Zimbabwe's women activists face filthy prisons, insults

For someone who has been arrested 43 times while protesting for social justice in Zimbabwe, the prospect of elections in her homeland evokes a special kind of fear in campaigner Jenni Williams.

Zimbabwean campaigner Jenni Williams photographed in London, 23 May 2012. TRUSTLAW/Maria Caspani
Zimbabwean campaigner Jenni Williams photographed in London, 23 May 2012. TRUSTLAW/Maria Caspani

The 50-year-old is the executive director and a founding member of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), formed in 2003 to encourage Zimbabwean women to stand up for their rights.

The group of some 80,000 activists has held peaceful demonstrations to highlight issues ranging from access to sanitary pads to the right to education and making electricity more affordable.

"The word 'elections' in Zimbabwe is a word that strikes fear," said Williams who was in London this week to attend the launch of Amnesty International's annual report.

"It is a horrible word for me because, since the election of 2008, the government decided that, during any election period, mobilisers like myself and my colleagues should not be allowed to do their work," she told TrustLaw in an interview.

At Zimbabwe's last election in 2008, critics and opponents say President Robert Mugabe hung on to power by rigging polls and allowing independence war veterans and the youth brigade of his ZANU-PF party to attack the opposition.

Forced into a power-sharing deal with rival and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe wants elections to be held this year. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), however, says the next vote should come after a new constitution and electoral, security and media reforms are adopted.

Often speaking softly, Williams described how she had been detained three times since the last election.

"The word 'election' immediately means some day I'm going to be back in … remand prison," she explained.

"Since 2011, I think, related to the impact of the Arab Spring, suddenly our government have realised the work we do to put people on the streets is dangerous and we seem to have become classified as a national security threat. And so, it's very nervous eyes that look towards the immediate future in Zimbabwe."

In its annual report released on Thursday, Amnesty said human rights activists in Zimbabwe continue to face arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, politically motivated charges and even torture in police custody.

It said activists face harassment and intimidation by ZANU-PF members, which increased as ZANU-PF started making pronouncements of a possible election in 2011.

Williams urged U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, on a rare visit to Zimbabwe this week, to push for the implementation of measures to protect human rights campaigners – as outlined in the pact establishing Zimbabwe's power-sharing government.

"Our lives are at stake," she said. "I've spent many years at the top of a hit list, and I know that I'm probably on the hit list, and I would really like to live to see my grandchildren."


It's with weariness that Williams speaks of being arrested and detained, and the barrage of insults she endures from police and prison officers as well as filthy conditions in jail.

The verbal hounding of women in detention is incessant, Williams said, with running commentary from security forces along the lines of: 'What are you women doing here? You're just trouble-making. You don't have any rights to do these things. You're just being used.'

"You know? (Like) we cannot have our own agency. We must always be assigned to being used by someone else. And so the insults become significant. We are 'prostitutes', 'you women smell of fish'," Williams said.

She also described how male prison guards were allowed to walk in and out of a prison where she had been detained as they pleased, and which had a shower without a door. "You always feel very vulnerable as a woman to those conditions," she said.

There is also the threat of physical and sexual violence.

"Every prisoner is always prone to being beaten and abused by prison officers and police officers. That is a fact. Many of the prostitutes I've been in prison with – because we share the same cells – will be forced to give sexual favours to buy their release. They openly talk about those things," Williams said.

"The one I was with last time said she was trying to refuse to do that and she was then put in the cage with the police dogs until she was forced to give sexual favours, and she said they refused to use condoms."


The role of many women as the head of their households means their involvement in protests may come at a higher price than men.

Williams said many Zimbabwean men had crossed over into neighbouring South Africa and Botswana in search of jobs – leaving their women and children at home.

"Each family is living on a meal-to-meal basis, so if a (human rights) defender is arrested, her family becomes very vulnerable. It's quite a significant thing to be arrested and put away for 48 hours," she said.

Yet Williams is adamant that women must lead the struggle for their rights, despite the personal price they pay.

"We feel that women have to be the leaders of their own emancipation," she said.

She was more cautious about the involvement of men, recalling how WOZA opened its doors to them in 2006 and how they quickly wanted to come and take over. "We said, 'no, no, no – now we're going to give you quota systems and we're going to limit your level of leadership'".

Men and women activists have very different styles, she noted: "We found that women are much cleverer and quicker to understand the power of a placard and standing back and allowing them to beat you without retaliating, whereas men have a different ego. They must be a man and respond."

"Part of strategic non-violence is that you have to create the dilemma, put yourself in the position and then if you are beaten, arrested, tortured, you expose that injustice without retaliating. It's been easier to train the women than it is to train the men," Williams said.

Overturning entrenched sexism is a big challenge.

Williams said during many of her arrests police officers would turn to her husband, saying 'oh Mr Williams, shame, we feel sorry for you'.

"I'm being tortured and abused by these police officers and it's my husband who is getting the sympathy. (They say) 'try and buy a sjambok (whip) and beat her, do us all a favour' – that's the attitude of these guys," Williams said.

"It's a very important thing that we are women doing the work we're doing. Whether men listen or not (now), they'll listen."

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