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"I want a Zimbabwe where you and I are proud to be Zimbabwean" - Interview with Grace Chirenje
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
June 27, 2011

Read Inside / Out with Grace Chirenje

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Grace ChirenjeGrace Chirenje is the Director of the Zimbabwe Young Women's Network for Peace Building. She is a passionate and outspoken advocate for young people, especially young women. Recently she was selected to participate in the Young African Women Leaders Forum in South Africa, where she had the opportunity to meet Mrs Obama.

How did you become an activist?
Growing up I didn't understand the dynamics in our home. Why we (the women) used to be doing all the crappy work, and my dad and my brother seemed to be enjoying life more. I'm a person who questions why things are the way they are. By the time I got to university, I didn't really know that this was called activism. In university I realised that this was a career for some people, and it was called feminism. That's when I took it seriously. I haven't stopped since.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing young women, especially with regard to empowerment?
I think its lack of access to information, and when it's there its not packaged properly. Access to education for young women is also poor. So they then become less literate than their male counterparts. When men go to the bar, they discuss and create formal and informal relationships. These channels exist for men, but not necessarily for young women, which is a challenge. Another challenge is the domestication of young women, where their place is the home, taking care of the family and household. That gives them fewer opportunities as compared to men.

How are you working to help young women overcome these challenges?
We (Zimbabwe Young Women's Network for Peace Building) do a capacity building and training on democracy, good governance and conflict transformation. Our belief is centred on Paulo Freire's work where he says 'transformation begins with the individual'. Once you can have that happening at that level you're likely to have it cascading to the family, the community and the nation.

Do you think young people can make a useful contribution to Zimbabwe's future?
Yes, they can, but this whole 'the youth are the leaders of tomorrow' doesn't work for me. They are the leaders of today and tomorrow. Unless we realise that we're not going to make much difference. We shouldn't let other people define who we are as young people; we should define our own roles and responsibilities. Like they say in the HIV adverts, it begins with you. Wherever you are you can make a difference. Speak out against abuse, violence, and whatever other social ills there are. Like Ghandi says, be the change you want to see. We do have a place, but we need to begin to act like leaders today. Listen

We hear a lot about young people during election periods, but no so much after that. Why do you think they have allowed their space for expression and leadership to shrink?
A story is told of a man from the Matebeleland region who went away from his family for work. After seven years, he sent a message to his wife saying that he was retuning. The wife made sure the children, the dog and the house were clean, she even borrowed perfume from next door to make sure, everything was it should be for her husband. They went to wait for the husband at the bus stop. They waited and waited, with no sign of the husband. Finally in the evening, when it was getting dark, one of the children looked towards the house and spotted a figure carrying bags. They all ran toward the house, including the dog. Everyone was excited to see dad. Everyone went into the house, then when the dog tried to enter, they all said 'no, no, no, you don't belong inside. Out! Out!' That's the role of the youth during elections. When it's strategic to engage them, it seems we are all partners. But when it comes to the real issues, they are thrown out.

I can't blame the politicians. Imagine if the youth said no, enough is enough we will not allow ourselves to be used as to perpetrate violence, we will not allow ourselves to be engaged only during elections. No one has ever approached the youth and said, there's a crisis in this country, and what do you think. Youth engagement is an afterthought, just like partnerships with women are an afterthought. I think the youth should begin to say no, we will not allow ourselves to be used by politicians. After the violence they still remain as neighbours, brothers and colleagues. I think we need to begin to define our role as young people. Listen

Why do you think young Zimbabweans are not particularly engaged or concerned?
I think it's unfair to say they are not concerned, they are concerned but sometimes it's really difficult for them to participate. I'll give you an example. Last week I had the privilege of meeting Mrs Obama. When I came back, The Herald was saying was that I am working for Mrs Obama towards regime change. I was shocked. Zimbabwe was not even part of the agenda. It was about developing young women leaders. My point is that it's very scary to participate in such a space. But young people should not be afraid to take up that task and run with it. We can make a difference. But it's hard because of the environment, socially, economically and politically; it's not conducive.

What is your dream for Zimbabwe?
I want a Zimbabwe where I'm free to say what I want. A Zimbabwe that guarantees safety before and after expressing yourself. A Zimbabwe where we share resources equally and equitably. A Zimbabwe where I can decide what I want to do with my life and do it with all the passion, energy and strength that I possibly can. A Zimbabwe where equality defines the environment and we respect each other. A Zimbabwe that's free and fair, and where women are viewed as equal strategic partners. A Zimbabwe where you and I are proud to be Zimbabwean.

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