Celebrating a Fearless Human Rights Defender, Jenni Williams

Jenni williams women of zimbabwe arise

Jenni leading protest march in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, February 2012. Jenni was arrested for the 40th time that day. Photo courtesy of WOZA.

Every year on March 8th we celebrate International Women’s Day. I have been blessed to know many amazing women in my life: my mom, my sisters, my aunts, my friends. It’s nice there is a day of the year set aside to honor and remember strong, powerful women who make a difference in our world.

Ginetta Sagan was one of those women. Ms. Sagan, once a political prisoner herself, was a fearless and outspoken human rights defender who tirelessly worked to improve the lives of others. Amnesty International USA established a fund in her honor which annually recognizes a woman who, often at great personal risk, dedicates her life to improving the lives of others.


10 Years of Love Met With Violence in Zimbabwe

Jenni Williams-Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Yesterday, the activists of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets in Bulawayo for the 10th consecutive commemoration of Valentine’s Day. Yes, I know it’s a week early; but in Zimbabwe, when you’re trying to keep the riot police from guessing when your peaceful protests will occur, that’s what you have to do. Unfortunately, their plan didn’t work and co-founder Jenni Williams, along with twelve other people including a pregnant woman and minor, were arrested.

WOZA and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) use the occasion of Valentine’s Day to confront governmental policies that violate civil and human rights in Zimbabwe and educate their fellow citizens about issues and what can be done. Frequently, WOZA is met with brutal violence at the hands of the riot police. Jenni has been arrested nearly 50 times.


Zimbabwe Police Think Strong Women Deserve Men's Prison

Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu

In November of last year, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruled Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu were wrongfully arrested and detained following a peaceful protest in 2008. As a result, their rights and fundamental freedoms were violated and the state failed to protect them from this abuse.

This was a pretty landmark holding and I am so proud of Jenni and Magodonga for standing up for their rights and the rights of all Zimbabweans; for educating people about their rights, encouraging people to demand those rights, and fighting back through peaceful, legal means when those rights are violated. Unfortunately, because of these efforts, Jenni, Magodonga, the other members of WOZA and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) and many other human rights defenders in Zimbabwe are regularly targeted by the police and other government officials.

In February, violence and repression escalated sharply by government actors. Forty-five persons were arrested for gathering to watch video footage of the Egypt and Tunisia uprisings; six continue to face treason charges, punishable by death. Multiple members of WOZA/MOZA have been arrested on the street and in private houses. Both groups of detainees allege torture at the hands of the police. Abel Chikomo, director of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum is being sought by the police and today was charged with running an illegal organization.

And police have visited the residences of Jenni and Magodonga several times. A human rights lawyer at court representing other WOZA/MOZA detainees was told by police to inform Jenni and Magodonga they should prepare for a long detention…in a men’s prison because they are too strong of women to be contained in the women’s prison. As Jenni pointed out, a perverse sort of compliment.

It’s time for everyone to be equally strong and demand security sector reform in Zimbabwe. It’s time for everyone to be strong and demand Zimbabwe’ unity government guarantor’s take steps to end political violence in Zimbabwe. It’s time to stand strong in solidarity with Jenni and Magodonga and demand police do what the Supreme Court said they must: protect the citizens of Zimbabwe. Help keep Jenni, Magodonga and all Zimbabweans safe from abuse by taking action now!

Jenni Williams of WOZA Arrested in Zimbabwe

Jenni Williams-Women of Zimbabwe Arise

[UPDATE 10:00: Jenni has been released. Just another effort on the part of the Zimbabwe police to intimidate human rights defenders. Thank you to everyone for standing in solidarity through your phone calls on her behalf. ]

This morning, the 83 activists who spent two nights in jail at Harare Central, were released on bail after being charged with “criminal nuisance.” Jenni Williams, National Coordinator of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) met the activists across the street, along with other leadership members, to greet them upon their release. While speaking with the activists to determine who needed medical assistance, police approached the group and demanded Jenni accompany them into the police station.

She is accused of “addressing a gathering” and being held at the Magistrate’s Court until transport can be provided to Harare Central. WOZA has filed suit against members of Zimbabwe’s government over conditions at Harare Central. Jenni and 70 other WOZA activists were arrested and detained at Harare Central in April. Below is information provided in their complaint:

“When they got to the cells, their senses were assaulted by the choking smell of human excreta, and flowing urine of varying colours. Even the beds were covered with human excreta, so they sat and spent the night huddled in the corridors of the cells, as they could not sit inside the cells due to the faeces. However, even the corridor itself had flowing urine and they had to use their own tissues, to clean up the area where they planned to sit on.”

Please call Harare Central and demand that Jenni be released immediately! 011 +263 4 777777

Healing Hearts, Raising Spirits in Zimbabwe

Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Everyone has been blessed in their life with at least one strong, female role model that showed grace under pressure, kindness when facing adversity, strength when challenged. Whether a grandmother, sister, teacher, supervisor or friend, she was someone who inspired and guided you. Personally, I think my mom is pretty fantastic; but I have also been lucky enough to know many other strong, passionate women I consider role models and among those are the leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA).

 WOZA is a grassroots activist movement in Zimbabwe started by women, led by women and grown by women into a membership of more than 70,000 across Zimbabwe. Magodonga Mahlangu, Jenni Williams and Trust work to improve living conditions for all Zimbabweans as they promote the self-esteem of their members. They practice non-violent civil disobedience as they take to the streets demanding better schools, better hospitals, greater civil liberties, advancement of human rights, a new constitution that protects Zimbabweans and promotes the rule of law, responsible government that works for the people not for themselves and free and fair elections. Their marches are characterized by singing, dancing and complete passivism when faced by violent dispersal by the Zimbabwe police and anti-riot police. 

WOZA began on Valentines Day in 2003, inspired by their slogan “the power of love is greater than the love of power.” Every year they mark their anniversary with large scale marches in major Zimbabwe cities. As a matter of course, these protests are broken up by Zimbabwe police officers, usually with violence. Already in the four short weeks of 2010, thirty-five WOZA members have been arrested for marching for education or meeting to discuss constitutional reform.


Women of Zimbabwe Arise Report Increased Harassment

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, Women of Zimbabwe Arise

Last month, Magodonga Mahlangu was awarded the RFK Human Rights Award for the work she does as co-leader of Women of Zimbabwe  Arise (WOZA). Since her return to Zimbabwe, however, she and co-leader Jenni Williams are reporting increased harassment levels by police and Central Intelligence officers. Both Magodonga and Jenni have faced heightened intimidation efforts following past international recognition, but it was hoped that since this award was presented by President Barack Obama along with Ethel Kennedy, it might buy them a little breathing space since even Mugabe has hailed Obama as a pretty cool dude. Clearly Obama’s street cred as a brother will only carry you so far.

Magodonga and Jenni were back in court last week on pending charges from an arrest in October 2008. The Supreme Court verbally ruled almost six months ago that the charges were unconstitutional but has yet to put it in writing. In the spirit of continuing to drag the process out as long as possible, the ladies were now told that their file was missing and the magistrate would not make any ruling without it and these “political cases” are sensitive. Hmmm. Political cases? I seem to remember that Magodonga and Jenni were arrested because they were marching in the streets demanding equitable distribution of food aid. You say political case, I say oppression of human rights defenders. Tomato, tomatoe.

Magodonga and Jenni were ordered to reappear Monday, January 14th. Take Action! Demand justice for Magodonga and Jenni.

WOZA Activists Beaten Today in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets of Zimbabwe over the last two days to commemorate International Day of Peace. As the flyer they handed out during their march explains,

“[I]t is a year after the global political agreement (GPA) was signed on 15 September 2008. This deal was supposed to bring peace to Zimbabwe. The United Nations theme this year is: Better than a thousand empty words is ONE WORD that brings peace. The GPA contains 6,567 words but we are yet to see if these words really stand for peace. Because we are still waiting for peace, WOZA members decided to choose a theme that shows the politicians how they can bring meaning to their words: Our theme: Social Justice will bring Peace of Mind.”

Over 1,000 members of Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA/MOZA) took to the streets of Harare yesterday. Riot police responded but no arrests or violence occurred. Six simultaneous protests converged on the offices of the United Nations, where a petition asking the UN to help intervene in Zimbabwe to restore the health and education sectors was handed in to officials in the building. The petition also called on the UN to pressure the inclusive government to stop the harassment of vendors and ordinary Zimbabweans by police.

Today at noon in Bulawayo, 1300 human rights defenders came together to repeat yesterday’s march. Their songs were silenced however as riot police swooped, beating women and men alike, to disperse them from reaching their target at Mhlahlandlela Government complex. No arrests have been reported to date but WOZA leaders are still verifying whether everyone returned safely to their homes. One man had to be driven to the hospital as he was unable to walk after being beaten by four riot police at the same time; he has a fracture to his arm and doctors are still waiting to check his leg and lower back. Over twenty other members are also seeking medical treatment at this time for the brutal beatings they received at the hands of police.

A group of men watching the man being beaten tried to mobilise people to beat the police in retaliation. This action was quickly stopped by WOZA members who explained:

“We are non-violent activists and any history should write that the people who disturbed the peace with violence were Zimbabwe Republic Police officers, not peaceful human rights defenders.”

One of those who managed to side step the beatings was Jenni Williams, who proceeded to the government complex. They chanted slogans and left the placards and demands behind before walking peacefully away. A police vehicle was deployed to locate WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu after a police officer said they should stop beating just anyone and look for the leaders to beat.

Since the power-sharing deal was signed in September 2008, 40 WOZA activists have been arrested on seven separate occasions after peaceful protests, WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu spent three weeks in Mlondolozi Prison and hundreds of peaceful Zimbabweans citizens were brutally beaten by police for merely speaking out about the hardships in their lives.

I guess if you are beaten every other time you march you are still doing better than when you are beaten EVERY time you march…

"Finding Goodness Where You Least Expect It" – Interview with WOZA Founder Jenni Williams

Jenni Williams © Scott Langley & Amnesty International

Jenni Williams © Scott Langley & Amnesty International

Anyone who met Jenni Williams and her colleague Magodonga Mahlangu at AIUSA’s Annual General Meeting this Spring knows what amazing, uncrushable spirits these women have, despite having been jailed, beaten, and threatened repeatedly by Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. But if you weren’t fortunate enough to meet them, or you’d like to get a deeper look into what makes the women of WOZA keep going, check out this great interview with WOZA founder Jenni Williams that was published in the Guardian this past Sunday. She is truly an amazing woman.

Although Jenni and Magodonga expected to have had their trial by now, the trial date has been postponed until July 7th, so they remain in limbo, but they also remain unstoppable!

WOZA Activist Jenni Williams Faces Trial Thursday, March 5

Members of WOZA © AP

Members of WOZA © AP

Jenni Williams, founder and activist in the human rights organization Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) faces trial next week for her role in a protest on October 16, 2008. Jenni was arrested and detained for “disturbing the peace” even though the protest was a peaceful demonstration demanding that the government provide necessary food aid. Police used excessive force to break up the peaceful protest of over 200 people, and Jenni was arbitrarily arrested with Magodonga Mahlangu, another WOZA activist. After being granted bail and released on November 6, 2008, Jenni’s trial has been postponed three times, leaving her in a legal limbo for months. On Thursday, she goes to trial to determine whether she will be imprisoned again–a pattern for human rights defenders in Zimbabwe as the government tries to silence opposition to its authority. Support Jenni Williams and the WOZA activists in their fight for human rights in Zimbabwe!