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Zimbabwean activist receives Kennedy Award for Human Rights
Stephen Kaufman, United States Department of State
November 25, 2009

In the early 1980s, Zimbabwe's Magodonga Mahlangu witnessed the massacre of thousands in Matabeleland, including family members, and she decided it was intolerable that the people of Zimbabwe were forbidden to know the truth about what was happening in their country. After she came to lead the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) movement, co-founded by Jenni Williams in 2002, Mahlangu became an example to Zimbabwean women and men alike that the brutal rule by President Robert Mugabe's regime could be met with peaceful and heroic public defiance.

For her inspirational work and willingness to withstand intimidation and physical abuse by the regime, Mahlangu and WOZA were honored by President Obama at the White House on November 23 with the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, named for the former American senator and human rights champion who was killed in 1968.

The award was established in 1984 to honor human rights defenders around the world. It carries a cash prize of $30,000, as well as ongoing legal advocacy and technical support from the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

"By her example, Magodonga has shown the women of WOZA and the people of Zimbabwe that they can undermine their oppressors' power with their own power, that they can sap a dictator's strength with their own," Obama said at the award presentation. "Her courage has inspired others to summon theirs."

Zimbabwe's women have suffered from the political and economic crisis that has plagued the country under Mugabe's rule. Obama cited "desperate hunger, crumbling health and education systems, domestic violence and rape, and government repression ranging from restrictions on free expression to abduction and murder of dissidents."

Obama noted that WOZA has grown from a handful of activists at its founding to a movement of 75,000 people, including a men's branch. "Over the past seven years, they have conducted more than a hundred protests - maids and hairdressers, vegetable sellers and seamstresses, taking to the streets, singing and dancing, banging on pots empty of food and brandishing brooms to express their wish to sweep the government clean," he said.

But their protests are usually confronted with violence by Mugabe's riot police. "They have been gassed, abducted, threatened with guns and badly beaten - forced to count out loud as each blow was administered," Obama said, adding that 3,000 of their members have been in prison or police custody, and both Mahlangu and Williams are facing a possible five-year prison sentence from a December 7 trial, where the two have been charged with "conduct likely to cause a breach of peace."

Yet, Obama said, Zimbabweans see inspiration in Mahlangu's heroic steadfastness in the face of being beaten, having over 30 arrests, having her home searched, and being subject to "brutal abuse" when she is incarcerated.

"More people have come to realize what Magodonga and the women of WOZA have known all along: that the only real way to teach love and nonviolence is by example. Even when that means sitting down while being arrested, both as a sign that they refuse to retaliate, absorbing each blow without striking back, and a warning that, come what may, they're not going anywhere," he said.

Mahlangu's leadership has inspired community action and solidarity among Zimbabwe's women, which Obama said "may be [her] greatest achievement."

"She has given them a voice they can only have collectively - and a strength that they can only have together," he said.

History is not on the side of those who "arrest women and babies for singing in the streets" or dictators who "starve and silence their own people and cling to power by threat of force," Obama said.

Instead, "it is the way of the maid walking home in Montgomery, the young woman marching silently in the streets of Tehran, the leader imprisoned in her own home for her commitment to democracy," the president said.

The 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Award was the first since the death in August of Senator Ted Kennedy, who understood that his brother's legacy included a belief in the need to build laws and society with an eye to the difference between right and wrong, Obama said.

Robert Kennedy's legacy is "a sensitivity to injustice so acute that it can't be relieved by the rationalizations that make life comfortable for the rest of us - that others' suffering is not our problem, that the ills of the world are somehow not our concern," Obama said.

In a November 10 interview with the Voice of America (VOA), Mahlangu welcomed the award as a means of increasing the visibility of Zimbabwe's human rights struggle.

She said many people have a mistaken impression that the Global Political Agreement signed between President Mugabe and his political rival Morgan Tsvangirai has brought change "because there is food in the market."

"People think that things are OK. But we are really setting the record straight, and also we are very grateful for this opportunity to be here, winning, receiving this award, because it is going to amplify the voices of ordinary persons in Zimbabwe," she told VOA.

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