The first time I met her I was a very impressionable young student on attachment – one of the many requirements of the law degree at the University of Zimbabwe. I had heard so much about the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) (pronounced as zwala) even before I began my studies and when I finally met the firebrand of a woman responsible for the day to day running of the organisation, the Executive Director, Mrs Emilia Muchawa I began an intriguing and unforgettable experience.
I had heard of bruised bodies and battered hearts and souls, but then they were just flowery expressions of pain and sorrow. At ZWLA, I saw them and I felt them. I met the woman who lost her teeth because she was refusing to grant her husband a quick divorce through consent. I conversed with the HIV infected woman who procrastinated leaving an abusive husband until he destroyed her life. I looked into the eyes of the mother with no access to her own children because the husband prevented her from doing so. I met the woman with the bent back who toiled day and night farming in the rural areas while the husband worked in town, earned some money from selling her groundnuts and gave the husband the money so they could buy a house, yet overnight she lost everything because the house was in the husband’s name and he did not want her anymore. I met the woman who was chased out like a dog from her own home after her husband died because the husband’s relatives said it was his property; she owned nothing because she had “just” been a housewife.
There are more women, more stories, more issues but for me this was my experience in just 5 months. For Mrs Muchawa it is a lifetime experience. With her multiple identities as a woman, a wife, a mother to her children, a lawyer by profession, in addition to being the Director of ZWLA, she has dedicated her life to lift the burden off these women’s shoulders. Litigating in the courts, researching the issues, reporting on them, advocating for transformation and lobbying anyone with a listening ear, she has been fighting to change the fate of women in Zimbabwe.
Mrs Muchawa holds a Masters Degree in Women’s Law, a Masters of Policy Studies, a Post Graduate Diploma in Women’s Law from the University of Zimbabwe and a Bachelor of Law Honours Degree from the University of Zimbabwe. She has served as the Chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, a network of non governmental organisations dealing with women’s human rights issues such as access to land, inheritance, harmful cultural practices, access to justice, and access to financial aid among many others. She also sits on the Board of Trustees of the Poverty Reduction Forum Trust an organisation that conducts and presents evidence based research to influence the formulation of poverty reduction policies and strategies.
She has fought for an end to harmful traditional practices such as child marriages, polygamy and widow inheritance. She has screamed her lungs out for the equal participation of women in politics and decision-making to that of men including the creation of a conducive climate. She has made presentations looking into the ways in which gender stereotypes feed AIDS/HIV related stigma and discrimination. She suggested ways in which legal norms, both national and international could be used to address stigma and discrimination.
She is one of the leading figures who fought for the promulgation of the Anti-domestic Violence Act. For years as a member of the women’s coalition and in her capacity as Director of ZWLA she participated in the drafting and pushed the draft Anti-Domestic Violence Bill that was then passed into an Act of Parliament. She represented the Women’s Coalition in meetings held with a special committee for legislature in the president’s cabinet whose approval allowed the Bill to be introduced to Parliament.
The Act which was passed in 2007 now outlaws abuse derived from cultural practices that degrade women; requires police stations to have at least one officer on duty with expertise in domestic violence at all times; provides for the setting up of an Anti Domestic Violence Committee to review the consistent application of the new law. It allows for the arrest of a perpetrator by a police officer without a warrant, in the interest of the victim’s safety, health or well being; allows third parties to apply for protection orders on behalf of the victims, all of which were demands carried in the work that Mrs. Muchawa and the women’s coalition carried out. In 2009 she was appointed to the Anti-Domestic Violence Council.
Mrs Muchawa has been one of the leading figures advocating constitutional reforms in particular a constitution that provides for the respect, protection and promotion of gender equality in all spheres of life. As the Chairperson of the Women’s Coalition she has relentlessly fought for the equal representation of women with men in the organs spearheading the ongoing constitution making process in Zimbabwe especially at management level. Together with other members of the Coalition she forwarded a petition to the co-chairs of the constitutional select committee demanding that gender imbalances in the select committee and the thematic committees be addressed. In February 2010 the women’s coalition launched a constitutional SMS campaign in which they encouraged the flooding with text messages of the three Parliament Constitution Select Committee (COPAC) chairpersons for failing to achieve gender equality in the representation of members of the outreach teams.
In 2010 she was announced as the Deputy Chairperson of the Thematic Sub-Committee on Women and Gender Issues in the constitution making process in Zimbabwe. The sub-committees were tasked to undertake public consultations including approving the content of the questionnaires used in the outreach processes, analysing the public responses and preparing reports of principles to be used by the drafting committee of the Constitution.
Mrs Muchawa as the Director of ZWLA is currently steering a committee of Zimbabwean civil society actors in preparing a shadow report to the Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. The shadow report highlights issues which the state report -submitted in fulfilment of the requirements of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is either silent on or has misrepresented. This very important process allows the issues of women to be heard at the United Nations level. The recommendations that the civil society shadow report makes regarding the legalisation of abortion, the decriminalisation of sex work, the empowerment of rural women, and the harmonisation of marriage laws among other things are crucial.
She is also leading a campaign for the harmonisation of marriage laws in Zimbabwe. Currently Zimbabwe has a multiple marriage system, in which customary marriages and civil marriages are treated differently. The rights and privileges deriving from the customary marriage are limited especially when it comes to issues of inheritance, children’s rights within the marriage and protection of the women within the marriage in the event of separation or divorce.
As the Director of ZWLA, Mrs Muchawa in 2007 initiated the ZWLA Women Human Rights Defenders award for 2011, an award that emphasises the importance of human rights protection within the context of peace, security and justice. The award complements the agenda of UN Resolutions 1325, 1820 and 1888 which synonymise peace and security with women’s empowerment.
Mrs Muchawa’s work in fighting violence against women has received global recognition. She is one of the world’s most renowned leaders in the Council of the Spiritual Alliance to stop Intimate Violence (SAIV) together with the likes of Ela Gandhi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Deserving of such an honour, the gallant efforts of this woman for the rights of women in Zimbabwe should not only be admired but emulated. She, and others started the struggle and I believe they depend on us and future generations to drive it forward.
And so ends the tale of yet another inspiring woman in the women’s rights movement in Zimbabwe.