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Human rights | Gender - Women | Society

Zimbabwe women preach love to demand change

Zimbabwean women, organised through WOZA, mark Valentines Day 2006. But their message of love is not appreciated by Harare authorities.

© Miriam Madziwa/GenderLinks/afrol News
afrol News / Gender Links, 7 November
- Women in Zimbabwe are taking to the streets and crying for love to show their frustration with poor governance, lack of basic social services, and unprecedented increases in the cost of education. In the process, police have arrested nearly 1000 women activists for their attempts to hold their leaders accountable.

This past October, members of the organisation Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) scored three legal victories after the Harare state failed to substantiate its charges against the some of the women arrested while demonstrating, prompting the magistrates to set the women free.

Others have not been as successful. Some women spend months detained in filthy police cells, sometimes with babies on their backs, attending continually postponed hearings while the prosecution teams try to find charges that will stick. Some have even gone into labour while in police detention.

Jane Mlambo [not her real name] is from a low-income suburb in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city. At 62 years of age, the widow explains how jam has become a luxury, and she cannot even afford to buy bread on which to serve the spread. Her age mate in rural Insiza district, Thembi Ndlovu, is frustrated that her grandchildren are no longer attending class because of prohibitive school fees and costly uniforms demanded before admission.

Both reminisce about the past and dream of a brighter future for their grandchildren. Such recollections and pent-up frustrations have stirred up strong discontent not just in Ms Mlambo and Ms Ndlovu but also in hundreds of other Zimbabwean women who have joined WOZA.

WOZA says its mission is to "restore the dignity" of the country's women by speaking out against social and economic injustices that have eroded the well-being of the majority of the country's citizens. Guided by their motto 'The power of love can overcome the love of power' the women peacefully show their displeasure.

WOZA is now known for its non-violent but highly imaginative demonstrations during which they persistently call for "tough love" among the country's leaders to resolve the crisis that has made not just women's lives, but all Zimbabweans' lives unbearable.

A major plus for the organisation is that the protests always catch Zimbabwean state security agents napping because WOZA does not publicise actions beforehand. By the time security agents catch on, the women have already had their say.

With its street action and frequent visit to "the garden" - WOZA lingo for police cells - the organisation is slowly chalking up victories against a repressive government.

While in "the garden", the women seize the opportunity to share some sisterly love through song and dance. The songs also send a message to the arresting officers to realise that they too are victims of the socio-political environment.

Additionally, the women highlight the fact that Zimbabwe's situation is untenable but things are bound to change if they continue speaking out. So effective has this strategy been that police officers who have heard the women's "tough love songs" now refuse to arrest lead singers within the organisation.

WOZA members say through their homemade, handwritten placards and leaflet they are communicating with a government that has cut off communication links with its people.

Listening and watching WOZA members plan and stage their projects, one get the sense that here are women determined to have their voices and opinions heard. Here are women who invest their time and meagre material resources to stage protracted protests for their dream of a "socially just future."

These women put passion and conviction into their street actions. These women are serious.

The women's commitment is evident through their style of doing things. Members receive intensive training programmes to maintain the organisation's philosophy of non-violence and to always show love. Now even brutal baton-welding police officers have conceded in court that when they go to break-up WOZA demonstrations, "the women are very cooperative and sit down and allow themselves to be arrested."

The spirit of sisterhood ensures packed courtrooms when WOZA activists appear in court. Members, who escape the police dragnet after protests, go and offer themselves for arrest so that they can be together with their sisters.

With such an impressive record of accomplishment, many men also hold it is about time disgruntled Zimbabweans start taking WOZA seriously. Currently debate in opposition political circles and civic society is revolving around the need to a "united and brave leader to direct a popular revolt," but discussions there focus on male leaders that are partly discredited among Zimbabweans hungering for change.

Woman activists therefore hold it may now be time to draw helpful lessons from WOZA's experiences. Essentially, these lessons are that it is not about how strong the leadership is but how involved, committed and prepared members are in identifying a cause and planning how they will achieve their stated objectives.

It is about unshakeable belief in what you are doing and love for a brighter tomorrow. Just as the old adage notes, "it is love that makes the world go round." WOZA has shown the way of how to use love to unsettle an oppressive regime.

By Miriam Madziwa.
Ms Madziwa is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe.

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