Feminist Chronicles: Diary 21: Lutanga Shaba

Activism, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Women, Zimbabwe

Luta Shaba: Picture Credit BBC News

The insurmountable strength that some women display in their lives is inexplicable. Every time I would look at Lutanga Shaba in the past, my thoughts would assume that she was such a lucky woman for having the life she does at such a tender age. I also used to find her a tad bit aggressive and too outspoken, and yes that was before I knew where she has been and how far she came to be where she is. Commonly known as Luta Shaba, she is the current Executive Director of the Women’s Trust.

 When I got to know the person behind the image represented by the human body that I saw, I began to understand why she has made it to where she is at her age. She got there for no other reason than sheer determination, a determination borne out of a really strong spirit given that life dished out terrible things into her life yet she refused to drown under it all. I do not know how many people would have managed to become who she is today, if they had been given the same circumstances she was given to grow up in and face in adulthood as well.

Hers is a typical from rags to riches story. Luta Shaba, grew up in a situation of poverty, the kind of poverty that forced her to engage in transactional sex with an older man when she was only sixteen to pay her way though her high school and get food to eat. She tested HIV positive in 2002 after her mother died of an AIDS-related illness and she had discovered that the man she had been involved with had also been involved with her mother.

Out of this seemingly irreversible situation, Luta raised herself up from a nobody to become someone. She now holds a law degree and a Masters in Policy Studies. The Luta Shaba that people know today is a lawyer, policy analyst and respected women’s rights campaigner, who sits on the National Executive of the MDC one of the biggest political parties in Zimbabwe, a position she was appointed to in 2011.

Luta has been fighting for gender parity and women’s representation in decision making for a long time. She has accused the tendency of political parties to use women candidates as ‘pawns in a political game’, allocating them seats in areas that each party is very much aware not to be its stronghold. She has also advocated the financing of female candidates to ensure the smooth running of their campaigns.  She has also been criticising the lack of political will and commitment by the new Inclusive government to ensure that the gender parity provided for in the Global Political Agreement is realised on the ground.

She has pointed out and rightly too that without full recognition of women’s rights in the democratisation process, without equality and favorable electoral laws, without the proper regulation of political parties to ensure gender parity at the party level, without bringing an end to  election violence, and without addressing the continued perpetration of such violence with impunity and without concerted efforts for the mass mobilisation of women then women shall continue to be underrepresented in the political sphere.

Being HIV positive herself, Luta in 2006 opened a dating agency, ‘Hapana’ for HIV positive people with the aim to address the stigmatisation  and marginalisation of HIV positive people. She was driven by her belief that HIV people too ought to lead a happy and unrestricted life with a life companion or bed partner of their choice something that they are usually denied the moment they disclose their status to most people. Her initiative challenged the general perception that HIV positive individuals should become celibate, she challenges the idea that they should be denied choices about their sexuality or live in shame. This initiative has been challenged as being discriminatory in itself simply because it is exclusively for HIV positive people, but when one knows how conservative and narrow-minded certain sectors of Zimbabwean society can be then one will surely understand why this group was created. HIV positive people are sometimes viewed as the other while the negative are considered superior beings. In reality it is extremely difficult for an HIV positive person to marry or be involved in a relationship with an HIV negative person with full knowledge of all relatives and parents, unless the HIV positive person does not disclose his/her status.

Luta has published a couple of books, one a novel based on her own life story entitled Secrets of a Woman’s Soul (2006) in which she portrays the life of a mother who fights to shape a better future for her child and does so at her own expense where she becomes a commercial sex worker ad contracts HIV. The other; Power Stepping is a handbook giving life skills on sexuality, teenage hood, peer pressure and how girls should be the owners of their bodies.

Her life story captured in a novel

Luta also founded the Mama Milazi, a programme that she named after her grandmother which offers scholarships to academically gifted and ambitious young women who are unable to pay for their higher education. Luta has also supported with technical expertise the setting up of the Doors of Hope Development Trust, a support group of women victims of rape, some of whom are HIV positive.

Feminist Chronicles: Diary Five: Jestina Mukoko

Activism, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Human Rights, Women, Zimbabwe

I believe everyone has at some point watched a movie in which all your muscles are bundled up in tension. You are not sure which way the pendulum is going to swing, will the hero/heroine escape unscathed or will he/she die. When I watched Troy, I had the same feeling. In fact right at the end I had a sick feeling in my gut because the hero did not make it to the end and he never got to live happily ever after with his new found love.

The story of the life of Zimbabwean activists has a similar trend. Fear of arrest, abduction, harassment, forced disappearance and even murder lives at the threshold of our minds. Who knows what to expect? Who knows what new story we will hear tomorrow about one of our own? Who knows which individual has been targeted next for ‘disciplining’ by state security agents?

Zimbabwean activists and human rights defenders fight for a transformed society. But we fight against strong winds, the kind whose magnitude is worse than tsunamis. Most Zimbabweans hide from these winds. They do not want to be accused of opposing the winds or being associated with individuals that oppose these winds. But there are women in Zimbabwe who do not care how strong these winds blow; women who stand firm, sacrificing their bodies as windshields to protect other women and Zimbabwean society as a whole.

Jestina Mukoko is one such woman.

Jestina-picture credit US government

When we were young, she was the face that we loved to see reading the 8 o’clock news in the evening. Watching the main news at night was a ritual in my house and back then it was the most boring hour of my life. As a newsreader at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, Jestina Mukoko brightened the screen with her pretty face and her husky voice and made that hour a whole lot easier to bear.

Widowed, the mother of her son, a human rights activist and a journalist, Jestina is the executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a non governmental organisation which records incidents of political violence and advocates peaceful resolution to conflict. She serves as a Board member for the Zimbabwe Election support Network another Zimbabwean organisation that advocates democratic elections in Zimbabwe.

Jestina Mukoko is bravery personified. Despite the horrendous experiences she has had as direct reprisals for her work, I find it purely amazing that she still finds the strength to continue her work in Zimbabwe.

Between January and September 2008, Jestina and the crew at ZPP catalogued thousands of incidences of violations murders, abductions, rapes, torture, and assaults. They also began a project documenting abuse of food aid by the government, forcing people to support Mugabe or starve to death, with women and children obviously being the most vulnerable.

On 3 December 2008, Jestina was abducted from her home in the early hours of the morning. She was dragged out of her house barefoot and in pyjamas. Her abductors, a group of 12 to 15, claimed to be policemen and were driving two unmarked cars. For days he whereabouts were unknown and the state claimed they did not have her in their custody. She had been designated to stand as the head of Ceremonies at the annual Auxillia Chimusoro Awards recognising those fighting against HIV/AIDS, which awards were held the night of the morning she was abducted.

When she resurfaced in police custody she was held on false allegations of banditry and attempting to sabotage the government. For these false charges she spent 6 months in prison, the conditions of which could only be described as inhuman and degrading. She was tortured endlessly, denied access to medical care and gravely neglected. Jestina was subjected to falanga, a method of torture popular with the security agents in Zimbabwe where they beat a person under the soles of their feet until the feet are tender. This method saves the security agents from being held responsible for torture in court because it does not leave visible marks of abuse.

Jestina was held in solitary confinement in the men’s section at Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi maximum security prison, housed under the same roof with the worst criminals this country has, yet she had not committed a single crime.

During her period of disappearance, many women’s groups, churches and NGOs as well as international organisations and governments rallied behind her demanding her release.

Her prosecution ended several months later, when the Supreme Court ordered a permanent stay of criminal proceedings against her, a decision the Court said was warranted for by the gravity of abuses she had suffered at the hands of the state security and police.

In March 2010, Jestina was recognised as one of the women of courage, an award given to 10 human rights defenders by the US State Department, recognising her exceptional courage and leadership in advancing the rights of women. She also won the French Legion of Honor together with National Healing Co-Minister Sekai Holland for what French authorities called her outstanding virtues in serving Zimbabwe and others.

On 13 November 2011 a man in a Black Rhino, vehicles associated with state security agents in Zimbabwe followed Jestina in the central business district of Harare. She immediately raised the issue with her lawyers fearing another surveillance and possible abduction.

However, she continues to work at ZPP and is geared for another election in which she will name and shame perpetrators of violence against the women, men and children of Zimbabwe.

Feminist Chronicles: Diary Two: Emilia Muchawa

Activism, Emancipation, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Human Rights, Peace, Uncategorized, Women, Zimbabwe

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.

Mrs Muchawa presenting at the Commission on the Staus of Women session in New York in 2011

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.