Southern Africa - Context & Strategy

Zambia Assessment 2010"Our work is positioned against the politics of hunger, scarcity, and poverty. We don’t separate political organising from this reality." ~ Hope Chigudu

We work in a difficult context that has compelled women to develop new forms of organizing and connection. Across the region, increasing conservatism, violence, economic inequities, and the spread of HIV-AIDS have spurred women to action. Grandmothers and children heads of households along with young women and other marginalized groups such as lesbians and sex workers are organizing for survival. At the same time, informal, community-based networks – including burial societies and savings clubs – engage poor women in large numbers.  Yet these are disconnected from more systematic women’s organizing efforts and largely invisible to key decision-makers. 

Southern Africa is home to increasing levels of inequality based on race, gender, nationality, sexuality and other tiers of social stratification. Women make up over 70% of those living in poverty. They face high levels of gender based and political violence, militarisation and dislocation (from their homes and sometimes from their own countries). Sex and sexuality lie at the heart of these issues as stubborn cultural and ideological beliefs about women create and reinforce discrimination.

Politics and Economics

Colonialism in Southern Africa established a deeply embedded system of social and economic division throughout society, legislating and violently enforcing it. These inequalities have been exacerbated by a global economic system that has left wider gaps between the rich and the poor. This economic reality combined with a lack of political will has seen Southern African states fail to ensure women’s rights to education, employment, basic safety, and health services including sexual, reproductive rights and treatment for HIV/AIDS. Where decent laws have been passed, for example against domestic violence, they go largely unenforced or lack adequate resources for implementation.


As women demand services, claim rights and challenge power – they face strong, often violent repercussions. In Southern Africa, this backlash is fuelled by powerful fundamentalist groups – religious and traditional cultural organisations – that reinforce patriarchy, narrow belief systems, and conservative agendas. These beliefs, internalized by both sexes, frame women as the problem and attempt to ‘correct’ them using stigma and violence which limit women’s freedoms.  Before women can stand up and organise, they need to first challenge these ideas inside their own minds.

Walking Corpses

A Malawian activist tells the story of a village chief who called women with HIV walking corpses as a pretext for denying them fertilizer for their crops, but one day he found out he was HIV positive and asked for their help.

Having attended the JASS workshop and learnt about the importance of claiming power, I used my power within myself and told the chief I would help him but there were conditions. He was to call a meeting, explain that when he refused to give us fertilizers he did not know what he was doing and apologize to the women with HIV who he had called walking corpses. He would declare his status there and then and persuade people to go for testing. Above all he would find fertilizers for the group. I wanted justice. Only then would he be allowed to join our group as the first man to do so. He did not want to declare his status, but just wanted me to keep his secret… I stood my ground, I told him that I had many things in my heart including anger over the lack of fertilizers and there was no room left for secrets…Having seen that my position was not shifting, he agreed to declare his status openly. He apologized to the community and today he talks and behaves like an HIV activist.


"I come from a remote hilly area with barren soil. Unable to till the infertile ground, most of the year, the community lives its demoralized, ebbing life on poor quality food handed out by the government.  But for us who are HIV positive, we can’t afford to live on such hand outs since they have no nutritional value." ~ Esnat, Malawi*

Violence against women comes from many sources - backlash against progressive activism,   state violence, extremely high levels of domestic violence, and so-called “corrective” rape where men violate lesbians/bisexual women in attempts to force them to become heterosexual. The violence of poverty and hunger attacks women’s health and their ability to sustain themselves and their families.


Women represent nearly 60% of HIV+ adults in sub-Saharan Africa. Young women are three times more likely to be HIV-positive than young men. The epidemic has unleashed deep sexism and racism, and widened the rural–urban divide. Misguided policies and programmes have failed to factor in women’s lack of negotiating power when it comes to sex and have focused on information and service provision with limited impact. Home-based care programs have exploited women’s traditional care-giving role while letting governments and the international aid community off the hook for not providing the most basic healthcare.

Women’s organizing

In Southern Africa, the last few decades have seen women’s rights organisations focus on policy advocacy and legal reform which have delivered fragile gains for women. Organisations fragmented due to economic and political instability and divided by a development paradigm which splits women’s rights work into single issues means capacity for movement building is limited. These problems have been compounded by the impact of aid; donor-driven agendas are based on the availability of funds rather than on context and need. Increased harassment, as a result of growing resistance to progressive women’s rights agendas, has meant that many women’s rights organisations and leaders in Southern Africa have gone silent on critical issues.


JASS responds to the complex set of interconnected issues facing women in the region, starting with where women live and work.

JASS Southern Africa builds, mobilises and leverages the collective power of women to demand their rights, address their practical needs, and promote democracy in their communities. We do this through: leadership development based on feminist popular education, strategic actions, and participatory research and knowledge production. We strengthen women’s movements and organisations, creating safe spaces for them to share experiences, build their analysis, and develop effective strategies promoting wellbeing, safety and security.

What’s not happening presently – and needs to happen, yet again – is for women’s rights activists to make a powerful case as to why women’s organizing and women-only spaces are critical. ~ JASS Southern Africa Thinkshop

We collaborate with women activists to identify their issues, support their organising and learning, and connect local to global issues. In the long term, this work requires flexibility and careful contextual analysis in order to strategically respond to women’s particular challenges and the risks they face.   

The dangers of political instability and repressive states mean that we sometimes need to undertake urgent actions to protect women. Alliance building is both a strategy for building women’s movements capable of taking on critical challenges, as well as a way of addressing the fragmentation of women’s agendas.

Defined by women as they engage in JASS processes, our agendas are strengthened through regional and country-level initiatives of JASS and our allies.

Read more about JASS’ approach.

Connecting Regional Partners and Allies

JASS Southern Africa’s work is amplified and multiplied by alliances and partnerships with key actors at the national level and in the region. Through the Building Women’s Collective Power initiative, JASS Southern Africa is working in partnership with MANERELA+ in Malawi, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), Musasa, Khatswe in Zimbabwe, Youth Vision Zambia and Women’sNet in South Africa changing the lives of women. This partnership strengthens and links JASS’ training and capacity building to far-reaching networks and constituencies that facilitate the creation of broader agendas and strategies for change.