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!

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.

An Evolution in Zimbabwe

Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Sarah Hager (Amnesty International USA), White House, November 23, 2009

Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Sarah Hager (Amnesty International USA), White House, November 23, 2009

I had the honor and pleasure of attending the RFK Human Rights Award ceremony last night, hosted by President Obama and Mrs. Obama at the White House, where Magodonga Mahlangu and Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were recipients of the annual award. I can sum it up in one word: wow. I laughed, I cried, I was disappointed the toilet paper did not have the presidential seal.

In President Obama’s words:

And that may be Magodonga’s greatest achievement — that she has given the women of Zimbabwe each other.  That she has given people who long for peace and justice each other. That she has given them a voice they can only have collectively-and a strength that they can only have together. They are a force to be reckoned with.

I attended in the capacity as nominator of WOZA for the award. Amnesty International works closely with WOZA and they are a special focus case for action here in the US. It was a team effort putting together the information requested by the RFK staff, but it was an easy sell convincing them that Magodonga and WOZA deserved the award. These women redefine inspiring.


Zimbabwe's Heroes


Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of WOZA

Zimbabwe gets a lot of bad press, but not many are aware of some of the amazing people making a difference there every day. These are people, who usually at great personal risk, fight for human rights, civil liberties, justice, equality and a better Zimbabwe for all. So here’s a shout out to some personal heroes of mine and I hope you are equally inspired.  (Feel free to share stories about other amazing human rights heroes in Zim or southern Africa in general in the comment section.)

Betty Makoni
Betty is a teacher who got tired of hearing about the relentless sexual abuse of young girls and decided to do something about it. She started the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe to provide a safe place, healing and support for young girls surviving sexual assault. Many of the girls were victimized because of a belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS. As a result of her efforts, Betty has been targeted by security forces in Zimbabwe and forced to flee the country for her safety. A documentary film tells the story of Betty and the girls she helps. Betty has also been nominated as CNN’s Hero of the Year. You can vote for Betty on CNN’s web site until November 19th. Vote early and often! SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

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…

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!