“We strive for a country where there is peace. We want to be free to express ourselves without fear. Currently we are forced to pretend as if we support political parties that we do not support, just so that we are able to sell at this market.” – Woman vendor, Chikwanha shopping center
On July 30, Zimbabweans head to the polls to vote for a new president and parliament in the first election since Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule ended with a military coup in November of 2017. As we inch toward the day, the surprising euphoria that drew international attention last year has dwindled. In a country where past elections have done little to address people’s needs and problems, skepticism is common as few expect real change. Yet, elections are still a critical moment to amplify demands, bring new ideas into public debate, and to educate and organise other citizens to work together to pursue alternatives. In light of this, JASS Southern Africa (SNA) and the Institute for Young Women in Development convened a 2-day pre-election dialogue with Zimbabwean women from different racial, class, ethnic, sexual orientation and gender identities, across the country. Together, we confronted the issues and challenges that most affect women’s lives and explored the rich national history of women’s political organising.
“If the cash crisis is resolved then all of our problems will be resolved. We are faced with problems because there is no cash.”– Woman vendor, Domboshava
While Zimbabweans have voted in 11 elections since our country gained independence in 1980, these have been elections without democracy. Instead, they were characterised by violence and repression meant to silence dissent and maintain Mugabe’s despotic rule. After a day of deliberations on our shared history and experience, we went into the suburbs of Domboshava, Highfield, Chikwanha and Hatfield to speak to women. Largely, we found that women consider next week’s election to be no different. They all said the same thing: These elections are not going to bring any meaningful change to their lives. Their pessimism came as no surprise given that women have been targets of violence, unlawful arrest, and intimidation. Amid deepening inequality and the dearth of basic services, poor women still carry the burden of ensuring the daily survival for their families – searching for food, water and medicines. They said they wanted jobs – not for themselves or their husbands but for their children.
Women who dare to speak out and stand up face toxic rhetoric spewed against them and violence. Whether as a candidate or managing an election campaign or mobilising as an activist – they are labeled ‘hure’ (prostitute). “’Hure’ is a word that is used to describe any woman doing amazing work in her community, workplace, and life,” said Gladys Mavusa, an activist from Marange. “If you haven’t been called ‘hure’ as a woman, you have not started working.”
We found that women have been fed up for many years, that all their anger has turned into a defeatist attitude as way to cope and make sense of this reality. “Electricity is not a problem; at least we get it three times a week,” one woman said. “Water is available; it’s only cut out three days a week, and if there’s no municipal water then we use wells or boreholes,” said another. The women we spoke to were withdrawn from the electoral process and talked about it as if they were not active stakeholders. Already defeated, they said, “Oh elections…we will hear about the outcome after ‘they vote.’”
“We have been paying road levies over the years but look at that road, it has not been repaired. We just want a government that is responsive and not corrupt.” – Woman vendor, Domboshava
After taking to the streets, we came back together to reflect on what we heard and saw. With a panel that included JASS’ longtime advisor Everjoice (EJ) Win, women from the communities, and our co-host IYWD, we discussed how we could renew spirits, recoup hope and organise differently. The disconnect between the “haves and the have nots” and the massive levels of inequality that exist even among women means some women must accept their realities and develop coping mechanisms to survive. Some of us have the latest cell phone or car while others make their living selling sweets. How do we connect elections and democracy to issues that affect people? How do we mobilise anger for positive change?
As our pre-election convening came to an end, we identified seven key issues as important to the lives and wellbeing of Women:
- Public services that work and are responsive to our rights and needs.
- An economy that meets the needs of all in a just and equitable manner.
- A country where all women in our sexual diversities can fully exercise their sexual rights, bodily autonomy and agency without fear of reprisal or attack.
- Infrastructure that works in the form of quality housing, improved road and transportation networks and street lights.
- Women should be able to participate freely and meaningfully in all decision-making spaces and processes.
- A demilitarised State founded on the ethos of accountability.
- Women are free to engage in artistic expression without fear of reprisals.
As women of Zimbabwe, we aim to hold the Zimbabwean government to account based on these key issues we have identified. From Zimbabwe to Nicaragua to the US-Mexico border, it sometimes feels like the world is breaking, and it takes all of us to fill the cracks and make it whole.