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Zimbabwe: Between a rock and a hard place - women human rights defenders at risk
Amnesty International
AI Index: AFR 46/017/2007
July 25, 2007

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The human rights situation in Zimbabwe has been deteriorating rapidly since 2000. Human rights violations are taking place in a context characterised by a fast-shrinking economy that is being accelerated by government policies. Those policies, particularly on land reform and forced evictions, have contributed significantly to reducing the entire population's capacity to obtain access to their rights to food, health, education and housing.

Zimbabwean women, who are active in dedicated women's rights organizations and in other human rights organizations, are mobilising to confront the government in response to the violation of economic and social rights. They are demanding respect for and protection of their own human rights and the rights of members of their communities.

After the government of Zimbabwe's programme of mass forced evictions in 2005 an estimated 700,000 people lost their homes or livelihoods or both. The forced evictions drove people not only from their homes, but also from their market stalls, depriving informal traders of their means of earning a living. Women were disproportionately affected by this policy since they constitute the majority of informal market traders and are often the primary providers, not only for their own children but also for other children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. Many women, from both urban and rural areas, are finding it increasingly difficult to buy food, pay for medical care and earn a living.

As economic and social conditions have worsened, the government of Zimbabwe has become increasingly intolerant of critics of its policies. Since 2000, the government has condoned the widespread use by the Zimbabwe Republic Police of excessive force, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics. These include trade unionists, human rights defenders, media workers, NGO workers, lawyers, students and other perceived opponents of the government. Since 2005, hundreds of human rights defenders, the majority of them women, have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for engaging or attempting to engage in peaceful protest marches or meetings. Most women interviewed by Amnesty International have reported being subjected to beatings and ill-treatment while in police custody. The beatings, in some instances, amounted to torture.

Women, standing up to defend their economic and social rights, face further human rights violations as women and as human rights defenders, including sexist verbal abuse and derogatory accusations. Women human rights defenders have been persistently denied their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. In addition, women human rights defenders in rural areas are being denied equal access to necessary cheap maize sold by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). Since 2000, the government has used the law, in particular, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the Miscellaneous Offences Act (MOA) and later the Criminal Codification Act to undermine the ability of human rights defenders to promote and protect human rights. The police have categorized as criminal all legitimate activities of human rights defenders, as recognized in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and reaffirmed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in their Resolution on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Africa. Women human rights defenders in detention have been humiliated and denied food, water, medical care and access to lawyers. Some have even been detained while pregnant or with their babies or infants. They are held in deplorable conditions which fall far below international human rights standards.

The treatment of women human rights defenders in custody has had dire consequences on them and their families, particularly on children who are often left without care while their mothers or carers are detained for days.

However, in the face of an increasing government clampdown, Zimbabwean women human rights defenders have demonstrated great resilience, bravery and determination to end human rights violations. They are aware of the obstacles and the dangers they face, yet they refuse to be intimidated.

About this report

This report focuses on the circumstances of women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. It explores their motivations and objectives. It documents human rights violations experienced by women human rights defenders, and the tools of repression used by the government to crush dissent. The report also looks at the government of Zimbabwe's obligations under regional and international human rights treaties, and makes recommendations to the government of Zimbabwe, the Southern Africa Development Community and the international community, particularly the African Union.

Amnesty International understands human right defenders to be people who act to promote and protect human rights. They may be victims and survivors of human rights violations themselves, or friends or relatives of victims of human rights violations seeking to redress the violations suffered by their relatives. Alternatively, they may be journalists, lawyers, members of human rights organizations or politicians who speak out against government repression, who are working for the promotion and protection of human rights for all. They are human rights defenders because of what they do, not because of their job or profession.

Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognizes the right of everyone "individually and in association with others, to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms." It places an obligation on the state to "take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights."

The bulk of the information in the report was gathered during a three-week mission by Amnesty International to Zimbabwe in February and March 2007. Amnesty International interviewed 59 women in Bulawayo, Insiza district in Matabeleland South province, Masvingo, Chivi district in Masvingo province, Mutare, Chegutu and Harare. Delegates interviewed professional women and student activists, women from townships and rural areas. The women ranged in age from late teens to women in their 60s. Amnesty International also interviewed male human rights defenders who are experiencing similar constraints and violations.

Amnesty International made several requests for meetings with government officials, in writing and in person, but failed to secure a single interview.

Some of the names of the people mentioned in this report have been changed in order to protect their identity.

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