long. This is not just about a mini-skirt issue because if you can control what l wear what else are you controlling? What power do you have over me? We are very interested in this case because we are pushing an agenda for the amplification of voice and the rights of women.” Women Coalition board member Ms Nyaradzo Mashayamombe added, “It might appear as an act directed at one woman, but its effect is to damage our children psychologically, dehumanise women and present us as a lawless nation. As women of Zimbabwe, we will not stand by and watch women being harassed and humiliated.” SAfAIDS communications director Tariro Makanga warned, “Enough is enough. This is our last time to talk as women. Now we want action!”

Jessie Majome added, “There is no public transportation system and this leaves commuters, especially defenceless women prone to such violent attacks. The government must come up with measures to address the current crisis as well as create employment to ensure that these people who have turned to touting for a living have decent jobs. We need an effective transport system that is convenient and reliable.”

Assaults on women that use clothing as a pretext, whether they come from the government, as in Uganda, or from men on the street, as recently in Kenya, are never an assault on one woman and never occur spontaneously. They attack women’s mobility, presence and power. They attack any hint of intervention into patriarchy. They work to deflect critical energy and attention on failings of the State and society. Violence against women occurs in a climate as well as an instant. That climate is not exclusive to Zimbabwe nor to Africa. In 2012, India, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Nepal, France, and the United States engaged in State policing of women’s fashion. In New York, for example, transgender women, and especially transgender women of color, were routinely stopped, for the crime of cross-dressing.

And the women always fight back and organize. In South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, women have forcefully rejected the violence and the excuses for the violence. They have thrown out the alibis of the State and have managed to throw out the State on occasion. Women don’t forget. For Tafadzwa Choto, a prominent Zimbabwean activist, two events politicized her. The first occurred in 1993: “A woman at the University of Zimbabwe was stripped of her skirt. It was said to be a miniskirt and was publicly ripped off her. I was disgusted.” The second was in 1995: “In Harare, in the city center, … three civilians were shot by the police, while the police were chasing after some thieves who had stolen a manual typewriter. Three civilians were shot dead and for what?”

#SavetheMiniskirt. #StripMeNot. #MyDressMyChoice. #DontMinimizeMyRights.

#DontMinimizeMyRights. Our Cities. Our Streets. Our Dignity. Our Rights. Our Ubuntu. Hunhu Hwedu. Respect for all.

 

(Photo Credit: Afrika Kontakt)

Rosemary Margaret Khumalo died last month


Rosemary Margaret Khumalo, affectionately known as Makhumalo, died last month: “Rosemary Margaret Khumalo died on death row on the 15th of July at Chikurubi Maximum Prison before the Constitutional application to set aside her death sentence could be heard by the Constitutional Court.” Khumalo, 59-years-old, had spent the last 15 years on death row.

Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa commented, “Being on death row for an unduly long period is a violation of one’s rights. I do not know why she was on death row for such a long period time. Either someone did not know what they were doing or they did not want to execute her. It is a blow on the justice system of Zimbabwe.”

Chiedza Simbo, director of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA), said, “It is with immense sadness that ZWLA celebrates the role Rosemary Margaret Khumalo played in defending the rights of women embodied in the new Constitution of Zimbabwe,”

Rita Nyamupinga, Director of Female Prisoners Support Trust (Femprist) reflected: “Makhumalo was so brave even after being sentenced to death she could smile and share her story without any reservation. She used to say ‘I am telling you because this place is not good, wanzvaka? (you hear?) with a Ndebele accent. She was in there from 1999 when she was sentenced to death for murder. All she wished for was to be released if they could not hang her. She said she had repented but could not bear the torture any longer. She was so prayerful, at times we would fail to pray but she would encourage us to soldier on … Every time we parted she would remind us not to take long before visiting her. At times we would take our time because of the after effects of the previous visit. In February 2014 after the Presidential Amnesty we all thought Makhumalo was eventually going but it was never to be.”

In many ways, Makhumalo’s story is typical of death penalty countries. Sentenced to death, she then waited, often in solitary isolation, for the hangman to come. He never did. The reasons for her long stay are unclear. On one hand, Zimbabwe is a de facto death penalty abolitionist country, largely due to the inability to find someone to actually conduct the executions. On a different, but not opposite, hand, the vast majority of those on death row are poor. As Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe chairperson Virginia Muwanigwa noted: “We want the death penalty to be removed from our constitution and our laws completely. One important reason for this is that it is mostly poor people who often get hanged.”

As in Zimbabwe, so in the United States and elsewhere. A recent US court ruling found that the main cause for death row delays is the State’s foot-dragging and underfunding of its indigent defense system.

But Rosemary Khumalo’s story has a twist. Last year, Zimbabwe passed a new Constitution, which exempts women, men under 21, and everyone over 70 from the death penalty. The new Constitution also does away with mandatory sentencing. For Khumalo and Shylet Sibanda, the only other woman on death row, this seemed promising. They appealed to courts and were denied their appeal because of lack of “urgency.” Khumalo appealed directly to the Presidency, on five occasions, and was rejected twice, and didn’t hear back on three other occasions.

Her lawyers argued from the basis of human and Constitutional rights and due process. Rosemary Khumalo pleaded as a woman, as a human being. She did not say she was innocent. She said she had repented. Those around her confirmed the substance of that claim.

Rosemary Khumalo was so close to release and so very far from freedom. In her last years, she lived with dignity, which is hard won in the killing conditions of Chikurubi. The years were hard, but the real story is not the long years. It’s death row: “‘I am telling you because this place is not good, wanzvaka? (you hear?).” Remember: this place is not good. Remember Rosemary Margaret Khumala, affectionately known as Makhumalo.

(Photo Credit: Nehanda Radio)

Musasa: A sheltering tree for and of women of Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, two out of every three women and girls have experienced a form of gender-based violence in their lifetime. According to a 2006 study, 32% of women in Zimbabwe reported physical abuse by marital partners since the age of 16 years. That was then. Now it’s worse.

The 2006 study was conducted for the Musasa Project, one of the oldest women’s and feminist organizations in Zimbabwe. The Musasa Project was founded in 1988 in response to the escalating violence against women. Immediately, the women of the Musasa Project recognized that their work would involve service provision, advocacy, community organizing, and often raising a ruckus. The women of the Musasa Project have been leaders in every step of the women’s struggles in Zimbabwe. At the national level, this has meant from the earlier Constitutional processes to the domestic violence legislation campaigns to the more recent Constitutional processes to today.

According to their Executive Director Netty Musanhu. “I am sure you are aware of the crisis that the country has been in for the last decade. Things are getting worse – women are bearing the brunt of all that. We are seeing an increase in rape and sexual violence. We ask ourselves the question, if we are having high levels of sexual violence in times of relative peace, what does this mean?”

Despite an ongoing war on women, in which one in three girls is raped before the age of 18, Zimbabwe is officially a post-conflict country. It’s `at peace.’ Crisis is not conflict, according to the men who lead multinational agencies and form public opinion and governmental policy.

Meanwhile, by the government’s own assessment, at least 1500 children were raped in the first five months of 2014. To no one’s surprise, the overwhelming majority of rapes was committed by close relatives, parents or guardians.

The national government this week launched a National Action Plan on rape, which could be a good thing. It has said it is declaring war on rape, which cannot be a good thing. Sexual violence generally, and rape specifically, cannot be addressed with the means or mentality of warfare.

What exactly would war on rape mean, anywhere? What specifically would it mean in Zimbabwe, in which remand prisons are choking with women and men awaiting trial for years in cages in which, often, there is no usable water, food, electricity, or health care, in which people have died of starvation while awaiting trial?

In Shona, musasa means sheltering tree. The women knew what they were doing when they chose that name. The organization works from an explicitly intersectional place, in which domestic violence is HIV and AIDS which are poverty and wealth, which are access to safe spaces. For that reason, the Musasa Project continually supports evidence-based research to see what the situation is, while they sustain a physical shelter for women and children; meet and work with the government, especially legislators and police; run a hotline; monitor communities; and generally try to keep ahead of the arcs of violence. They always keep their eyes on the prize: women’s emancipation through the establishment of women’s power.

In Zimbabwe, elections loom large, and the patriarch is going to go out with a bang. Women who oppose violence, women who work their whole lives to transform violence into justice and peace know that a war on violence is not the answer. Musasa is the answer: a growing, flowing, sheltering tree that connects, one day, sheltering earth to sheltering sky.

(Image Credit: https://www.facebook.com/musasazim)

In Zimbabwe, WOZA wins another victory for women’s rights

At a recent gathering in northern Virginia, a local activist lawyer argued, “Activism bears fruit, and organizing bears fruit, and we do win every once in a while.” While he was addressing immigrant activists and their supporters, his words ring true around the world. Ask the women of WOZA, Women of Zimbabwe Arise! Yesterday, they too won a landmark victory in the Zimbabwe Supreme Court, and it too is a lesson for everyone.

The case is Jennifer Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, Celina Madukani and Clara Manjengwa v Co-Ministers of Home Affairs, Commissioner General of Police Attorney, Attorney General of Zimbabwe. But it’s much more than that. It’s four women, attorneys from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, women of WOZA, and women in struggle across Zimbabwe rising up in favor of women’s rights, human rights, Constitutional protections, and in so doing affirming, consolidating and intensifying women’s autonomy and power.

On April 15, 2010, the four women were arrested at a WOZA demonstration. They were taken to the Harare Central Remand Prison, where they spent five miserable days, “five days of hell.” The place was disgusting, and the treatment was abusive, for everyone, not just for WOZA members or political prisoners, although they received `special treatment’ as well. There was no clean water or toilets. Women were forced to remove their underwear. The place was filthy.

So, WOZA protested the conditions and sued.

Four years later, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe found that WOZA members’ Constitutional rights were violated. The Court found as well that in those instances where WOZA members were targeted for `special treatment’, more of their Constitutional rights were violated. The Court instructed the police to ensure that they would provide clean water, working toilets, a clean mattress for each prisoner, adequate blankets, and that “women detained in police custody shall be allowed to keep their undergarments, including brassieres, and to wear suitable footwear.”

WOZA leaders, WOZA members, their lawyers, and women in struggle across Zimbabwe won a major victory this week. They said State agents cannot act with impunity. For the State, there is no place to hide. WOZA acknowledges the victory and says the time for celebration is not yet at hand: “Whilst WOZA members morale is boosted, members will celebrate when these conditions are a lived reality.”

Women across Zimbabwe, across the world, are organizing for the days when we all can celebrate. But for today, let’s applaud the work of Jennifer Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, Celina Madukani, Clara Manjengwa, and all the women of WOZA. Activism bears fruit, organizing bears fruit, and we do win every once in a while. Woza! Arise!

 

(Photo Credit: WOZA Zimbabwe / Kubatana)

For rural women around the world, NOW IS THE TIME!

Around the world, rural women are organizing and mobilizing, and leading agrarian movements, land rights movement, farm workers and peasant movements, and more. From the farmlands and highlands of Peru and Colombia to the farmlands of Zimbabwe and the United States, to the polling stations of India, and beyond, rural women are taking charge.

In the highlands of Peru, in Cajamarca, women are fighting to stop a multinational mining consortium from devastating their waters, lands, and lives. At the helm of this struggle are Máxima Acuña Chaupe, who began her campaign as an attempt to secure her family’s land; and Mirtha Vasquez Chuquilin, a lawyer who works for Comprehensive Training for Sustainable Development (Grupo de Formación Integral para el Desarrollo Sostenible, GRUFIDES). Together, these two women are bringing together popular forces, women’s groups and knowledge, and legal and technical skills. They combat the mining security forces as well as the mining companies’ lawyers while they also combat State security forces and other, more anonymous agents.

The risk to their lives is great, but the risk of not struggling is greater.

Likewise, in Colombia, peasant farmers are engaged in an agrarian strike that has paralyzed much of the country. At the helm of this campaign is Olga Quintero, a leader of the Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, which was on strike last year for 52 days. Last December, two armed masked men broke into Quintero’s home. She wasn’t there, and so they bound and gagged her three-year-old daughter. Quintero’s response: “Ni el dinero ni la tierra. El miedo fue lo único que quedó bien repartido entre todos en Colombia.” “Neither money nor land. Fear was the only thing well distributed among all in Colombia.”

Her response is to meet fear with courage, hope, love, and mass organization.

In Zimbabwe, Lena Murembwe, saw a problem. Rural women didn’t know their rights to land. More to the point, rural women didn’t know they had any rights. And so Murembwe’s organization, the Women’s Resource Foundation, began giving workshops and trainings to women in their own rural districts. Widows like Lucia Makawa, 43 years old and the mother of five children, grabbed the opportunity, studied hard, organized, met with traditional chiefs, and took claim to their land. Now Makawa owns six hectares of land, and can see something like a future: “As women we were not even allowed to own a piece of land. But with support from WRF, we have managed to mobilise the support of the chiefs and we have helped solve cases where women were deprived of their right to own land. Now I have my own land and I am in the process of sourcing materials to start building structures. I also have enough space to do my farming.”

Other women, such as Beulah Muchabveyo, studied, learned their rights, and organized to create a dignified, safe space for themselves: “In the past my husband was not treating me as a person at all. He was abusive and never helped with farming work but expected me to give him money after selling our produce. Things are now different in my family after I underwent training in gender and human rights. The training has also given us a platform to meet and discuss issues affecting our lives as women.”

These women know and teach: there is power in knowledge, in union, and in organizing.

In India, as the elections proceed, there’s unprecedented movement among rural women, and unprecedented discussion of `what rural women want.’ What do rural women want? Everything! Rural women say they want public dialogue. They want to be heard. They want a say. They want respect and dignity. They want decent jobs, education, health care. They want an end to violence against women and girls. They want an end to violence. They want an end to predatory lending that targets rural populations and often sends them headlong into bondage or death. They want their own representatives – like Dayamani Barla or Soni Sori – and their proven allies, like Medha Patkar, in Parliament. They want the State. They want democracy. They want it all.

And in the United States, the women of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers want it all as well. When women in the tomato fields of Florida, women like Lupe Gonzalo and Isabel, organize for farm worker’s rights and dignity, they put the struggle to end sexual violence and harassment front and center. They say they cannot wait til after the vote, after the contract, after the revolution for their bodily and spiritual well being to become `an issue.’ They say now is the time.

From Peru and Colombia to Zimbabwe to India to the United States, and beyond and between, rural women, peasant women, women farm workers are organizing intensely because their lives matter urgently: NOW IS THE TIME!

(Photo Credit: Forest Woodward / Facebook)

In Zimbabwe, conditions are not favourable to women prisoners

In Harare today, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Law Society of Zimbabwe launched a joint research report, Pre-Trial Detention in Zimbabwe: Analysis of the Criminal Justice System and Conditions of Pre-Trial Detention. The conditions are infernal, evil, and lethal, but you knew that already. Over 100 human beings starved to death in Zimbabwe’s prisons last year. Prisoners like Rebecca Mafukeni died, or were killed, through malign neglect. Other prisoners confirm Yvonne Musarurwa’s description of Zimbabwe’s prisons as nightmare. Not nightmarish. Nightmare itself. In Zimbabwe, prison = death.

Thanks to direct and indirect political control of the police and the corrections system, the prisons are severely overcrowded. That’s why Robert Mugabe gave `amnesty’ to some 2000 prisoners a couple weeks ago. The presidential amnesty released all women prisoners, except those serving life sentences, and all juveniles. Terminally ill prisoners and elderly prisoners were also released. 505 women were promised release; three were left inside.

According to Female Prisoner Support Trust (FEMPRIST) director Rita Nyamupinga, “These women were caught up in criminal activities out of ignorance.” For example, somebody hid a gun allegedly used in a crime at one woman’s house, apparently unbeknownst to her. When found, she was sent to prison … for life. As so often occurs, around the world, the three women were abandoned, especially by male partners, once they went behind bars.

Today’s report adds remand prisoners to the picture. Thirty percent, one of three, residents of Zimbabwe’s prisons and jails are awaiting trial. They’re not guilty, and they’re not convicted. They’re just too poor or too despised by the regime to be allowed freedom. Despite a “strong legislative framework”, “excessive detention” goes hand in glove with administrative incompetence and political malfeasance

Whatever the causes, the lived reality is severely overcrowded, deadly prisons, housing close to 17,000 people, where some have waited for two months for their trials while others have waited eleven years. Eleven years a remand prisoner.

And for women: “Mlondolozi, Shurugwi and Chikurubi are the only fully fledged female prisons in Zimbabwe. All the other prisons have a section that has been set aside for women and the conditions are not favourable to female inmates. In particular, pregnant inmates are treated like any other female prisoner, without due recognition of their needs. After giving birth at public health facilities, they are returned to jail with their newly born babies – sometimes as young as a day or two old. Unfortunately, prison facilities are not designed to support the post-natal care of either the mothers or the babies. The plight of older children incarcerated alongside their mothers is also serious since there are no proper facilities to cater for their early childhood development needs because the ZPS does not have a budget line for such support.”

One former prisoner remembers, “It is inhuman and completely degrading for 17 women to be packed into a cell that does not even have a toilet. Particularly because by 4pm you are already locked up in the cell and it will only be opened in the morning between 6 and 7am. I think it is particularly inhuman to force those women to relieve themselves in little containers that they have each cut around.”

Zimbabwe’s prisons are designed to be destructive to fatal for pregnant women, indigent women, women with children, women living with HIV, women living with any chronic illness, women living with any disability, all women. Don’t release 500 only to replace them with 1000. Open the gates, tear down the walls, start anew.

 

(Photo Credit: Wits Justice Project)