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: Oyibos)

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: Research and Advocacy Unit)

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)

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

Samukelisiwe Mlilo

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)

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)

Beatrice Mtetwa is the course of justice

Beatrice Mtetwa, leading human rights lawyer and Board member of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, recently noted, “People who go to do things under the cover of darkness are afraid of light. So, if you come at midnight, I’ll be there with my headlights glaring.”

The smoke, fog and dust of Zimbabwe’s Constitutional referendum had not yet dissipated or settled when the news circulated that Beatrice Mtetwa had been arrested. Her crime was asking the whereabouts of a client. The State refers to that as “obstructing or defeating the course of justice.” The truth is that Beatrice Mtetwa is the actual course of justice.

Mtetwa is a fearless and tireless defender of human and civil rights and a remarkably persistent proponent of the law as an instrument of change, in Zimbabwe and everywhere. Some call that `the rule of law’, but it’s more than that. It’s the rule of transformation, of always struggling to become more fully human.

Mtetwa has consistently, openly and formally challenged police, judges, even fellow lawyers to act according to oaths and promises taken. After being beaten by police, in 2003, the moment Mtetwa sufficiently regained her capacities, she went straight to the police station, and to the very police who had injured her, and filed charges. When she defended Jestina Mukoko, she did more than protest Mukoko’s innocence. Again, she filed charges against the State. Each time, Mtetwa understood that the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, if it heard the case, would find against her. And each time she said, history will be the judge … not these corrupt men and women who sit on a high bench and act despicably.

She has asked, repeatedly, what is law in a nation-State in which the Constitution has been mutilated? What is freedom in a nation-State built on ever deepening cycles of violence and ever multiplying and intensifying violations of persons and communities, and especially those of women? For example, according to Mtetwa, during the 2006 round of pogroms, “The most brutal assault against opposition activists occurred on 11 March, when members of the Women’s League were attacked, some of them with batons, as they attempted to attend a prayer meeting organised by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign. The League’s president and secretary-general were among the injured, and there were many reports of injuries such as broken limbs, torn ears and severe bruises.”

Maybe something good, or at least not altogether bad, will come of Saturday’s referendum. Maybe Presidential powers will be curtailed. Maybe women will have more presence in matters of State. Maybe.

But the real referendum is taking place in the prisons and police stations, where people are being held without charges or with trumped up charges. Where people have been abused and tortured in so many ways, there sits Beatrice Mtetwa, and she says, “I’ll keep trying, and I’m not going to stop.” `Releasing’ Beatrice Mtetwa into yet another cycle of violence is not enough. The State is guilty of obstructing and defeating the course of justice, not Beatrice Mtetwa. Who’s afraid of the light? Not Beatrice Mtetwa. Shine the light; make sure it’s glaring.


(Video Credit: Vimeo)

In Zimbabwe, the revolution will be …

Trevor Ncube is a Zimbabwean. On Friday, February 18, 2011, Trevor Ncube, owner of The Mail & Guardian, and publisher of the Zimbabwean The Standard, The Zimbabwe Independent and NewsDay, published a piece he’d written, entitled “We are our own liberators.” In this piece, Ncube reflected on the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia, and who knows where else by now, for Zimbabwe, for Zimbabweans. He noted, “I have written before about the need for a “Third Way” in Zimbabwe’s politics. Egypt and Tunisia tell us that perhaps the people constitute that Third Way in resolving our political impasse. Only a new beginning will suffice…. Tunisia and Egypt have restored our collective faith in the power of the people.”

That was Friday.

Munyaradzi Gwisai is a Zimbabwean. Gwisai has been a member of the Zimbabwe National Parliament, is a lead member of the Zimbabwe branch of the International Socialist Organisation, and is the director of the Labour Law Centre, in Harare. Gwisai is also a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

On Saturday, the Zimbabwe branch of the International Socialist Organisation apparently held a meeting at the Labour Law Centre. Individuals and organizations were invited to a discussion. On the agenda was something like “What lessons can be learnt by the working class in Zimbabwe and Africa?” Gwisai and 50 some others were arrested for “plotting an Egypt”, or, more formally, “subverting the government.”

Fifty or so people were arrested, and for what? They were arrested for “normal academic debate,” or for the crime of discussing politics, or perhaps, as the government representative said, for having “attempted to inspire and motivate people to demonstrate.” Included among those arrested were passersby and others in the building who had nothing to do with the meeting.

Roselyn Hanzi of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) reports that eight of the activists claim to have been tortured, beaten, starved. They have been allowed little contact with their attorneys. Shantha Bloemen, Munyaradzi Gwisai’s wife and a prominent figure in her own right, reports that the arrestees are being interviewed individually. Those determined to be `ringleaders’ are then beaten. It is reported that Gwisai is now unable to walk on his own.

Tafadzwa Choto was among the fifty or so arrested. Choto is a prominent ISO figure, a national coordinator in Zimbabwe. In 2001, at a May Day Rally in Harare, Choto was savagely beaten by “Mugabe’s thugs”. What is the distance between Mubarak’s thugs and Mugabe’s thugs? Ask Tafadzwa Choto.

According to Choto, two events served to politicize 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?”

Women were attacked, and for what? Civilians were shot dead, and for what? Fifty were arrested, and for what? Among them many were beaten, tortured, starved, and for what? For daring to inspire and motivate people to demonstrate? For daring to inspire and motivate people to become the people? In Zimbabwe, the revolutions of far off lands are being discussed and will be debated, and someday, hopefully someday soon, the reckoning of the `for what’ will begin. The `for what’ haunts Zimbabwe.


(Video Credit: Union Solidarity International /