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Women activists speak out on Zimbabwe
Comments made by International Labour Research and Information Group at Towards an Africa without Borders conference July 5-8 in Durban, South Africa
July 07, 2007

Building Women's Activism is a forum of women activists who meet every month to share their experiences of being women in social movements and trade unions. Women activists from around Cape Town meet to support one another and to learn how to combat sexism and to build their organisations. Recently the group met to discuss state violence against women in Zimbabwe. They concluded that that there are similarities between domestic and state violence, that there is collusion between the South Africa state and the Zimbabwean state and that it is urgent to take solidarity action, as women, in regard to the crisis in Zimbabwe.

On Wednesday 4th April 2007 over 50 people picketed outside Parliament in support of women activists in Zimbabwe. This was a woman-led event but men were welcome to join and many did. The protesters wore black (to symbolise the majority) and red (for the bloodshed they face). Pots and spoons were banged to acknowledge the gender dynamics of violence and the struggle for women's liberation.

Gender and state violence

In 2007 the Mugabe regime used International Women's Day to pass the Domestic Violence Bill. This was a long-contested law which is supposed to protect women from violence at home. But at the same time the state has been practising violence against women, particularly women activists.

Police brutally beat women's rights activists, Sekai Holland and Grace Kwinjeh, and then banned them from seeking medical care in Johannesburg. Activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) and women involved in the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) have likewise been targeted. They have been rounded up in the night, blindfolded and taken to unknown destinations in the bush where they are interrogated and assaulted. They have had bones fractured, earlobes torn and then, afterwards, denied medical treatment.

During Operation Murambatsvina - the demolition of houses and stalls around Zimbabwean towns - women were hardest hit, and were the focus of police attacks. During their assault the policemen accused Sekai and Grace of being 'whores of Tsvangirai (MDC leader) and prostitutes of Bush and Blair'. This is not the first time women who act in their own interest have been targeted. This kind of violence is an age-old tool to control women's social, political and physical mobility.

Silenced by the state . . .

The protest by women activists in Cape Town was timed to coincide with a stayaway called by the ZCTU to protest against political repression in Zimbabwe. When Mugabe cracked down on activism in Zimbabwe and attacked women, women activists felt that it was important to acknowledge their pain and support their struggle.

The patriarchal state is not concerned with the interests of women unless it can get political mileage. In Zimbabwe women fought side by side with men to fight the war of liberation. But afterwards, the operation clean-up of 1983, the gukurahundi massacres in the 1980's in Matabeleland and, more recently, operation Murambatsvina all showed the state crushing dissent by focusing its assaults on women.

These attacks on women activists are not simply a Zanu-PF issue. When the Domestic Violence Bill was first debated in Parliament a member of the MDC fought against it. He argued that criminalising wife battery was "..dangerous for men and our powers will be usurped, men's rights will be gone if this bill is passed."

Violence by any name

The police brutality in Zimbabwe is an example of the state doing the very thing it condemns of husbands. This attack on women at the same time as inviting the women of Zimbabwe to celebrate Women's Day and the passing of the Domestic Violence Bill is not unique to Zimbabwe. We can also see this kind of contradiction in South Africa in the 16 Days of Activism Campaign, with many state and business-sponsored events whilst at the same time the neo-liberal policies of the state lead to women being evicted from houses, having their water and electricity cut-off and, when they protest, facing police brutality.

Women's international solidarity

The BWA group of women activists recognises the need to welcome Zimbabweans fighting for a free Zimbabwe in South Africa, just as we were once welcome in Zimbabwe. In the context of poverty brought about by neo-liberalism, state repression adds another unbearable layer to women's oppression. International solidarity combining women in SA and Zimbabwe is needed to fight for women's rights - to ensure that the machines of violence - be they public or private - stop brutalising women.

The Building Women's Activism group will continue to debate how women can help build international solidarity and how women can mobilise and set up networks between women activists in trade unions and social movements in SA and Zimbabwe.

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