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"In the Hotseat" speaks to trade unionist Thabitha Khumalo
Violet Gonda, SW Radio Africa
October 24, 2006

Violet: On the programme Hot Seat we welcome Thabitha Khumalo, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions third Vice President. She was recently named one of the winners for this yearís Women of the Year Award in the United Kingdom . Now, the Trades Unionist has been arrested and beaten up several times by state security agents in her quest to fight for better standard of living for Zimbabweans. Today we are going to talk about her Dignity Period Campaign which she embarked on to fight for the basic female human rights to have access to sanitary protection. Welcome on the programme Thabitha.

Thabitha: Thank you Violet, thank you so much.

Violet: And first of all, congratulations on the award.

Thabitha: Thank you so much; itís not for me itís for all Zimbabwean women and the women globally whose rights are being trampled as we speak.

Violet: Now the sponsors of the Women of the Year Award said this award is a salute to a woman whose work and courage in often dangerous or intimidating circumstances had opened all our eyes to a world we otherwise would not have understood. Now what is the Women of the Year Award, and how did they find you?

Thabitha: Well the Women of the Year Award is to award women achievers for that particular year who have done well in terms of any spheres; be it the issue of fundraising, be it the issue of awareness, be it the issue of campaigns. And it consists of; well, all the women that attained that are all winners because they are all coming from different backgrounds; women that have made it in life.

Violet: Now some will ask you know who is this woman Thabitha Khumalo that has won the Woman of the Year Award in the United Kingdom . Now, we know that you are the third Vice President of the ZCTU, but what are your roots exactly, what industry to you come from?

Thabitha: OK, I come from the non-governmental organisation industry, I work for an organisation called The Civic Alliance for Social and Economic Progress as a Programmes Officer, and Iím based in Bulawayo .

Violet: And itís the Dignity Period Campaign which was the vehicle wasnít it?

Thabitha: Yeah.

Violet: Now, what motivated you to start the Dignity Period?

Thabitha: What motivated me is in 2000 we realised that the manufacturing company which was there, re-located to South Africa and all of a sudden there was a shortage of sanitary towels - and if at all one could get them you could only get them in the parallel market. And, the bottom line was then we wondered, as women in the labour movement, at the hygienic status of these products which we were now being forced to buy in the parallel market and at the same time we then had to find out why the product was scarce and why was it on the parallel market only to discover that the company had re-located, and, by so doing, it meant that the prices were going to go up. And, for the prices to go up it meant to say that we are not earning a living wage as Zimbabweans. So it meant to say three quarters of our pay was going towards sanitary towels instead of meeting other needs of life from the salaries we got, although they are not even living wages.

Violet: Ordinary women cannot afford the sanitary ware right now in Zimbabwe , not only are they in short supply but they cannot afford it.

Thabitha: Absolutely.

Violet: Can you describe to us or tell us what an average person earns in Zimbabwe and especially when you have to worry about getting things like sanitary pads, how much is it that people would need?

Thabitha: Well, the average minimum wage for an ordinary women is 12 million, 12 thousand Zim dollars (re-valued), then you go in and you want to buy something like sanitary towels youíve got to spend something like 6 million, if not 10 million Zim dollars (ten thousand revalued). And now, the question is, for example as Africans weíve got very huge families; can you imagine a situation where thereís a mother and four girl children? And the question now that you ask yourself is what does she do. Obviously she will not buy those sanitary towels. She will either teach those kids to use pieces of cloth, or newspapers or tissue papers depending on the life that they are leading. And, one crucial area that is really shocking is that the agricultural industry is earning Z$ 4 000 a month which is even nowhere near the price of the sanitary towels and then you can imagine those people in the agricultural industry; they donít even have access to that, so what does it mean? Do they use their old clothes? And, if at all they have enough to use as sanitary towels. And again, looking at the type of water that they use, chances of maybe washing those products are not even there. So itís basically just use and dispose, and, how long are you going to taking your old clothes, use them and dispose them and you donít even have enough money to replace those clothes because buying clothes is now a luxury.

Violet: Yes, I can understand using pieces of cloth, but newspapers and tissues, how practical is this?

Thabitha: Itís very practical because we are coming from a generation where we were taught to use tampons and pads, so we had a choice, and most of our young women obviously use tampons because they are much better, they are comfortable; we are used to them. And, instinct will always kick in when you pick up a tissue paper, all what you think is you roll it up and you make it into a tampon because thatís what you have known all your time since you have been a woman. Thatís our upbringing and thereís no other way to change that mind.

Violet: And newspapers?

Thabitha: Newspapers are for those that are not even employed. They cannot even afford to buy the tissue paper neither can they afford to use their old clothes neither can they afford to buy a piece of cloth. For you to buy a meter of white material you are looking at about a very good Z$2000 Ė Z$3000.

Violet: And, there were also reports that some women were resorting to using leaves, is this true?

Thabitha: Yes, apparently thereís this tree, I donít know the name where you take the bark of that tree and then you use that as a pad; it has a sponge-ish sort of bark so rural areas obviously they are using that. So they are those lucky ones who have got the elderly who have been there before and know that. But remember, those things were not filtered down to us, to our generation in terms of what our great, great grandmothers used to use that, and anyway, why would we use that when we are in the 21st Century where thereís the world of technology? We are a country which can use computers, we are a country which uses cell phones; why then should we go to the bark of a tree, and that is environmental degradation as far as Iím concerned.

Violet: Definitely, and some people would argue that that is extreme. You know, those seem to be extraordinary lengths to turn to as a solution, and surely there are risks of infections?

Thabitha: There is absolutely great risk of infection and if you go and try and buy vaginal cream from the pharmacy you are looking at 2 or 3 or 4 million(thousand revalued) for you to treat yourself. And, the question is, you canít afford the sanitary towels, you canít afford the medication and then what next? You just live in this vicious cycle of infection and re-infection 24/7.

Violet: On this issue of women now using newspapers and tissues and to some extent some women using tree leaves or leaves, I was discussing this with Zimbabweans here in the UK and they seemed to think that this was an exaggeration, that this is too extreme, that this cannot be happening in Zimbabwe . What can you say about this?

Thabitha: That is a sad statement. Itís very, very sad, because when somebody is in a comfort zone, you tend to deny that you are coming from a country that is in a catastrophe. We as Zimbabweans, a very good example, is that when we saw the pictures of the people in Ethiopia we were alarmed; kids with flies on their eyes. So, it looks like, as human beings we believe in pictures. And, I am sad to tell them that I have never, in my forty five years of living, ever seen a photo with a pad full of blood, never have a seen a tampon full of blood, or, the leaves that people take out, because that has been sacred. And, get out of that bubble and the comfort zone; this is the reality. For you, it could be exaggerated because you donít see it, and for me, itís not because itís my daily life. And all that you need to do is just get to Zimbabwe and go to any public toilet and come back and tell me what you have seen in there. And, the onus is not for me to go to a public toilet and un-dignify these women by taking these photos, because itís not about photos, itís about reality. And, for you to know about reality you should be part and parcel of a system that is making sure that those violations are being done. For example, as we are talking now, weíve got eight people with fractures in Zimbabwe . And that is not a joke, itís not exaggerated. Itís going to be exaggerated for the people who were not there, but for the people who -

Violet: These were the ZCTU leaders who were assaulted by the police?

Thabitha: Exactly, exactly. And for the people that are in the comfort zone, they will say itís exaggerated. Itís not exaggerated. They are in slings as we talk, and those women are using newspapers as we talk. And, if you communicate with some of the hotels they will tell you that itís now difficult for them to put tissue papers in the hotels because they just disappear just like that. And why are they disappearing? Because, we are using them as sanitary towels. And all what I am saying is that people must get off the comfort zone. You are in a country where you can access everything but not at home, that does not exist. And, if at all, if it is exaggerated, why are you sending people at home some money? Why are we sending some money if everything is OK? Youíre sending money because things are not OK.

Violet: Thatís right and you know, you gave an example of a woman you saw on the streets and this was one of the reasons why you started this the Dignity Period Campaign. Are you able to just tell us about this, a short brief on this?

Thabitha: Yes, I met this woman and I was wondering why she was walking, it was so hot and she was walking outside the pavement and dejected and she didnít look senile to me, she looked like a normal mother to some lovely kids. When I crossed over and I spoke to her because I wanted to know whether she was not feeling well and if I could help. And she just told me; she just looked down and I saw the blood gushing down and I said to her Ďlook, why donít you buy the cotton wool and then she said ĎI canít afford ití. She had Z$ 20,000, but then when I went to shop the cotton wool was Z$60 000. So, all what we are saying is, some of you have been here for 6 years, when you left things were still OK. Today, they are not. We cannot even eat meat; we cannot afford to buy meat because it is beyond our reach. So if we cannot buy meat when we are the second largest supplier of beef in the world, please tell me if we can buy the sanitary towels. Please tell me that we can buy that?

Violet: Akomana, you know, this is heartbreaking and as a woman I can, I cannot even imagine what the women in Zimbabwe are going through because I know how it feels to be in a situation where you need every single month when you are menstruating, but not actually have something to use, and to make matters worse to use things that are so uncomfortable as newspapers.

Thabitha: Exactly, and again, if you look at the Diaspora in this country some of you are in hiding. Why are you in hiding? Because you donít have the papers to be here, but surely, I totally believe, if you all come together and unite, somebody is going to hear you. Why are you in hiding in this country if everything at home is so good that you have to be here? You are in hiding because you are violating the laws of this country. But, for the lawmakers of this country to recognise that you are a force to be reckoned with and you are in trouble; itís for you to stand up and tell it as is. And, itís good for you to tell it as is, as long as there is networking between the people at home and the Diaspora, because we have to give the same things that are happening at home and those that know it better are the people who are in the mix of things, and that is us at home. But we are not communicating with each other. That is why you find people saying Ďthings we are saying are exaggeratedí because we are not communicating. The only communication that we know from you is the pounds that you send us home, and thereís no verbal communication.

Violet: And for people who are listening right now, people in the Diaspora who would want to help, how can they help?

Thabitha: Well, those that would like to support the campaign can log on to the website of ACTSA, itís www.actsa.org and then there is the forms there that you can fill in terms of your contributions or whether you want to do the debit contribution or you want to do a one off donation, or just to spread the word to other people so that they can come on board so that every month we are at least able to send a shipment to at least meet three quarters of those women so that we try and move the struggle that best that we know.

Violet: And ACTSA stands for Action for Southern Africa ?

Thabitha: Action for Southern Africa, yes.

Violet: Now, I understand that several celebrities and organisations in the UK helped fundraising in the UK and you managed to get at least 2 million products which were shipped to Zimbabwe to be distributed? These were sanitary products?

Thabitha: Yes. What happened was the Trade Union fraternity has come on board; Iíve been working with AMICUS, the Union , Iíve been working with the TUC and all the Trade Unions within the UK together with Action for Southern Africa . And, the actors and actresses did come on board, people like Anna Chancellor, Stephen Fry, they all came on board and did this fundraising gig where we raised some money towards the campaign and then we eventually took the campaign to South Africa. SABC 5 FM and Kula took over the campaign and she managed to raise a million packets within the South African fraternity, that is the manufacturers; men, women and children. So what we then did as the ZCTU, we went and communicated with the government, the respective Ministries in terms of bringing over the products duty free, and, in principle, they had sort of agreed. So we tried to push the truck to the border and then we were advised that we had to pay $782 million, by then, before it was re-valued. So what then happened was that we pushed the truck back to South Africa and we tried to raise the money, which we did. And then when we did that when the truck went back, we were then told that we were under-charged in terms of the duty and we needed to produce a catalogue for those products that were in the truck. This meant to say sending the truck back and trying to look for the catalogue and then the catalogue was eventually found, and that was absolutely difficult because it was Easter, to get in touch with the manufacturers to get the catalogue, which were eventually found and we sent over.

And then, thereafter we were then told that the total amount should be $992, or about a billion, which meant to say we then paid $23 000 towards that. And to me, it was very unfair because we were being made to pay for our right to our periods. And, the most unfortunate part is that for women to get their periods, there are no ways you can stop that. There are no remote controls to say ok, for now we havenít got the products, so weíll switch ourselves off until such products come. And, the irony of it was that they were going to be distributed free of charge. No woman was going to be charged for that product, we were just going to give them for free. So why then being denied that opportunity, and, after all, we are helping the citizens of my country

Violet: And the 23 000, was it 23 000 Zim Dollars or US Dollars?

Thabitha: US dollars.

Violet: And, the distribution, who were the recipients of this product?

Thabitha: Basically the people that we want to cover, those that were covered were the members of the Trade Union from our affiliated Unions. We also covered the informal economy because weíve got a memorandum of understanding with the informal economy and again, that is just a drop in the ocean, because the criteria is not all about one being a member of a Trade Union, but the criteria is that you are a woman and youíve got your period every month. And, we are overwhelmed by the demand and we need to raise as much money as possible so that we can reach all the corners. If not all the women in Zimbabwe but at least to try and reach as many as we can to alleviate these infections and prolong the lives of the women because I want to believe that if you dignify a woman you have dignified the nation And, you have empowered that woman because she does have confidence in herself and she respects the society that respects her, but now, it seems as if the society has decided not to respect us as women and theyíve made us to literally undress ourselves in public in the name of dignity.

Violet: So far the women that youíve managed to reach are in which areas in Zimbabwe ?

Thabitha: We have covered all our regions; Bulawayo, Harare, Chinhoyi, Mutare, Masvingo and part of the rural areas, which have been covered by the informal economy because their membership is wide, and it is covering the whole country.

Violet: And, I understand that you have now secured a deal with a manufacturer in Zimbabwe who now supplies and distributes these sanitary products within Zimbabwe , is this correct?

Thabitha: Yes, thatís very true because we found it was not economically correct for us to spend US$23 000 on duty whilst with that US$23 000 we could have covered more women than ever. So, we thought the best way out was to use somebody within the Zimbabwe , small as they are but I think they can meet our demand. And at the same time itís the question of employment creation because if the consignments increase as per the donations that we get. That means to say there are some Zimbabweans that are going to be employed; they are going to have a source of livelihood in terms of the money that they are going to earn although is not a living wage but at least itís something that will keep them going, and, like I said, itís also employment creation.

Violet: And you havenít had any problems as yet with the government?

Thabitha: Well, not as yet, but knowing my government, in a way it wouldnít be surprising that they try to close that but, the question is, why close that? Why sentence your own women that you claim you respect, you care about, and you love, why sentence them to death when all that we are trying to do is dignify them so they are people who could be reckoned with in society and they could also participate in the policy and decision making in a comfortable and secure manner so that they will make decisions that will meet their day to day needs.

Violet: You know, I watched you on television the other day, here in the UK , on the ĎThis Morningí programme, and you spoke passionately about the situation in Zimbabwe . Now, what you basically did was to bring the subject of Zimbabwe into every kitchen in the United Kingdom . You know, all the housewives in Britain probably now know about this, the Dignity Period campaign and the problems that women are facing in terms of getting sanitary products. Now, during the interview you said that you had been arrested several times and raped by a group of thugs. Can you talk about this?

Thabitha: As the Labour Movement weíve got a song which says that the two homes that we know in this struggle is the jail and hospital, and basically those are the occupational health hazards of being a Trades Unionist, because the only way we know of demanding the protection and promoting of the workers rights is to peacefully demonstrate and demand those rights. So with that, the laws are denying us that, to express ourselves in order to talk to our leadership. Because we have tried all the avenues of communication to try and resolve this through the Tri-partite Negotiating Forum and we are not getting any joy because itís basically it looks like itís just talk shows where we just discuss everything and then everything remains in the board rooms, At the end of the day youíll find decisions are made outside us even though we would have spoken to each other. Increases are affected even though we had agreed they wouldnít be affected. So, the question of arrests is part and parcel of the struggle of the labour movement. Because the only language that we know is the withdrawal of labour and at the same time the peaceful demonstrations that we are trying to partake. And, I want to assure the Zimbabweans and the people the world over that we are not going to stop these demonstrations regardless of the beatings that we go through, and the arrests that we go through. Because by beating us and arresting us and breaking our limbs, it does not mean that we are stopping the struggle. Instead, we are more resolute now than ever because it shows that we have to stand up and do something and at the same time they can brutalise us as much as they can but they cannot stop the struggle. We need a living wage, we need access to anti-retroviral drugs, we need affordable sanitary towels and we need reduction of tax, among other demands that we have as the Labour movement.

Violet: You also talked about being raped by some thugs?

Thabitha: Yes, I was kidnapped in Masvingo some time in 2000, and like I said, in the struggle, those are the health hazards and itís not about what happens to an individual, itís what results come out of there, and those results are part of the Dignity Campaign where we have restored the dignity of Zimbabwean women. So in a struggle itís not worth it to talk about the pain that we go through because that will overshadow our goal in terms of our intention of what we are doing. And, all that we need to focus on are the demands that we have in order for the people in Zimbabwe, especially the women to be dignified and to be part and parcel of policy decision making processes so that we have a dignified and lovely country to live in.

Violet: And did you know who the people who attacked you were and was it politically motivated?

Thabitha: Well it was politically motivated because during those days it was the time when it was just towards elections, Council elections, and everybody was hyperactive and as usual, itís always been the name of the game where brutality takes the centre stage in terms of people holding on to power. But itís not about brutalising the people to solve the problems. We have problems and we need to solve them and the only way to solve those problems is to empower people with information and information can only be disseminated when people are able to meet and discuss those issues and hopefully produce a way forward. I want to believe the people in Zimbabwe have got brilliant ideas in terms of how best we can resolve the problems we are going through. The only problem is we are being stifled in terms of trying to talk to each other and find the best way out to resolve these problems and we need to carry on doing that until our destination is achieved.

Violet: And the people that attacked you, did you report this to the police and has anything ever been done about it?

Thabitha: Well I reported the issue at Masvingo Police Station and I got a fax confirming my report was getting the attention that it needed and six years down the line nothing has happened and we are still waiting.

Violet: There seems to be a lot which is disempowering women in Zimbabwe . What role can women take in this struggle.

Thabitha: Well, we are being disempowered day in and day out but what I want to believe is the role we can play as women is to stand up and say NO to this dis-empowering, and the only way we can do that is by being dignified. And itís a long road to achieve that, but it can be done.

Violet: And it seems that more and more Zimbabweans are embarking on specific issues, or rather, targeting specific people to bring about change in the country. For example, thereís the UK based Free Zimbabwe youths who have started a campaign targeting African Embassies in London to counteract what they say is the propaganda they are being fed by the Mugabe regime. And also, thereís the Combined Harare Residents Association, which has started dumping raw sewerage at their Council Offices. Now itís estimated that about a quarter of the Zimbabwe population is outside the country. Do you think those of us here have a role to play, and if so, what role?

Thabitha: Yes, the Zimbabweans in the Diaspora play a very, very vital role in terms of the reconstruction of Zimbabwe , but the main critical area is there is need for unity of purpose. Because, for as long as the Diaspora is not united then, trust me, we will not get anywhere. And, reconstruction of Zimbabwe is not about reconstructing Zimbabwe after the changes that we are all expecting, no. The reconstruction starts now. You know, reconstruction is just as good as when you buy a one-roomed house. You buy that one-roomed house not specifically to stay there for the rest of your life. You are buying it because you want to extend it, so as time goes on you eventually add another one and another one and it eventually becomes a home. So the Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, what they need to do is to come together. I know they are all coming from different fields but what is important is there is one common enemy that we are all facing in terms of reconstruction. And reconstruction affects teachers, doctors, everybody in terms of your academic qualifications, you are affected by reconstruction, so why not come together on that common goal?

Violet: Ok, thank you very much Thabitha Khumalo and good luck with the Dignity Period Campaign.

Thabitha: Yes, and I want the Diaspora to know that in the labour movement we say workers problems are the same the world over. The only difference is the social, economic and the political environment. And, I want to urge the people in the Diaspora that the struggle that we are going to fight today will determine the type of leadership that we will have.

*Audio interview can be heard on SW Radio Africa ís Hot Seat programme - Tues 24/10/06 . Comments and feedback can be emailed to violet@swradioafrica.com

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