Fighting Taboos and Finding Women's Voices in Harare

Rudo Chigudu

Rudo Chigudu has spent an entire dry-hot Harare day running a workshop of 20 women by herself, switching effortlessly between English and Shona, and leading women in familiar chants – Sister? Sister! – that bring each one to her feet. The workshop is the first step in Katswe’s efforts to ground their movement-building work, creating opportunities for women to analyze their lived experience and their context and organize to transform their lives and communities. This process begins by asking questions: What are the stories we are telling with our lives? What are the stories we have been told? How can we take ownership of our own stories to empower ourselves?

Katswe Sistahood creates safe spaces called Pachoto, meaning ‘by the fire-side’ in Shona, a traditional venue for storytelling. Across Harare, women in low income housing and informal settlements gather to share stories and find their voices. From the fire-side, they move into action.

JASS’ Maggie Mapondera spoke with Rudo Chigudu about her journey as an activist.

Rudo, what is your current role at Katswe?

I’m the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Coordinator at Katswe, a young feminist organization in Zimbabwe. We’ve set out to push the boundaries on taboo issues around sexual rights and women’s bodies. We must speak about our sexuality freely. Women die because they are embarrassed to name their body parts at hospitals. And we can only end rape if we can name our private parts confidently because in the court room one is expected to describe the act using this kind of language. The failure to do so may stand between women and justice. 

What is your reading of the sphere of women’s organizing in Zimbabwe today and where does Katswe fit in?

When I came back to Zimbabwe in 2008, young women were crossing borders to buy and sell, getting on planes to go to China to order things. A movement of women for survival was in existence, but with no connection to the women’s NGOs. So that’s the context we want to shift.

Not many organizations are doing this kind of work on the issues we are tackling. There is some strong resistance to the work we do, due to cultural and religious beliefs. Some people simply refuse to participate in these kinds of conversations, saying it’s taboo, it’s westernized, or that, this cannot be discussed by women. Our meetings, pachotos, are private, giving women the platform to speak without anyone prying. But that is not enough. We take these concerns into the community in the form of theatre.

We are divided around issues of age. People say, ‘Let the young women talk about the vaginas because they are the shameless ones.’ Divisions exist along class lines too – a woman who has access to pads and tampons and moon cups isn’t concerned that there’s a young woman somewhere too embarrassed to move because she has left a stain on a chair. Urban–rural, privileged–under-privileged, older–younger, party politics–civil society: these distinctions continue to divide women. As Katswe, we are seen as a movement of “young women”, even though some are working on economic empowerment, others on sexuality. We have to keep our eye on the ball because patriarchy continues to morph into different forms while we are distracted by unimportant things.

How did you become an activist?

I never really thought of myself as a frontline activist until I found myself in deep trouble because I’d spoken up about injustices against lesbian women in Zimbabwe. That’s when I discovered that the work I was doing was dangerous and was compromising my personal safety and security. In 2012, I performed a vagina monologue at the UN in New York on the rape of a Zimbabwean lesbian who hadn’t been able to access justice because of the high level of homophobia that exists. The piece was taken to be challenging the state, accusing them of not observing human rights. When you know something’s wrong, you say something because you can’t be silent. The idea of ‘security’ only comes later. I gave the performance before Zimbabwe submitted its CEDAW report, so the timing was…inflammatory. 

The things that I now recognize as activism are things I’ve been doing for years. Questioning basic things like the hierarchies in school and the home – recognizing injustices, getting angry about them, and then in small ways starting to do something about them. When you know something’s wrong, you say something because you can’t be silent. The idea of ‘security’ only comes later. 

What kind of risks do you face in your everyday life?

There are loads of risks. Anyone seen to be organizing groups of people gets watched by the police. I’ve been told they know where my children are. Things like that make you a little afraid. But you could also get picked up for supposedly loitering because you’re a woman walking in the street at the ‘wrong’ time. Once they have you and discover you’re a woman activist, they’re out to prove their power. So you can get called in for loitering, but end up in bigger trouble when they start digging into who you are.

How does the JASS’ Heart – Mind – Body process support your work?

I was talking about that in the training today, because I think that facilitators of community groups need to understand that the struggles in their personal lives are the same as those of the women they’re working with. The moment people feel safe enough to open up, a lot of things come out – you get people breaking down in sessions. Their struggles sit with you; you carry them home. So you need a way to support other people but also protect yourself, otherwise you will burn out. 

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