by Sharon Njobo
Sibongile Ncube wakes up earlier than usual today. She has a busy day ahead of her.
This 35 year-old mother of four looks way older than Oprah’s 50 years. Her husband is cycling to the industrial site one hour away as his earnings can’t afford him the luxury of a bus or taxi commute. Her two primary school children have only have thin cornmeal porridge for breakfast. She waves goodbye at them saddened, as she knows she may not see them for another day or two.
After a quick tidy-up, she calls out to her neighbor to tell her that she is off to the march. Today the women are meeting in Bulawayo’s city centre to demonstrate against the ever-rising prices of basic foodstuffs. Sibongile has no bus-fare. She straps her one year old son to her back and walks off briskly to the city centre. Three of her neighbors join her. They will pick up her sister-in-law along the way.
Before the march even begins, the riot police encircle the dozens of women gathered outside Bulawayo’s municipal offices. The police start to beat up the women and let the dogs loose on them. A number of the women are thrown into the back of the police vehicles. Sibongile is among the arrested. She spends the next 48 hours in detention with her baby until lawyers engaged by WOZA post $5000.00 bail for her. She declares that she will be back on the streets to join the next march; this is the price they pay for economic freedom.
Thousands of women identify with Sibongile as they have been through the same ordeal. An average of 30 women are jailed each month in Zimbabwe for daring to take to the streets to exercise their right to freedom of expression.
According to Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), organizer of these demonstrations, more than 1,200 women have been jailed over the last three years for taking part in the demonstrations.
WOZA, the acronym, is a Ndebele word meaning come forward. WOZA was formed in 2003 as a women’s civic movement to, among other objectives, provide women from all walks of life with a united voice to speak out on issues affecting their day-to-day lives.
Many of WOZA’s members are women from densely populated townships who are unemployed and supplement their factory-worker husbands’ wages by engaging in petty trading.
The increased political activism by these homemakers is a new phenomenon in post-independence Zimbabwe.
“Historically, activism among women was rather marginal, women were led by men, even during the liberation struggle. Now that women are taking the lead and risking arrest it means consciousness of women’s rights is high; they see the need to sacrifice in order to bring change to the economic strife they are facing,” said Caroline Chikoore, a human rights activist.
WOZA is not a political party, yet the movement is filling a void which, Chikoore says, political parties would never be able to fill, giving women a “voice” to demand social justice and solutions to the economic and social strife facing the country.
She says the structure of political parties in Zimbabwe reinforces the marginalization of women, yet WOZA affords the women the freedom to organize amongst themselves and express themselves without being influenced or muscled by men.
“It doesn’t matter now that, in the past, women may have been ardent supporters of (Robert) Mugabe and voted for him. What matters now is that they are unhappy with the state of affairs and they must be listened to,” said an emotional Thandi Tshuma, a Zimbabwean exiled in Ontario, Canada.
Tshuma applauds the women for taking matters into their own hands despite the dangers they have faced from their major tormentor, Robert Mugabe, since independence from Britain in 1980.
WOZA says their motivation stems from the desire of women as mothers to mete out some “tough love” to errant leaders.
“Tough love is our secret weapon of mass mobilization. Tough love from the grassroots is the solution to crisis of governance in Zimbabwe. Our rulers need some discipline; who better to dish it out than the women,” WOZA declared in a statement recently.
Zimbabwe’s women have borne the brunt of the social, political and economic meltdown of this country that was once the food basket of Africa. With inflation above 1000%, prices of basic foodstuffs, such as cooking oil, cornmeal, bread, and milk, are beyond the reach of many families.
Poverty is compounded by the HIV/AIDS scourge that has touched most of the country’s families. With an HIV prevalence rate estimated at close to 18.1 percent, combined with a collapsing formal health system, limited availability of anti-retrovirals and opportunistic infection medication, the burden of care has fallen on women, the major providers of service in home-based care.
The women are also demonstrating to press government to make anti-retrovirals available and affordable, a major challenge since the government’s application to global fund was again declined due to international polarization.
While political parties are embroiled in internal power wrangles and ideological debates, Zimbabwe’s women are gallantly drawing the world’s attention to the plight of millions of Zimbabweans suffering under the rule of a corrupt and oppressive government, hoping that their efforts will lead to eventual change.
About the Author
Sharon Njobo works with the Christian Children's Fund of Canada. She is also a seasoned international journalist and scholar. She has been a volunteer executive board member of Women's Health in Women's Hands, which provides community, mental and clinical health care in metropolitan Toronto. WHWH works with immigrants and/or refugees, women with disabilities, young women and older women. It also seeks to address the issue of access to healthcare caused by poverty, gender, race, violence, sexual orientation, religion, culture, language, disability, class and socio-economic circumstances.
Educated in Zimbabwe, Sharon earned her Master's degree at the University of Natal, South Africa. She has worked and volunteered for not-for-profit organizations in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. For eight years she was a reporter for the Zimbabwe Inter-Africa News Agency, where she wrote about socio-economic issues as well as national and international policies. She was also Information and Advocacy Officer for the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN), a women's organization in Harare that addresses women's issues in the area of HIV/AIDS through advocacy, support and networking. She is now living in exile in Canada and is passionate about improving the quality of life for women, children and communities wherever she is.