Feminist Chronicles: Diary 6: WOZA women

WOZA women demonstrating
Bread and Roses: Woza's motto

I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could; but I will not stir from this place, do what they can. I will walk up and down here and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.” [Bottom, one of the characters in ‘A Midnight Summer’s Madness’, William Shakespeare.


I imagine these are the words that each of the members of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) repeats to herself every time she takes to the street, knowing full well that the day will end with her thrown in some dirty cell of one or the other of Zimbabwe’s remand prisons. These women are unstoppable. They have been heavily assaulted by the police, arrested and detained in terrible conditions (some with their children), but they do not give up. They have been threatened with death, stalked and placed under surveillance and some have been kidnapped but they continue their fight.

Their leaders, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu have been held in prison the longest times. Jenni has spent more than 20 days in prison at a time and each time she has been released after the state case has been dismissed for lack of evidence in the courts and at times she has been released without charge. For their courage, Jenni and Magodonga and WOZA have won many awards. In 2007 Jennie received the Women of Courage Award from the US State of Department. In 2008 WOZA became the recipient of the Amnesty International Human Rights Award, awarded by the German Section of Amnesty International. In 2009, WOZA won the Annual John F Kennedy Human Rights Award. In 2011, Jennie won the French National Order of Merit. If ever I have seen a stubborn group of women, then these women top them all.

Flirting with danger, they challenge a despotic regime, a ruthless security sector defending an ungrateful nation full of cowards (Zimbabweans like calling their passivity peacefulness.

These women are freedom fighters, struggling to realise social justice in Zimbabwe. The issues they raise target the basics of life including access to clean and safe water, adequate food in reliable quantities and nutritional value, supply of electricity, access to affordable schooling, access to medical care and medical supplies, proper housing, and proper sanitation. That is why their leading mantra is “Bread and Roses;” a fight for the basic but a fight done in love, with love, out of love.

Their strategy; street protests, has earned them labels such as ‘idle prostitutes’ ‘imbeciles’ ‘useless noisemakers’ and ‘professional demonstrators’ among many other disparaging terms.

Yes, onlookers (who do not apply their minds to the whys of what WOZA women do) may see it this way. However my experience in Tahrir Square, being part of the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring, taught me that it is through the efforts of groups such as WOZA that networks of resistance are developed. It is through their sporadic efforts as little pockets of disaffection that one day a Revolution can arise. After all if a government is not for the people, of the people and by the people, from whence does it derive its legitimacy?

Why do you think WOZA women are constantly silenced? Why do you think they are always harassed? Why is it their leaders are always incarcerated. I salute these women of courage. It is such a shame that their bravery and amazing contributions are more appreciated by the outside world than by Zimbabweans whose interests they serve. Let’s be honest, if today WOZA demonstrates against power cuts and the government concedes that power cuts shall be consistently done in accordance with a reliable timetable which communities can work around, would the whole nation not have benefited? If they deliver a petition to Parliament against school fees hikes and government then passes a school fees reduction memo, would the whole nation not have benefited? If they march to the police headquarters demanding that the police desist from assaulting protestors or throwing tear gas their way and the police concedes, would that not be a victory to freedom of association and assembly?

This is what WOZA women do, and of course due to the political climate, they have not yielded much success. This does not make their work worthless. Trust me, those sitting in their high seats of (stolen) leadership know what I know, that these women are raising issues that, if the nation were intelligent (or is it brave) enough to support could result in a complete social, political and economic transformation. Remember it was the bread riots that sparked off the French Revolution in the 18th Century. Also remember that it was a single man, Mohammed Bouazzizi’s act of self-immolation against the destruction of his fruit stall and source of livelihood that began the Tunisian Revolution which inspired the Arab Spring in the 21st Century. So let us not undermine and undervalue the work that WOZA women do when they raise bread and butter issues.

3 thoughts on “Feminist Chronicles: Diary 6: WOZA women

  1. Thoughts well provoked. I have never dismissed their cause. Never. It is the manner in which they achieve their results that i find detestable. Abusing other women , lying to them and the rest of the world of the real issues at play that is what gets my goat. I may sound bitter but trust me , i AM NOT BITTER. Not by a long shot.

    We can not dismiss the group. It is an integral part of the movement esp women but the problem the means. i am not happy about the means. not by long shot. That has to change. The paying of women is also another point of contention. there is no problem in paying them but when you use payment as the carrot then there is a problem. people cant leave the movement without being questioned about everything under the sun. they can not participate in other forums like Bulawayo Agenda simply because they are part of Woza!We cant have that . No ways. Its is when we keep silent that we let such things perpetuate, that wrongs become assimilated and start feeling normal.

    We also can not dismiss the role that leadership plays in this debacle. That we can not

  2. I am a feminist, i believe in the struggle and i believe in WOZA as a system, WOZA as an idea WOZA as a vehicle of change and WOZA as the movement. What i do not believe in is WOZA the face we see it as today. the concept and ideals of WOZA are fabulous but as one person once commented WOZA has morphed into another institution that violates therights of those people it claims to protect.

    at this juncture eyebrows are raised and some are quick to attack me, hold on to your horses. i speak armed with arsenal that proves beyond doubt that the leadership of WOZA has everyone fooled as to their real aim. those two women are abusing other women, violationg the very same human rights they claim they are protecting.

    whereever in the world have you ever heard that women human rights defenders victimise other women? it only happens at WOZA, pregnant women go through the spanish inquest they have to report to Jenni and Magondonga that they are about to bring another life into the world and under the pretext of ‘protecting’ them Jenni and Magodonga summarily dismiss them from the movement.

    Should i talk about the subtle tribaism inherent in the orgnisation? well maybe another time. but then again now that i have let the proverbial cat out of the bag i might as well as finish the whole story. All meetings at WOZA are held in Ndebele despite the fact that their harare mebers will be present they continue speaking in Ndebele and tell the Haarre mebers to learn the language, if the cant learn the language then there is little they can do about it.

    someone then asks then why do the women stay? why dont they leave the movemnet. like in all systems the oppressor usually has a weapon and menas to manipulat and make the oppressed stay inspite of their will. this istrue for woza, these women stay for the money. After all is said and done WOZA gives mebers an allowance and this is aso doled out in terms of whnce around shouting that if it was not for them surely change would be something we dream about.at that meber has done and at the discretion of the programming team which you should read to be Jenni and Magodonga.

    Go anywhere in the coutry and in particular Harare and Bulawayo and tell them you are from WOZA and the looks you get shoud be enought o tell a story on its own. why then if they are so good, so excellent so ideal do other organisations not identify with them? no organisation has ever done a collaboration with WOZA. why you may ask? the answer is WOZA leders are greedy for attention, they do not want to share the limelight with others theywantto enjoy the victory alone.

    1. Thank you for your comments.

      You raise critical points and a number of allegations that I feel need to be looked into. In particular I am concerned by the abuse of women you mentioned and the question of tribalism you raised. I will find ways of finding out more about these issues.

      I agree with your concern about difficulties in partnering with WOZA. I have worked on two projects with them. The focus group discussions that we held were in Bulawayo and Harare were conducted in Shona, English and Ndebele, I do not know if that was because we were present and things would have been different had we not been there. However I experienced some difficulties in reaching mutual positions about where the partnership was going and who would do what but in the end, the issues that needed to be raised were raised, for indeed the government was ill-treating WOZA women in custody and they were being targeted for arrest and detention for their activism for social justice.

      I would suggest a pragmatic approach to this issue is in order where we must not close our eyes to the internal dynamics of the movement and do what we can to ensure WOZA practices what it preaches, but we must also not lose sight of the fact that the cause these women advocate is an important one for us as Zimbabweans.

      Yes, activism should be voluntary and not motivated by financial gain. These are unemployed women fighting for social justice so if the organisation they represent does gains access to resources that could assist its members, albeit in a small way, should we condemn that as profiteering. You said you are a gender activist and I am sure you are also paid for the work you do in your activism. Surely it would not be fair to look upon your payment as bribery so you continue doing your work, right. I am not dismissing the possibility that WOZA leaders may be using the money as leverage to keep their membership the way you suggested but I am also suggesting it could be value for work done the same way human rights activists in NGO’s are paid for the work they do.

      I also caught onto the statement you made that if anyone mentions that they are a WOZA member they will get funny looks. Is it because of the reasons you mentioned (the tribalistic nature of WOZA and the materialistic tendencies of women as manipulated by their leaders)? Could it also be that the perceptions that society has of who they are and the usefulness of their strategies is at play here? I have tracked WOZA demonstrations and have heard men saying ” Atanga mahure aya” “Those prostitutes have done it again” when they begin, implying that WOZA women are prostitutes (single and/or divorced and not married) because no man in his right mind would let his wife go into the street to protest. I have also heard some people labelling them as professional demonstrators who do not engage policy makers, but when they march they almost always have position papers to deliver to parliament, ZESA or such other service deliverer.

      Should we dismiss the work the group does as whole because of the (seeming) deficit in leadership?

      Just provoking your thoughts…

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