We are all Munyaradzi Gwisai

Africa, Democracy, Governance, Human Rights, Politics, Social Movements, Tolerance, Zimbabwe

*This article was motivated by the call by Kubatana for Zimbabwean human rights activists to stand in solidarity with Munyaradzi Gwisai, and 5 of his colleagues who have been convicted for watching videos of the Egyptian Revolution in February 2011*

Munyaradzai Gwisai

The decision passed against Zimbabwe International Socialist Organisation leader, and my former lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi Gwisai and five other activists to me only serves to show the ineffectiveness of the law as a tool for delivering real justice in today’s Zimbabwe. Comrade Gwisai, as he likes to be addressed stemming from his socialist background, was found guilty of “inciting public disorder”, after he, together with his counterparts organised a film screening and subsequent discussion on the Egyptian uprising in February last year.

The decision by the Court is not only perveted to the extent that it fails to defend the fundamental rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression but it also sets a terrible precedent that legitimises the systematic persecution through prosecution of ordinary Zimbabwean citizens for innocent acts such as discussing politics, current affairs and airing their grievances with the state of affairs in the country. The right to freedom of assembly is a crucial as it allows us as individuals or as groups to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend our common interests.

Why am I so surprised when for years we have been moving towards this- a complete stifling of our voices. A systematic, determined strategy to scare us off from saying what we really think and pretending we are living in Disneypark. If Gwisai has been convicted just for watching the videos and discussing them, how much more so will it irk the government to know that I specifically went to Egypt during the Revolution to experience and understand how they did it so I could be better informed and also better inform my Zimbabwean colleagues about what it means to exercise our freedom of expression in a repressive environment.

Gwisai’s conviction is a travesty to justice and I am not afraid to say so. For the rest of Zimbabweans out there, do not be fooled to think there can ever be another way of exercising your freedom of expression which will not expose you to reprisals. There is nothing like ‘responsible exercise of freedom of expression.’ It is either we cower behind our curtains and pretend all is well out there or we continue to speak our mind boldly and probe and question what we do not like until something gives. That is how the Egyptians did it and that is how we can reassert our dignity.

It is a misconception to imagine that when the Egyptian Revolution began the people in Tahrir Square wanted to get rid of Mubarak. No, the majority of them did not even think that was possible. They understood the repressive nature of the police and they knew Mubarak had established a strong military system that would be difficult to overthrow. All they wanted was to reclaim their dignity. They needed him to make concessions to ensure that their socio-economic situation improved. They also needed to reassert their right to choose their own leaders, something that Mubarak’s presence at the helm of the Egyptian ‘throne’ was denying them. They needed to ease him out slowly but get guarantees that things would improve. So yes that is what they were asking for at the beginning.

But guess what, thinking that he had all the control and power in the world, Mubarak in his misguided arrogance refused to budge and refused to negotiate with the masses or to allow them the least sort of decency and dignity. So the people became angrier and angrier and angrier. And with the growth of their anger also came the rigidness of their own position and demands until their final and unmoving demand was for Mubarak to step down. Today we speak of him and not about him. That is the power of a people’s freedom of expression and that is why our own government in Zimbabwe is stifling us.

Only 5 months prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring, with the first of these protests in Tunisia, on 30 September 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had passed a Resolution on “The Rights of Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association.”This Resolution recognised the valuable contribution that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association have in building sustainable democracies. Most significantly, the Resolution introduced the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association with the responsibility to “study trends, developments and challenges in relation to the exercise of these rights, and to make recommendations on ways and means to ensure the promotion and protection of these rights.”This development was a milestone achievement in the history of the fight for freedom of assembly providing protestors with an invaluable tool to defend civic space and promote the respect of peaceful protests by state machinery.

And then came the Spring, a spring of expression, association and assembly. Thousands took to the streets in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Benghazi, Damascus, Beirut, Lilongwe, Manzini, Dakar, Kinshasa and many other parts of the African continent and the world. One thing to be understood is that these people took to the streets not because it it was fashionable to do so but because they had similar concerns. The reasons for demonstrating included demands for political, social and economic reforms and in some cases the total dismantling of political  regimes. The responses of the states were all the same- violent – with variations only in the degree of violence from one place to the other. The governments’ attitudes towards the demonstrations were that they were ‘disturbances to public order.’ The responses ranged from arrests, detention and harassment of perceived organisers of the protests to violent disruption of gatherings employing excessive force, including the use of teargas and live armour against the protestors. The pictures of Syrian armoured tanks being used to shoot at protestors, and the use of snipers to shoot into crowds of protestors in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen reflected the nature of the responses by governments’ in particular to protests.

Of course, these responses were unwise, if not completely foolish reflecting authorities’ aversion to  the free exercise of the right to peaceful assembly. But squashing people’s voices does not make the problems go away. It only makes the masses more agitated and desperate to be heard. Why governments, including my own can not get this, and concede to demands by citizens to say their mind, I can never understand.

Yes we may be stifled today, but history has proved, human beings are like gas. The more you suppress it the higher the chances that when it finally pops open that window of escape, it will completely blow you away-like the Egyptians blew away Mubarak, the Tunisians-Ben Ali and the Libyans-Muammar Ghadaffi!

Feminist Chronicles: Diary 25: Rudo Gaidzanwa

Activism, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Women, Zimbabwe

If there is one thing that I am proud of and one thing that makes me proudly identify myself as a Zimbabwean, it is the value we place on education. According to the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report, Zimbabwe is rated as the country with the second highest literacy rate in Africa (not just Sub- Saharan Africa but the whole of Africa) at 91.2% behind Seychelles with 91.8.  Considering that Seychelles is a little island with a population of less than a 100 000 and Zimbabwe has more than 14million citizens, it therefore means we have made so much progress in educating the masses in our country. Despite the many challenges that our education sector has faced especially in the past 12 years since 2000, we have surpassed Tunisia and continue to do better than the rest of Africa and for that I am very proud.

 Indeed the right to education should be prioritised as it is one of life’s most basic rights. Education promotes autonomy, self esteem and respect, enabling people (especially women) to develop their personality and capabilities, and to choose how they will live their lives. It strengthens individuals’ cultural identity and commitment to community values, expands their understanding of and respect for other people’s cultures and provides the knowledge and skills necessary to be independent and contributing members of society.

 I am moved when I find women educators, whose pre-occupation in life is to educate other women. Rudo Gaidzanwa is one such woman. Her passion in fostering the empowerment of girls and women is evident in the role she has played towards ensuring girls’ and women’s education. She is one of the founders and a trustee of the Women’s University in Africa, the first of its kind in Africa. She has also been vocal in criticising limited budgetary allocations to the education sector, suggesting that this not only kills the quality of education but also defeats the many strides taken to achieve gender parity in education as girls are highly likely to drop out than boys where the education system becomes defunct.

Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa

 She is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe where she teaches social policy. She has also published in many fora. In one of her many articles Gender and Canon Formation: Women, Men and Literary Art in Africa, she explores how the introduction of new religions such as Christianity influenced women’s disempowerment in African societies. She argues that the separation between religion, politics and the economy, disempowered women substantially in the way it domesticated women, restructured labour and re-distributed the means of production leaving women poor and wholly dependant on their male counterparts for survival.

 In another one of her publications Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature (1985) she argues that the negative portrayal of women in colonial and post colonial Zimbabwean literature, predominantly by male authors, delegitimises their struggle for basic human rights like education and health. She then advocates rewriting women’s place in Zimbabwe and carving gender sensitive literature that promotes and portrays women’s access to their most basic rights as the fundamental thing that it actually is.

She is also a feminist and gender activist. She has written on women’s access to land, focusing on how women’s inability to access land impacts their economic limitations. She has argued vehemently that until the land tenure system is changed giving women, who make up the majority of subsistence farmers, equal access to land then the women of Zimbabwe shall continue to be disadvantaged.

She has explored the concept of African Feminism, exploring whether it is possible to talk of feminism within the African context given that the concepts of “African’ and “feminism” have been debated and no conclusion reached as  different scholars of different theoretical and ideological persuasions and of different classes, races, cultures and experiences have conceptualised them differently.

She has challenged the practice of virginity testing of girls arguing that that practice is degrading, unnecessary and only worked in the olden days when villagers would marry amongst themselves. Now that people are not confined to little villages, the chances of them contracting the disease after marriage are even higher than before.

Besides her academic work, Dr Gaidzanwa has also been involved in politics. In the March 2008 Parliamentary election, she ran as an independent candidate. For such an intelligent person who understands the nature of the polity in Zimbabwe, characterised by polarisation along party lines, I am sure she knew her chances of winning while running as an independent candidate were limited but yet she still went ahead with it. In running for elections she sent a very strong message that if political parties will not give women the representation they require within the party structures, then women will do it themselves. Women will stand independent of party structures and pitch their own election campaign strategies which they feel comfortable delivering to the electorate.

 Indeed, the path of designing good policy foundations for the nation has been a big part of her life. Dr Gaidzanwa was one of the instrumental individuals in the drafting of the Constitution that was then rejected in a referendum in 2000. She was a Constitution Commissioner between 1999 and 2000.

 Her achievements are many  and could fill a whole thesis but the one thing that inspires me is how she will not let anything and anyone stop her from achieving what she wants. Hers is the story of a woman to whom young girls can look up and emulate.

Feminist Chronicles: Diary One: Dr Amy Tsanga

Activism, Emancipation, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Women, Zimbabwe

Radical, somewhat rebellious, robust. Those were my first impressions of this woman when I first met her. Then I was a naïve-mousey thing, studying for my undergraduate degree in law. I observed how she had embraced her feminine self and African-ness yet she had also surpassed societal stereotypes of who an African woman is and what she can be. I mean here was a woman who lived through an era when the education of girls was not a priority yet she had done it and done it well too. She was my lecturer and I simply idolised her or maybe was it, uh, hero-worshipping. Gentle, yet firm, she spoke so eloquently and confidently and I was hanging onto her every word. She convinced me that women’s rights are human rights; as inalienable, indivisible an interdependent as any other right in relation to other rights. And from then on I have been fighting relentlessly for the empowerment of women and the realisation of their human rights.

Dr T on a tea-break at a transitional justice workshop exploring the Nairobi Declaration on Girls' and Women's right to a remedy and reparation in 2009

Her name is Amy Shupikai Tsanga, but I, like many others who have had personal contact with her, like calling her Dr T. Maybe I may be blowing my horn too loudly, but I would like to think (an impression which I hold to date) that we took an instant liking to each other. Over the years she has become more than just my lecturer, she is my mentor, my (free) career guidance consultant, my friend, my big sister and my role model.

One cannot talk of women, law, gender and education without mentioning Dr T.

She earned her Ph.D. in Law from the University of Zimbabwe in 1998, a certificate in Law and Development from the University of Warwick (UK) in 1991, a Diploma in Women’s Law from the University of Oslo, and a BL/LLB in Law from the University of Zimbabwe in 1986. During her undergraduate studies she received the university Book Prize as the best Law student in 1985. She was also a Fulbright Scholar and visited the University of San Diego in 2010 as part of the Fulbright Scholars’ Occasional Lecturer Program.

Currently, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Zimbabwe ( UZ http://www.uz.ac.zw )and the Deputy Director of the Southern and Eastern African Regional Centre for Women’s Law (SEARCWL http://www.searcwl.com ) famously known as the Women’s Law Centre, Dr T is a woman of outstanding achievements. The Women’s Law Centre is popular for its excellence in gender, women’s studies and the law. As a lecturer she is responsible for teaching the modules in women’s law and the law of succession for undergraduate Law students (which she taught me and ably so too). She also teaches numerous courses on the regional masters in Women’s Law which is designed to bring students from Southern and Eastern Africa to pursue studies in women’s law. So far the Masters has pooled students from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, DRC, Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

She has an outstanding record as an academic, challenging the patriarchal system and advocating legal systems and processes that correspond with the lived realities of citizens. Her many publications in the areas of violence against women, women and development, human rights and gender are evidence of her academic prowess. Among her publications is the book ‘Taking Law to the People: Gender, Law Reform and Community Legal Education in Zimbabwe’ which explores the myriad of challenges that organisations face in transmitting the law to the people on the ground.

’She also co-edited with Anne Hellum, Julie Stewart and Shaheen Sardar Ali the publication ‘Human rights, plural legalities and gendered realities-Paths are made by walking,’ which addresses the failure of human rights norms at the national, regional and international levels to afford ordinary citizens at the grassroots the projected human rights benefits and protections. Her featured articles in that publication are entitled “Reconceptualising the role of legal information dissemination in the context of legal pluralism in African settings’ and ‘The widows and female child’s portion: The twisted path to partial equality for widows and daughters under customary law in Zimbabwe,’ the latter which she co authored with Professor Julie Stewart.

She featured the article ‘Dialoguing Culture and Sex: Reflections from the Field’ in the Pambazuka publication ‘African Sexualities: A Reader.’ She also authored ‘Women and law: innovative approaches to teaching, research and analysis’ together with Professor Julie Stewart. The book looks into the manner in which legal teaching methods can be tailored to engage and explore women’s experiences with the law in various legal disciplines.

Dr T also designed together with Ige Olatokumbo a Manual entitled ‘A Paralegal Trainer’s Manual for Africa’ which is a publication with the International Commission of Jurists. She was featured in the African Yearbook of International Law with article such as ‘Moving Beyond Rights in the Realisation of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Challenges in Contemporary Africa.’

As a gender activist Dr T has played a pivotal role in influencing legal, policy and institutional reforms to ensure gender equality. She sat on the Board of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association as its Chairperson from 1998 to 2001. ZWLA provides legal assistance to indigent women. She is an award jury member on the Body Shop Human Rights Award, an award that was set up to give recognition to groups working in the field of socio-economic rights and other fields of human rights that are usually not recognised. She was also board member of the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights from 1995 to 1999. Since 2005 she has sat on the board of Musasa Project, a Zimbabwean organisation that challenges and addresses violence against women and since 2010 sits on the board of the Institute of Creative Arts for Development in Zimbabwe.

In July 2010 she briefed Parliament on how to ensure a democratic and inclusive Constitution for Zimbabwe that addresses gender equality. In that article she emphasised the importance of an inclusive constitution-making process; the expansion of grounds for non-discrimination; improving women’s participation in politics and decision-making; ensuring women’s equal status before the law and in marriage; and a proper enforcement of the Bill of Rights as some of the prerequisites for achieving gender equality in Zimbabwe.

For all her outstanding work Dr T received the national Women’s Human Rights Defenders Award in 2009.
I always look at her and admire the dexterity with which she has mastered the art of methodologies, which happens to be one of my biggest nightmares. The vivacity with which she pursues the empowerment of women is beyond words. And that is the story of one of the women in the women’s rights movement in Zimbabwe whom I admire verily.