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 9: Auxilia Chimusoro

Activism, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Human Trafficking, Tolerance, Women, Zimbabwe

‘Homosexuals are worse than pigs and dogs.’ I am sure you all know this famous quote and the owner of it, none other than the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, the Commander in chief of the Defence Forces, the Chief of Police, the Chancellor of all universities, he who appoints [with ceremonial consultation] all judges of the High Court and Supreme Court, and also appoints the Attorney General, the Registrar General, the Ombudsperson, the Reserve Bank Governor and anyone else whose position influences the fate of our country.

And from the day that he made this speech, all and sundry in Zimbabwe were given a free pass to hate gays and lesbians and to express their hatred freely and openly without censure. After all Zimbabweans and their political leaders are such morally upright people that they have a right to hate gays, right?

Given this background, you can imagine how much valour it would take for any gay person to stand up today and publicly announce that they are in fact gay. If lawyers representing gay people can be assaulted how much more so will the gay person? I am not here to start an argument about the moral implications of homosexuality, a debate I have had with many Zimbabweans before but I raised this issue to make a point.

The extent of the hostility of the society towards gays and the stigma attached to being gay in Zimbabwe today is no different from the way anyone with HIV/AIDS was viewed 20 years ago in Zimbabwe, and in some circles even up to date. Some of you may disagree but I am sure that is just because of short memory. I remember that the moment someone was known to be HIV positive they were shunned. It was assumed that they were promiscuous and that is how they got it and preachers would find a reason to talk about sex and morality. Many people would stay away from the HIV infected person, not share a room or a bed (without having sex of course), not share a cup or plate with them because it was believed they would pass on the[ir] virus. Most people assumed the HIV positive person was going to die a painful death and quickly too. Some people believed the disease was linked to witchcraft and associating with HIV people would bring bad luck. What hogwash it all was!!!

Due to the closed nature of society, many people living with HIV were afraid to live openly. Families with loved ones who got sick claimed it was witchcraft. Many AIDS patients in the urban areas were shipped to the rural areas once their health deteriorated, not because they would have better medical care in the rural home but to take them away from public scrutiny and the ensuing million questions, stares and whispers instigated by their deteriorating health. People would not dare publicise their HIV status because it would mean losing friends, jobs and even church membership.

So it was an amazing moment when a woman, [note: a woman] named Auxilia Chimusoro stood up and told the whole nation that she had HIV. This was in 1989 and of course she was shunned, segregated, stigmatised, and alienated. Not just her, but her family too. (Un)naturally, she lost friends, associates and even some of her relatives did not want to be associated with her.

A happy Auxilia Chimusoro

But Auxilia was a woman with a vision. In fact, she was one of the most intelligent people in the country who realised early on that HIV is not synonymous with death.

In the Rujeko Township suburb of Masvingo, where she came from, she initiated the first HIV&AIDS support group in Zimbabwe and called it Batanai (unite).

Her support group later joined hands with others to form the biggest provincial support group in Zimbabwe today, the Zimbabwe National Network of People living with HIV & AIDS (ZNNP+). Today, Auxilia’s support group now revamped into Batanai HIV & AIDS Service Organisation (BHASO) operates in Gutu, Chivi, Bikita, Zaka, Mwenezi, Chiredzi, Masvingo Rural and Masvingo Urban Districts, thus covering the whole of Masvingo Province

The Support organisation runs education, empowerment and support programmes focusing on post test support,  gender dynamics, orphans and vulnerable children, youth empowerment, behavioural change, community home based care, anti-retroviral treatment literacy, food security, water, hygiene and sanitation. It is because of Auxilia’s work that home based care for AIDS patients has become one of the country’s best strategies to deal with the scourge of AIDS at a time when hospitals and other public health institutions are overburdened and failing to cope with influxes of HIV/AIDS patients.

HIV has been demystified so much so that pregnant women are expected to get tested to prevent the Mother to Child Transmission. Persons living with HIV are largely viewed in the same way as cancer or diabetes patients; just another incurable condition that can be managed. A few close minded individuals of course still choose to say HIV/AIDS is unique but that just shows their unique myopic worldview. Thanks to Auxilia and the work she pioneered to raise awareness on the nature of HIV, many people are not afraid to publicise their status.

In today’s Zimbabwe every year an award is given to individuals fighting to stop the spread of HIV/ AIDS. This award is called the Auxilia Chimusoro award. She may have died in 1998 but her legacy lives on.

Debra Messing at the 2009 Auxilia Chimusoro Awards talking to some star struck youngsters

The amazing work of Zimbabwean women!