Beatings, torture give strength to carry on

Our Voices is the first in an ongoing series of weekly features, celebrating the diversity of gender-related issues in Zimbabwe. The series was inspired by a recent training initiative run by The Zimbabwean for women journalists, both new and experienced. We believe that gender-awareness is integral to quality journalism because it challenges stereotypes and offers a more nuanced, vibrant perspective on issues that affect women and men. We look forward to hearing your responses –and we wel

 Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams.
Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams.

Sitshengisiwe Tshabalala crosses her hands over her heart as though she is holding back tears. “The beatings, torture and harassment will not deter us,” she declares. “It’s what gives us the strength to carry on”.

Tshabalala (40) belongs to Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a civil society movement that, together with its brother organization MOZA, boasts 80 000 members. In the last decade more than 3 000 WOZA supporters have spent time in police custody, yet their campaign of peaceful protests continues.

Now, as the movement marks its tenth anniversary, there is another reason to celebrate. Jenni Williams, founder and national coordinator, has just received the prestigious Ginetta Sagan Amnesty International USA award for 2012. The award, according to Amnesty, “serves as a beacon of hope to women everywhere who are fighting for human rights”.

Williams, who has been arrested 40 times, has been beaten, imprisoned without food or medical supplies, and threatened with execution – along with many other WOZA members.

“Jenni deserves the award because she holds our hands every time we demonstrate. She is with us on the streets providing moral and legal support whenever we need it,” says Tshabalala.

Fellow WOZA member, Sinikiwe Maseko (38), adds: “Being recognised by democratic leaders like Barack Obama shows that the international community is listening to us. One day this government, and past governments, will be brought to book”.

Maseko remembers her first arrest. She and hundreds of other women had decided to march on Parliament to protest about the “flawed” 2005 elections. The mood was festive as they sang and danced through the streets of Harare. Suddenly they realised they were surrounded by riot police.

“We were beaten up and force marched to Harare Central Police station where the torture and harassment continued,” Maseko recalls. “The trauma that I experienced gave me the strength to want to see the end of the journey that we started.”

Young mother, Belinda Atshulu, says she has twice been beaten by police while demonstr- ating against high electricity bills and power load-shedding. “Our rights are being violated on a daily basis and if it wasn’t for WOZA, we wouldn’t have a platform to contest these violations,” she says. “Even if some die along the way we will not be silenced.”

MOZA member, Bhekinkosi Moyo (27), is proud of what the organisation has achieved in the last decade and says that the “quest for good governance systems and democracy” has been recognised – not just at home, but internationally.

“The struggle is not for women only,” he adds. “We, as men, are also demanding a better life.”

Asked about the organisation’s biggest successes, Williams cites policy changes in education, and the 45% reduction in the fixed meter charge for electricity.

But Williams is adamant that the battle is far from over. She claims that the government of national unity has done little to stop the harassment of human rights activists, and she maintains that the rule of law “continues to decay” because SADC has “not pushed hard enough” for security safeguards to be implemented.

Williams, along with WOZA co-leader Magodonga Mahlangu, is currently facing what she describes as “trumped up” kidnap and theft charges. “Even though state witnesses have disowned themselves from the statements prepared for them by the police the case continues,” she says. “On 12 March the magistrate went even further by revoking my bail which had been given to me by a higher court. A lower magistrate cannot overturn a higher court ruling.”

When the two leaders return to court on 29 June they will not be alone. “We have strength in our solidarity towards each other, and the spirit of sisterhood that we have managed to build,” Williams says.

WOZA member, Perseverance Nyathi (19), describes Williams and Mahlangu as “strong, fearless and committed”. Nyathi says they have taught her to “speak out” and not to fear the consequences. “They are true heroes. They are my role models,” she adds. Meanwhile, for Williams, Mahlangu and their 80 000 strong family, the most powerful slogan remains the simplest: ”The power of love can overcome the love of power”.

Post published in: News

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