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Mary Robinson reflects on solidarity mission to support women leaders
May 02, 2010
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.
short notice, an influential group of African women leaders agreed
to take part.
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
- 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]
Counsellor Lois Bruthus (Liberia), Liberian Ambassador to South
Africa and former President of the Female Lawyers Association
- 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.
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.
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
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:
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.
Lule, spoke on mobilizing resources for women's empowerment.
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.
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
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
the historical signing of the Global
Political Agreement on 15 September 2008 which created a conducive
environment for the expression of our concerns.
met at a high level dialogue on 28 April 2010
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.
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
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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