Since birth, I have never lived in peace in my own county, Zimbabwe. I was born during colonialism and everything I learnt was about a war which had raged on for years where blacks were fighting for liberation. Since independence, we have had the genocide of Matabeleland, the farm invasions of 2000 and three decades of bloody elections. In 2005, state sponsored violence left women and children homeless and livelihoods permanently destroyed. The political violence which ensued in 2008 gave many women and girls little time to recover. Many have never recovered. We have had to rebuild almost every year and engage in fake reconciliation and peace programs that last as long as those who rule us want. We need to ask what peace means for the women of Zimbabwe.
Most lives and rights are lost in economic wars. One consequence of the most recent violence has been a large number of girls falling pregnant and dropping out of school and an increase in the number of brothels: women are giving their bodies in order to live. For when the Zimbabwean economy fell, it crumbled on women. It is women who provide a basic meal. Faced with economic challenges, and even starvation, some women are going to South Africa. Many are losing their lives and thousands more are raped when they try to cross the border.
The women of Zimbabwe are facing a kind of silent victimisation and silent pain as families disintegrate and many fathers turn their daughters into wives. Women who have come over to England to secure a better life for their families and left their daughters back home live in a state of fear. Some hear reports that their daughters have been raped or are struggling to eat.
Many women in Zimbabwe face war in their homes day-to-day and some women, like me, face war with the state when we try to overcome it.
At war in the home
My own experience of peace in Zimbabwe was shattered age 6, when I was raped whilst vending on the streets. It was during the 1970s when the whole of Zimbabwe was at war and this kind of case simply wasn’t of concern to most people. It was the norm to rape a girl for whatever reason. My mother was murdered in domestic violence shortly after, and with war raging on elsewhere, the death of a woman in the home mattered just as little as the rape of a small girl.
I never went to war with guns, but the many wars that subsequently spilled into our homes claimed the lives of many girls and women I knew. Those were the women who inspired me to start Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe in 1998, and to establish the first girls empowerment village for girls fleeing violence in Rusape in 2001.
We were able to set up the first girls empowerment village by reviving an old cultural practice that accords royalty to girls. 400 years ago, my great, great, great aunt migrated from Tanzania to Zimbabwe where she fought in a war alongside men. When she defeated men, her brother said “I won’t abandon you, you are also going to be royal. She was given the title Muzvare (Her Royal Highness) and that’s why I also have a title today. As a result of my aunt’s bravery, women were given chieftainship in her village, which meant that as a woman she was respected and you wouldn’t touch her. This is the tradition I revived in the town. I demonstrated to the chief that we could plant a positive culture and respect for human rights that would bring prosperity to the village. The piece of land the chief donated became like royal shrine where girls who were raped could come to feel their greatness.
Often, when girls report to their local authorities that they have been the victims of violence they cannot go back to their abusers or their village and so they make their way to an empowerment village. This is a one-stop shop where they can get counselling, administrative support and education. There is also a clinic for girls who are HIV positive. School teachers run empowerment clubs in within the villages, and we also train girls in peer counselling so that they can support one another. We cover questions such as, how do you ask another girl about her experiences? How do you report a case? With the girls supporting each other, the information comes out more quickly than in other forums. At the empowerment village the girls are also re-registered in schools; even if they are attending court they must be in the nearest school. The local police work with us to monitor the girls, and the courts work with us to secure justice. Everything the police officers do is monitored and written on a card which the girl keeps. This helps us to help her make sense of the jargon, and also to ensure that she knows where and when she has to be in court. This is all part of empowering a girl to demand justice.
Between 1998 and 2008 alone, the Girl Child Network movement empowered over 300,000 girls to respond to violence and to reclaim their right to peace and housed over 70,000 girls from all across Zimbabwe at girls’ empowerment villages. One girl from a village 400 kilometres away had been raped by a traditional healer who sucked out some of her blood in a ritual. While we kept her in safety, her perpetrator could not get to her and he was locked up. The support of the local police enabled us to transfer her files so that we had the authority to demand that her trial be heard in the village rather than in her home town by a biased court. Our job was just to let the girl tell her story and secure justice. This girl’s case was one of the 80% of cases that lead to a prosecution.
There are now four empowerment villages in Zimbabwe. Some of the girls who first came to find sanctuary there are now women who have taken over their leadership while I live in self-imposed exile.
At war with the state
The last thing any human rights defender wants to do is to leave her home, work and settle in a foreign country. This was my last option during my time of despair and persecution in 2008; only the man I shared my home with knew as I grabbed my handbag and sped out of the door to run for safety.
My work at the women’s empowerment villages was extremely dangerous and put me in direct conflict with the Zimbabwean state and thousands of local actors. An 80% prosecution rate equates to around 4,000 men in jail each year. You can times that by ten to count the number of angry relatives out there and work out for yourself the risks we ran. The most dangerous cases were rape cases linked to Johane Marange apostolic churches. When I was arrested, a senior police intelligence officer who belonged to the church told me that if I had no alternative to girls being given away to appease spirits, or to God’s consent for a girl to marry a man, then I should keep my mouth zipped shut. In 2008 I was incarcerated for targeting a church that had strong political links.
My autobiography, Never Again, describes the state persecution I experienced as a result of my work defending girls’ human rights. Some of this persecution constituted outright criminalisation; other forms were more subtle, like mental torture wearing you down.
In 2002, I was arrested for operating Girl Child Network as a trust instead of a ‘PVO’(another form of organisation), even though the two are exactly the same. I spent a whole year in and out of the courts. I had a choice to leave girls dying at my doorstep or use a deed of trust to continue my work and save lives. I chose the latter.
In 2004 I was banned from conducting rescue missions for girls in forced marriages and a letter was sent all over the country stating that police were not allowed to accompany us on rescue missions. In some cases we rescued girls from forced marriages and brought them to empowerment villages so that the churches could not remarry them. A church linked to the ruling party had lodged complaints that we were destroying their marriages with young girls.
In 2005, I was arrested and labelled a threat to national security for giving testimony about the rape of girls and home demolitions to Anna Tibaijuka, UN Envoy for human settlements. All my office files were seized. Out of over 2000 leaders of civil organisations who testified and gave written testimonies, I was the only one singled out in a government newspaper. I spent a week in and out of the police station. During interrogation, the government told me this case against me was “unforgivable”.
In 2006, I was arrested for my work with girls who had testified about the ‘virgin myth’, a myth current at the time that sex with virgins could cure HIV/AIDS. A media blackout was imposed on me and all my finance files and donor agreements, receipts and client files were seized by the Central Intelligence. When they were returned back to our offices after a month several files were missing.
In 2007, just before the 2008 bloody elections, I was again arrested together with film Director Michealene Risley who came to document cases of girls raped because of the virgin myth in the film Tapestries of Hope.
I had first become aware of the ‘virgin myth’ back in the late 90s when a 13 year old girl called Leona reported to me that she had been raped at knife point by her mother’s boyfriend. The man, it turned out, was trying to extract her first blood as a virgin. After breaking her hymen, he had started sucking it out with his mouth. He had been prescribed this ‘treatment’ by a witch doctor as a cure for HIV. Similar cases emerged and I discovered that you could see a certain trend. In 2001, I published a document called 1,000 Worst Cases of Rape in Zimbabwe where I made the myth public. From 2005, the government privately acknowledged the issue and arrests increased. One prominent case was that of Macheke, a HIV positive man who raped close to 51 girls one after another. Quite a few high profile people in churches were also arrested. One of them, Katsio Katsiru, fought to bring me down.
The government launched a defamatory media campaign against me, labelling me a child abuser, and I received death threats including one saying that I would be murdered by one of my staff members. I knew that the many rape cases perpetrated by high profile political figures had landed me in danger because some hard copies of the information we had gathered was never returned to us when our files and computers were confiscated by police.
In March 2008, a group of secret undercover police tried to bribe me to pay a US$ 8000 protection fee to be saved from abduction, and I later learnt from one of them that my abduction was planned for 18 March. I escaped to South Africa on 17 March 2008. After I had fled, other women human rights defenders like Jestina Mukoko were abducted and only found after several months.
From the local to the global
In June 2008, when reports of women and girls being sexually tortured in youth militia bases reached me, I said enough is enough and became an activist in exile. I set up an empowerment house in Botswana and mobilised the international community to help women deposit evidence of rape as a weapon of war so that it could be preserved for future prosecutions. Starting a women and girls empowerment centre in neighbouring Botswana worked well as the women testified in an environment that was peaceful and where they did not have to hold back their trauma. They went back to Zimbabwe healed and looking forwards, armed with basic counselling skills to help rebuild their communities. I wanted the women to know that one day they would have justice and so they shouldn’t destroy evidence.
Replication of our model in Sierra Leone, Uganda, South Africa and Swaziland in recent years has helped us to run projects on the ground to protect girls and also build a global network of supporters to help us target policy makers. These days, one does not necessarily need to be physically present to do advocacy work: technology connects us. Some high profile rape cases we get are easy to deal with because women and girls are in a safe place where they feel they can speak out. At the same time, those on the ground can keep feeding us information. My work is to speak from wherever I feel I am safe. To be strategically positioned from the village to the global level transmits our work much faster. Yes I am still in exile, and these days I am cyber bullied on the internet daily - this is a new tactic to target women human rights defenders. But at least my work continues with those who know my good intentions to save the most vulnerable.
When people think about wars in Africa, they think about tanks and international troops, but there are countries with no official war like Zimbabwe where a girl must fight. Sometimes we find ourselves in combat when all we are actually trying to do it to crawl out of our own small room. These are women organising political rallies in order for us to have democracy. These are the foot soldiers toiling on the ground for economic empowerment and ensuring their basic human rights are protected. These are the heroes who have watched as every bullet went past their falling hut. These are the women we want to think of as target beneficiaries when in reality they are the ones who defend rights of the most vulnerable.
This article is adapted form a presentation given at the recent conference, ‘Women Human Rights Defenders: Empowering and Protecting the Change-makers’ held by Peace Brigades International with the support of GAPS-UK, Womankind and Amnesty International UK and the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security.
Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.
Get our weekly email