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Women Activists Strategize against Backlash in Zimbabwe

  • JASS

Identifying the risks to themselves (and their organizations) is seldom a priority for women activists. But as the work of promoting human rights and resisting repression becomes increasingly dangerous, JASS’ Heart—Mind—Body (HMB) approach enables women to critically read and understand the risks they face.

Working through an innovative set of processes encourages women to recognize the importance of their voices and activism, and provides insight into why their work for justice is perceived as a threat. They deepen their understanding of how each political moment presents unique power dynamics that directly impact women’s bodies, their security and wellbeing. 

“I’d never really thought about my safety because I didn’t think I posed a security threat to the socio-political system,” says Zimbabwean activist and Katswe Sistahood member, Winnet Shamuyarira. “But then we did the Master’s House exercise in a JASS workshop and I saw how the work we do — challenging inequality and discrimination, breaking down stigma and taboos about sex and sexuality — disrupts the social order and that often sparks backlash.”  

Innovative Tools for Security & Wellbeing

HMB_SNA_jassWinnet experienced the Master’s House methodology at a two-day Heart—Mind—Body Facilitators’ Training hosted by Musasa and JASS Southern Africa (May 21–22, 2013) in Harare. The training gathered ten Zimbabwean women activist–facilitators who have participated in various JASS processes over the last three years. These ground breakers are anchoring JASS Southern Africa’s Heart—Mind—Body Initiative within their organizations, Musasa (a long-standing national group addressing violence against women) and the Katswe Sisterhood (a young feminist group) will lead efforts to strengthen the wellbeing, safety and security of their rural and urban constituencies. They will be sharing simple methodologies for self-care that work to heal the body, heart and mind, from breathing and stretching exercises to relieve stress and strain to strengthening networks and alert systems for self-defence and protection.  

Over two days, participants grappled with the why of safety and security work in Zimbabwe. Whether it’s an arrest on charges of loitering and soliciting as a means to police women’s appearance and mobility or state-sponsored violence against lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists and women’s rights organisers, women face violence on multiple fronts. Together, the group generated an analysis of their context, exploring the ways in which patriarchy controls women’s bodies through violence for economic, political, and socio-cultural purposes.

Key to this discussion was understanding how the system curtails bodily autonomy, or the right to make decisions about our own bodies, which was a new concept to many. Women have limited access to sexual and reproductive health services like contraceptives and safe abortion, partially due to a lack of providers, but also because of societal ‘rules’ inscribed in religion and cultural traditions, all of which are taught to us at home, at school and at church. As one participant said, “Women’s bodies are not their own, society decides what we are, what we can be … even what we wear.” Body mapping allowed participants to share intimate stories of how the difficult context leaves imprints on their bodies, making explicit the link between the personal and the political. In an exercise called the heart—mind—body facilitators’ market place, each woman shared the effective HMB practices she uses on the ground, such as songs and dance that help to build solidarity and journal-writing to encourage reflection and inform strategizing for the future—all of which help to counter the divisions imposed by “The Master’s House” and the very real insecurity activists experience in their organizations and daily lives.

HMB_SNA_jassWith national elections planned for this year in Zimbabwe, women activists are re-thinking strategies to mitigate the violence that has been associated with several previous elections. Seeking solidarity within a fragmented feminist movement and a demobilised civil society sector means that Zimbabwean women activists have their work cut out for them. They are developing security protocols and detailed risk assessment to understand the dangers they face and the potential for violence as elections approach, and exchanging critical tools for survival and HMB practices to catalyse organizing.

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