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 13: Betty Makoni

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

Anyone  who has ever been manhandled or sexually harassed, the way I have will agree with me that it is one of the most enraging and disturbing experiences that any woman has to ever go through. That feeling of powerlessness when someone, without your consent, touches you or whispers something in your ears and you cannot do anything about it is one of the most frustrating moments in life. Worse still the knowledge that the person who just did this to you will walk away and nothing will happen to them drives you mad and you feel like lashing out at everything within a metre’s radius. The frequency with which ‘things’ which like to call themselves ‘human beings’ deliberately encroach into women’s personal space and their non-remorseful nature for their lurid behaviour remain two vivid memories I carry of my experiences with sexual harassment in Egypt. But while I look back with anger and angst at what these people did, I realise I have abrasions but not scars. I have flesh wounds but there are people with deep embedded wounds, both physical and emotional. These people are victims of rape.

In Zimbabwe, being raped is a nightmare for a number of reasons. First, in most cases victims cannot report their case. They cannot report because if it is a politically motivated rape the police do not want to receive the report. If it is domestic violence and they are subjects of marital rape the police urge them to go back home and resolve the issue amicably. If the perpetrator is a close relative in some cases again the police send them back home to ‘talk it out’. Some do not report because they are too scared of the stigma attached to being raped. I cannot understand why, when the woman is the victim of the rape people blame her for the rape, while the man responsible for that terrible act walks away shameless and blameless. Fundamentally, the victim has to live with the trauma and pain of having been violated in the worst way possible.

Victims who are brave enough to report are sometimes re-victimised either by the police with taunts that they brought it upon themselves or by the justice system which forces them to relive every single moment of the rape in proving that they were raped. It is short of unbelievable that in every criminal case, the burden of proof lies with the state prosecution to prove that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and the police will carry out every possible investigation to prove an armed hijacking, a murder, a theft without much help from the victim of the crime but with rape they just shift the burden onto the victim. Yes, rape is unique in that it usually occurs in the presence of two people, the perpetrator and the victim alone hence the cooperation of the victim is needed but then if the reliance of the police on the victim were so heavy in all cases, murder cases would never be resolved since the victim would be dead and gone. It is merely the attitude of the police and the prosecution towards the crime of rape that makes them feel it is not their place to prove that a woman has been raped. She must prove it herself!!! And so the cycle of violence never ends as would-be rapists realise that they stand a good chance of getting away with their crime.

However today, I salute one brave woman who has made it her life commitment to create an environment that makes it possible for every rape to be reported and for every report to be received by sensitive, well trained officials. She helps to track cases of abuse and bring them to the eyes of the police. She conducts training with police officials to sensitise them to respond appropriately to the plea of a victim. She haunted the Victim Friendly Unit of the police department to keep track of incidences of insensitivity to victims of rape. She fought and continues to fight to ensure that victims of rape find healing and learn to outlive their traumatic experiences. What impresses me most about her is how, as a victim of rape and abuse herself from the time she was 6 years old, she has managed to emerge a survivor and resolved to create a network of support for women going through the same experiences.

Popularly known as Muzvare Betty, Betty Makoni is a wife, the mother of three and the Director of Girl Child Network International. Girl Child Network International supports and promotes the rights of girls, advocates their empowerment and education. It aims at advancing the circumstances of girls especially those that are economically deprived, at risk of abuse, subject to harmful cultural practices, or living in areas of instability. This organisation has its roots in Zimbabwe where Betty founded the Girl Child Network Zimbabwe in 1998 aiming to defend the rights of the girl child. The methodology that Girl Child Network uses in executing its functions has been replicated in Swaziland, Malawi and South Africa. Through Girl Child Network, Betty has created a network of safe houses where girls can get healing, find a safe haven and can rebuild their lives in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Betty Makoni receiving the CNN Heroes award

Her outcry against rape, whether committed in random acts of violence on the streets, in the homes or as organised political violence has been loud and consistent. As she declares herself she is driven to “remind policy makers and leaders to change policies, attitudes and laws that are detrimental to the growth and development of the girl child.”

In the run up to the 2008 elections, Betty was threatened, arrested and interrogated for her work for five days. Betty also recorded an unprecedented number of cases of politically motivated rape (amongst both women and children) during the Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) that government carried out in 2006. The findings of her research were disputed by many, including other civil society actors (without providing alternative and credible proof that the rapes were fewer than what Betty had reported). She made many politicians upset with her findings and she was forced to leave the country for her own safety and security. She challenged the abuse perpetrated by and successfully secured the conviction of a church sect leader, Madzibaba Nzira who was raping women in the name of religion. Her organisation has also challenged big people in power such as the advisor of the reserve bank governor for abusing young girls. On her personal blog, Betty continues to place in the spotlight incidences of abuse, and discrimination of women. She was one of the individuals that picked up and widely shared my article in which I cried foul against the treatment of the suspected female rapists that were being persecuted and subjected to media trials in Zimbabwe in October 2011.

Betty has won awards for her outstanding work defending victims of rape. In 2007 Betty was honoured with the Global Friend’s Award recognising her efforts in assisting Zimbabwean girls to escape trafficking, sexual abuse, child labor and other assault. She also received the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child’s in Stockholm, Sweden. In 2009 she won the CNN Hero award for protection of the powerless. She was also the recipient of the United Nations Red Ribbon award, Zimbabwe National contribution award, and in 2011 she was nominated amongst the top ten Goddesses of Africa, an effort that recognises influential African women fostering development and emancipation of African women and girsl.

She now lives in England where she continues to fight against the degradation of women and girls through heinous acts such as rape and other forms of sexual violence. As a Trustee for the Global Network of Christians which is based in the United Kingdom, Betty continues to fight against domestic violence. She has been featured in the first chapter of the bestselling book, Women Who Light the Dark by Paola Gianturco which was launched in New York in September 2007.

I do not wish that I or another woman today, tomorrow or the day after be subjected to rape. However I find comfort in knowing that should we fall victims to this terrible crime, we have doors to knock on which will be opened for us to get help at that difficult time. All thanks to Muzvare Betty.