Here we are. halfway through the Feminist Chronicles and I could not have chosen a more opportune moment to talk about one of the most revered, respected and influential women fighting the cause of women in Zimbabwe.
Even amongst the grassroots Netsai Mushonga is well known. I can understand why. Zimbabwe is a very patriarchal society where a woman’s place in her home and in the general public sphere is carved by societal norms and expectations. The expectation is that every woman should marry, should have children and then only after that does she become recognisable as a full human being.
Women’s rights are perceived to be totally discordant with traditional cultural values and any woman who fights for the rights of women is presumed to be either single and bitter or divorced and bitter-BITTER being the leading assumption.
It is hence quite perplexing for men and exhilarating for women when a woman who has done the expected and lives the perceived ‘normal’ version of a life stands boldly and preaches gender equality, women’s emancipation and women’s equal rights. That is why many people LISTEN to Netsai Mushonga when she fights for the rights of women.
Whereas if I were to go and advise abused women to report their husbands, they would likely ask if I am married and the moment I, (the old doddering spinster that I am) said No, then they would ask, so what right have you got to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do in my marriage when you have never been in one.
There are some of course who will accuse Netsai of double standards, saying that she is misleading women to take a path that she has not taken, for instance telling abused women to walk away if they so wish, a misunderstanding of course that comes from people’s ignorance about the concept of gender equality. Most Zimbabwean men, and some women are of the misguided notion that gender equality embraces values that are anti-family, anti-marriage and anti-men.
Despite these mindsets, Netsai’s strategic placement has seen her emerging as a role model for rural women. She has taught women to fearlessly stand up for themselves and to challenge abusive cultural practices and traditions.
In 1996, Netsai joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Zimbabwe, and later served as the Chairperson of the International Committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). In 1997 she started the women peacemakers program. Currently she is the National Coordinator for the Women’s Coalition, an umbrella organisation of more than 60 women’s rights organisations in Zimbabwe.
Netsai has published an advisory booklet for the church community on violence against women on how to rehabilitate survivors to continue with their lives. In another one of her articles ” Democracy in the eyes of women in Zimbabwe,’ Netsai emphasises that women can not fully participate in a democratisation process when they do not have access to resources, when the decision-making sphere is marred by violence, and when restrictive laws and regulations prevailing over the exercise of their fundamental freedoms are in place. One striking point that Netsai makes is that there can not be democracy in the public sphere when its not there in the private sphere. She aptly argues that if decisions at the family level are made for a woman about whether she gets employed, where she is employed, where she travels, whether she will undertake further studies, as well as the kind of car she can drive then this is tantamount to a dictatorship. That woman will not find it any easier to challenge dictatorship at the level of the state.
Under Netsai’s tutelage, the Women’s Coalition is currently working with government officials in drafting a new Constitution for the country. Lobbying for policy change is her passion and she was one of the leading figures who were instrumental in pushing for the enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill in 2006.
Netsai has also been very vocal in pushing the Inclusive government to redress gender imbalances in the management of the Parliamentary led constitution making process. She has demanded that every decision that the government takes should adhere to the commitment in the Global Political Agreement to ensure gender parity.
She is constantly challenging the lack of political will by politicians to achieve real gender equality as the state abdicates its targets set by the Millennium Development Goals.
Netsai, over the years has faced resistance from the state for the work she does. On 8 November 2005, she got arrested for convening a meeting at a local hotel where she trained women in using non-violent means as a tool for dispute resolution under the banner of Women Peacemakers International. She was charged with contravening section 24 (6) of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) a piece of legislation that civil society organisations have been fighting to get rid of. Although she was later released, this arrest was a negative development given that the discussion was a crucial one in light of the elections that had just passed and were characterised by violence against women.
In November 2011 she, together with a group of women marching for gender parity in the constitution making process were barred by the police. The march was meant to be peaceful but obviously the police does not care about that, all they do not want is the free expression of people’s will.
Netsai sits on the Spiritual Alliance to stop Intimate Violence (SAIV) Council together with the likes of Emilia Muchawa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She is also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.