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  • Mary Robinson reflects on solidarity mission to support women leaders in Zimbabwe
    Realising Rights
    May 02, 2010

    Mary Robinson shared a dream with Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA, to bring a group of women leaders to Zimbabwe to show solidarity with women there working to foster democracy and human rights. After connecting with African women who shared that same dream, they led a mission to Zimbabwe in April 2010. Below are her reflections on what turned out to be a historic visit.

    Our dreams began to take shape in early March at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Nyaradzayi introduced me to two women ministers from Zimbabwe, Olivia Muchena, Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development (ZANU-PF) and Sekai Holland, Minister of State, Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (MDC-T).

    After much discussion, they were convinced such a visit, of primarily African women coming to listen to and support women in Zimbabwe, could make a real difference.

    A few weeks later, I received an official invitation from the government to lead a delegation to Zimbabwe from April 26 - 30, to take part in a High Level Dialogue on Women's Empowerment in the Political and Economic Arena, to be hosted by the two women Ministers I met in New York and the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe.

    Despite the short notice, an influential group of African women leaders agreed to take part.

    Our delegation was made up of:

    • Ms. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (Zimbabwe), General Secretary of the World YWCA.
    • Dr. Brigalia Bam (South Africa), Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission in South Africa and former General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches
    • Dr. Achola Pala (Kenya), former Africa Chief of UNIFEM and former Senior Policy Advisor at the Africa Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
    • Dr. Thelma Awori (Uganda/Liberia), President of the Board of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Market Women's Fund, Member of the Civil Society Advisory Group on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace and security, former UN Resident Representative in Zimbabwe; and President of Isis-WICCE[NPJ1]
    • Ambassador Counsellor Lois Bruthus (Liberia), Liberian Ambassador to South Africa and former President of the Female Lawyers Association of Liberia
    • Ms. Elizabeth Lule (Uganda), Manager, Operational, Quality and Knowledge Services, The World Bank; and former manager of the World Bank's program on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

    It had been encouraging to get such an immediate and positive response from each of these formidable leaders.

    Our work together in Zimbabwe began on Sunday, 25 April, when we met on the outskirts of Harare. We shared a meal that evening with Ministers Muchena and Holland and Emilia Muchawa, Chairperson of the Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe, to familiarize ourselves and discuss our plans for the week.

    The following day, we started our program with the Zimbabwean Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) by meeting with women seeking free legal aid. We learned first-hand about the high level of domestic violence, as well as fear and uncertainty about the possibility of broader violence breaking out again which had traumatized so many women. Later we took part in the official opening of the Zimbabwe High Level Dialogue on Women's Empowerment in the Political and Economic Arena, the main event of our visit. After several welcoming statements, President Robert Mugabe officially opened the meeting. He remained for my keynote address on Securing Women's Rights through the Constitution.

    Although the focus of my remarks was on the importance of women participating fully in the constitutional review process, and the need for that process to implement equality and empowerment of women, I also felt it was necessary to refer publicly to ongoing reports of serious human rights violations in Zimbabwe which needed to be addressed by the government to ensure adequate remedies and prevent future abuses.

    During the afternoon session of the High Level Dialogue, each of the members of our delegation brought their important perspectives to the day's discussions:

    • Ambassador Bruthus shared her experience in Liberia as a founding member of the Women Lawyers Association there, and as an activist.
    • Dr. Achola Pala drew on her long experience of speaking about the role of women's movements during transitional phases: constitution making and peace building.
    • Dr. Brigalia Bam addressed women-friendly electoral systems: looking at the case of South Africa,
    • Thelma Awori built on her experience as UN Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe earlier, and spoke on the importance of women's economic empowerment provisions and mechanisms.
    • Elizabeth Lule, spoke on mobilizing resources for women's empowerment.

    A particular highlight for me was when Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda spoke from the heart about growing up in a rural village in Zimbabwe in poverty and yet coming to serve as General Secretary of the World YWCA. Her presentation - at times emotional - drew a huge response from the large audience of women parliamentarians, professional and business women, activists in the community, women in uniform, and young women present.

    This being an African conference, we also had excellent singing and at one stage we all ended up dancing together with the musicians.

    The following day, field visits were planned to Mashonaland, Matebeleland, and Manicaland. At our dinner that evening, members of our delegation chose the particular projects they would like to see. The next morning, I accompanied the two ministers to Bulawayo, the city of kings. The opportunity for all of us to travel out of Harare was useful in better understanding what women were doing in mining, horticulture, craft work and other means of economic empowerment.

    We had a useful meeting the following day with the UN country team, chaired by Elizabeth Lwanga, the UN Resident Coordinator in Zimbabwe whom I had met during the International Colloquium in Monrovia in March 2009. Warm support was expressed on all sides for our visit, and the fact that it might strengthen a women's movement which contained vibrant elements but was divided and quite weak.

    A meeting later in the week with representatives from each of the women's wings of the three political parties in the Inclusive Government, (ZANU-PF, MDC-T and MDC-M), would prove to be quite pivotal. As the discussion unfolded, I suddenly realized that these women very much welcomed the rare opportunity to dialogue together that our presence provided. It had been intended to be a brief half hour exchange but the atmosphere was so positive that I decided to leave four of our delegation members to continue the discussion, while the rest of us went on to a scheduled meeting with a group of young women leaders who were brought together by the Spanish Ambassador at her residence at our request.

    When we arrived back at our hotel, we were surprised that the others who had remained with the representatives of the women's wings of the political parties had still not returned. When they finally did arrive we could immediately sense the excitement in their faces and exchanges.

    It turned out that the meeting had enabled a breakthrough to occur. In the supportive environment created, the Zimbabwean women admitted they would like to work together in some visible way. With strong encouragement from our delegation colleagues, they had agreed the language for a draft resolution, and promised that the final text would be signed publicly at the press conference planned for the next day. Tired as we all were, there was a deep sense of satisfaction that our visit was helping women in Zimbabwe to come together across painful divides.

    The next day at the media briefing, three women representatives of the political wings spoke about their agreement. They read out and signed a resolution which stated:

    Recalling the historical signing of the Global Political Agreement on 15 September 2008 which created a conducive environment for the expression of our concerns.

    Having met at a high level dialogue on 28 April 2010

    We the women leaders from the three political parties in the Inclusive Government ZANU PF, MDC-T and MDC, having met and deliberated on issues of concern to the nation, commit ourselves today to forming a Joint Committee that will meet on a regular basis to discuss and agree to take the appropriate actions for resolving all issues pertaining to the well-being of the Zimbabwean women and the Zimbabwean nation.

    The chair person of the Women's Parliamentary Caucus immediately came to the podium to endorse this initiative and promise support.

    I was then invited to address the media, followed by Emilia Muchawa of the Women's Coalition and the two ministers, Sekai Holland, who had a text agreed beforehand by the Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration and Olivia Muchena, who said it was one of the happiest moments of her life

    But our work wasn't finished. Our delegation had a series of further meetings with the political leadership at Government offices. At our meeting with President Mugabe, he asked about our various field visits and was pleased with the reports from my African sisters.

    I urged him to give his public support to the process which had been set in train by the High Level Dialogue. As we left the President's office, I was asked by national TV how the meeting had gone. I emphasized that the President had given us his strong support for the event and the road map to be agreed within two weeks, knowing that the women's movement would need strong political backing if it was to succeed.

    Unfortunately this was not reflected in the next day's media reports of our meeting. However, I had no doubt that our focus had to remain on what we could achieve for the women of Zimbabwe as a solidarity mission.

    We also met with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. I said how pleased I was to be able to greet him as Prime Minister in his own country, and he reminded me of the last time we had met, which was in Ghana in 2008 when he was seeking international support. The Prime Minister expressed strong support for the High Level Dialogue and its outcomes.

    Later, at a meeting with European heads of delegation hosted by Ambassador Xavier Marchal, head of the delegation of the European Union, we emphasized the importance of providing support and resources to strengthen and capacitate these developing initiatives. Ambassador Marchal had included for lunch a group of human rights defenders, some of whom I knew from my previous work as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was a useful reality check to hear from them about the continuing political violence and threats at local level, the lack of any support for survivors of torture and those displaced by the conflict during the electoral process.

    From there we went to UNICEF, where the Director, Peter Salama, had brought together adolescent girls and boys who were living positively, and who had become trainers of other adolescents on HIVAIDs. It was an uplifting meeting in our heavy schedule.

    On our final morning, 30th April, we met early with NANGO, the national organization of NGOs. It was good to be in a room of supportive men and women representing many of the vibrant NGOs in Zimbabwe. The speeches warned of the fragile political environment and the serious human rights violations which had occurred. Although the current situation was a bit better, there was fear that early elections could trigger similar violence again.

    Later we met Minister of Regional Integration and International Development, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, who had been the only woman in the negotiations leading to the GPA. She welcomed the High Level Dialogue and its outcomes, and undertook to make a public statement in support and to encourage future work on the roadmap.

    We also met with a large group of African heads of delegations, and the Dean of Ambassadors from the DRC. We had agreed that Thelma Awori and Nyaradzayi would take the lead, and we had an interesting discussion on the perspective of SADC countries, and the AU generally on Zimbabwe. The issue of sanctions was raised, with strong views expressed that maintaining them when the GPA had been agreed upon and an Inclusive Government was in place was not helpful. Strong appreciation was expressed for our visit.

    Our final meeting was with Vice President John Nkomo, chairman of the Organ on National Healing and Reconciliation, who had travelled to Harare especially to meet us despite serious family bereavements as a result of a car accident a few days before. He had been fully briefed and laid out his vision for the work of the Organ over the coming months. He was clearly delighted with the outcomes of the High Level Dialogue for providing a good beginning to the implementation of the healing work which was so badly needed. The Vice President reminded me that he had served in Ireland at the time of my 1994 state visit to Zimbabwe, and that the visit had been followed by a separate training program initiated by the Irish government.

    As we left Zimbabwe, I was deeply conscious that this strengthening of the women's movement through the High Level Dialogue and its outcomes had to be set against a wider context. Lack of wider political progress under the GPA, the resentment of continuing sanctions, the possibility that the constitution review process might not be as inclusive and participatory as hoped for, and that any move to early elections could trigger another round of violence were all potential obstacles for the women of Zimbabwe and their efforts to contribute to shaping a better future for their country.

    It had been an enormous privilege to lead such a distinguished and hard working delegation of African women leaders. I also felt proud of the dedicated support of my colleagues Jennifer McCarthy and Michelle Bologna, together with Sam Mattock who had provided invaluable logistical support. Now it would all depend on the follow up that could be achieved by the women of Zimbabwe, and the support and resources they would receive to implement their vision and roadmap together.

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