Feminist Chronicles: Diary 30: Kuda Chitsike

Activism, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women, Women, Zimbabwe

If anyone has watched “For Coloured Girls” the Tyler Perry movie that illustrates the myriad of challenges that women of colour face in their relationships at home, at work, in building their careers, at school and so forth, one of the scenes that still remains vivid in my mind is the part when Janet Jackson, who acts the part of a successful business woman is approached for funding by one of the ladies who has started a support group for abused women. One of the things she says in response to that lady stayed with me because indeed it is one of the negative syndromes that some of our womenfolk harbour. She said, she would rather help people from Africa than help African-American women in her community because their own environment had given them all equal chances to make it in life and the other women had chosen to waste theirs, so NO she was not going to help them. She had previously cancelled so many appointments with this other woman, she had made her wait for hours on end at her reception on this particular day only to tell her that she actually did not want tot give her any money and would not help her cause because the women she was trying to assist were lazy and brainless. Some of our womenfolk, when success knocks on their doors and they assume positions of authority lose it completely. Instead of uplifting their fellow women, they want to gloat in their positions of grandeur and look down upon the rest of mankind.

 I have been lucky to have met one woman whose selflessness in her position of authority has always amazed me and whose footsteps I wish to emulate. Most young people in Zimbabwean civil society have expressed the grievance that most of the leadership in civil society organisations are failing to groom young people to assume positions of authority. There is almost an unspoken rule that those in positions of power shall continue to be there until the chickens hatch their eggs and nothing is being done to give the youngsters the necessary skills to assume these positions when they shall be vacated. Sadly civil society consists of the same people criticising the political regimes in place to favour succession as part of the cycle of leadership yet that same disease has also caught onto us. But this woman, with whom I have worked for the better part of my 5 years as a career woman does exactly what most people out there are not doing.

 I left this profile for last lest I be accused of bias, after all she is my immediate boss. One of the most under-appreciated fighters for women’s dignity and empowerment Kudakwashe Chitsike deserves this recognition.

Kuda at a training workshop on the Nairobi Declaration on Girls' and Women's Right to a Remedy and Reparations

 She has been the Manager of the Women’s Programme at the Research and Advocacy Unit, an organisation advocating an end to organised violence and torture since 2006. Focusing on documenting politically motivated violence against women, Kuda has worked with groups of women activists such as WOZA and the NCA. She has also worked with ordinary grassroots women from different political divides who are victims of organised violence and torture although for obvious reasons the proportions are skewed towards opposition parties’ members being in the majority.

 She pioneered in collaboration with WITNESS a project of documenting violence against women through video. This was risky both for Kuda and the women involved yet it was also effective as the perpetrators could not deny the occurrence of violence faced with real stories and real faces of victims pasted to the problem. The film Hear Us has been viewed many times by people from all walks of life and has helped to drive the point home that indeed women in Zimbabwe are being raped and subjected to all forms of heinous crimes in the name of politics. She, together with the team at RAU has also worked with women survivors of politically motivated rape, the Women of Doors of Hope and produced another documentary What about us

 A lawyer by profession, holding a Law Degree from the University of Lesotho and a Masters in Public International Law from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, Kuda uses evidence based legal research to advocate a remedy for women victims of organised violence and torture. Her efforts have stretched to include women refugees living in the Diaspora so that their views on transitional justice may be incorporated into any transitional processes that may be charted for Zimbabwe.

 She has led regional campaigns in which she lobbied women’s networks in the East African and SADC regions including Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana to lobby their governments to place violence against women at the centre of the agenda of their heads of state and government. In particular Kuda emphasised the consequences of violence against women such as infection with deadly diseases, unwanted pregnancies from rape, marginalisation from politics due to fear, post traumatic stress disorders among others as regressive features in the struggle for the empowerment of women. She also lobbied these groups to lobby the resuscitation of the SAD tribunal to serve as an alternative source of justice when national courts have failed, are unable or unwilling to deliver the required justice.

 She has previously worked with the Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA), with Transparency International Zimbabwe among other organisations in various capacities but in all instances fighting for the respect and recognition of human rights.

 As a woman in a position of authority, Kuda is simply amazing. She encouraged my colleagues and I to pursue further education and improve ourselves as women. Had it not been for her encouragement (together with Dr Tsanga) I would not be the holder of a Masters Degree today. At work she assumes the role of both supervisor and mentor. She has taught my colleagues and I all the necessary skills we possess on research, advocacy and lobbying yet at the same time she has taught us to stand up for ourselves, to believe in our own capabilities and to assert ourselves when it is appropriate to do so. Instead of always being the one representing the organisation in huge capacities or at big meetings, Kuda mentored the Women’s Team at RAU to be able to articulate ourselves and the organisation’s work. Hence she would thrust us into the deep end, so to speak, and trust that we would do it well because she had taught us how.

 She-bosses do not come any better than she does and if you all could I would ask that you join the Research and Advocacy Unit, even just for a week.

Rising from despondency to hope: The tale of a healer

Activism, Gender, Violence Against Women, Zimbabwe

“Violence against women causes trauma. It takes away women’s ability to make progress in their lives. It destroys families, breaks up marriages and increases the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Listening to her striking words, I felt the conviction that drives her vision in life; to assist victims of organised violence and torture (OVT) to find healing from their trauma. Born 47 years ago, one of five siblings, in Guruve, Zimbabwe, Abigail Kadaira is a force to be reckoned with. She recalled growing up in a broken home as her parents divorced when she was only nine years old. She now lives with her mother and two nephews in the small farming town of Chinhoyi in Mashonaland-West Province.

Sisi Abby, as she is fondly known in many circles, has been a human rights activist for many years. She is a member of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). She served as Vice Chairperson in her Province in 1999. She also joined the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an organisation fighting for a people-driven constitution in Zimbabwe, at its inception in 1998 and served as Chairperson in her province from 1999 to 2003.

“At that time, I was one of only 2 women who served as Provincial Chairpersons in the NCA, “she explained.

She participated in various protests demanding a new constitution and decent working conditions for workers.

“I wanted to claim my rights as a Zimbabwean, a woman and a worker. That is why I became an activist,” she boldly stated.

As a consequence of her activism, Sisi Abby faced reprisals. On 4 March 2002 the offices at Lomagundi Cooperative Union in Chinhoyi where she worked were bombed. 4 days later, 4 petrol bombs and a huge boulder were thrown into her house. She lost household property and incurred costs repairing her damaged home. In 2003 while attending a national planning meeting for the NCA in Harare, Sisi Abby was heavily assaulted by the police with baton sticks, stepped on her back with boots and suffered a miscarriage. She bled profusely for three months, never quite recovered her good health and was never able to conceive because of that incident. The perpetrators in all incidences were never apprehended as impunity rules.

However, this tragedy began Sisi Abby’s journey to self-discovery and growth. Following her brutal attack she was invited to participate in a trauma healing workshop in Harare facilitated by the Counselling Services Unit, an organisation working with victims of OVT.

“In the beginning I was suspicious of the process. I was like a caged person but then I started to open up. That workshop was the beginning of my healing,” she stated.

Sisi Abby’s healing came from the Tree of Life (ToL), a program that brings together victims of OVT to join hands and share their experience of trauma in a safe space called a circle. ToL workshops take place over two to three days, consisting of a series of circles. The circles adopt the analogy between individuals in a community and trees in a forest. Participants discuss their roots (ancestry), trunk (childhood), leaves (important features) and fruit (family and future plans). ToL instigates a renewal in participants and allows them to find healing in their own time; helped by the knowledge that others who have been through the same experiences found ways to deal with their trauma.

Having risen from despondency to hope, from a victim to a survivor, Sisi Abby is a facilitator within the ToL.

“In 2006, I was asked to become a facilitator for the ToL. I started off as a volunteer,” she explained.

Sisi Abby has facilitated more than 20 workshops covering both rural and urban areas. Each workshop has 10 to 12 participants. She loves knowing that her work transforms victims into survivors who can live without fear and trauma.

“As a survivor I love this job and I do it with my whole heart because I am helping people who face the same problems I once faced. I also love it because we go deep into the grassroots working with all political parties and chiefs,” she said.

Sis Abby works with women, some of whom were raped, contracted HIV and bore children from rape.

“Some of the women have not told their husbands because in the community people will reject you. I faced the same problem when I got hurt. People would ask what sort of a woman I was for doing what I did,” she sadly explained.

Sisi Abby trains youths to become grassroots facilitators in their communities. So far she has trained 15 youths. She refers individuals with medical problems to the CSU and partner organisations such as Aqua that also run the trauma healing circles.

Sisi Abby has also taken the circles outside her work to her church, the Church of Christ.

“This year, I ran a circle with youths at church…I am going to have another circle before the year ends because those I involved in the first circle said it helped them.”

The downside of her work is the pain she feels when she hears the victims’ stories.

“After the circles, the stories weigh heavily on me. For instance I once had a circle in which all 10 participants had been raped. The ways in which they had been raped were different but their stories were all difficult to listen to.”

Despite the challenges Sisi Abby is determined to continue working with victims. She follows up on participants in her workshops, many of whom have given positive feedback on the usefulness of the workshops to instigate healing. She receives requests to spread the ToL to others who have not yet received help.

“I try to help them and I listen to them, she explained.”They trust me and this helps them to heal.”

She hopes that someday, all victims will receive healing.

“Zimbabwe is big.

As the interview came to an end I looked at this remarkable woman and could not help admiring her fortitude.

*This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.* I am one of the 2011 Voices of Our Future Correspondents.*