Int’l Women Human Rights Defenders Day: Shall we celebrate or just commemorate?

By Kudakwashe Chitsike

Beatrice Mtetwa – Free at last?


Today is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. For a change we have something to celebrate, after the trial of lawyer and human rights defender, Beatrice Mtetwa finally ended on Tuesday, with the magistrate finding her not guilty of obstructing the course of justice.  This is after 7 months of going back and forth to court fight a case where she was just doing her job. Beatrice is a well-known human rights lawyer and her arrest and court battle were publicized in the local and international media, therefore we knew what she was going through. Her story is that of many women who have dared to stand up and fight for their rights and for the rights of others, not only other women but for Zimbabweans as a whole.  These women are fighting for equality, social and economic rights, land rights, justice and peace, to name a few.  These are all commendable causes and women human rights defenders should be respected and admired, but instead they are vilified. There are thousands of such women whose names will never be known and whose stories will never be told, but who in their own ways, however small, are paving the way for a better Zimbabwe.

The plight of women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe is dismal; they are routinely harassed by the police, arrested without being informed of the charges, kept in filthy cells, verbally, physically and sometimes sexually abused. When we really look at the conditions that these women are being subjected to, we find that there is very little to celebrate. Perhaps we should be ‘commemorating’ rather than celebrating.  The authorities should uphold their national, regional and international human rights commitments to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights of women human rights defenders regardless of their political affiliation, ethnicity, nationality, religion or belief, status, age and sexual orientation.

Over the last five years, RAU has been documenting the stories of women human rights defenders’ over through reports and videos. Today we stand in solidarity with all women human rights defenders. We are honored to tell their remarkable stories and shall endeavor to continue doing so as long as there is a story to tell.   


The Second miStake-holders’ Conference

She wakes up early in the morning, bathes quickly, and dashes past the cattle dip, down the valley and across the river towards her desired destination. She has been waiting for this day for the past 3 years. Her heart is beating loudly with excitement. “Finally I will make my choice. I will decide today who I want to live in that house. That house I have never seen-do I even know what colour it is-no actually not? That house with the high impenetrable looking wall and the barbed wire at the top. That house with the thick foliage even if you were to get a ladder you would not see what’s inside,” she thinks to herself.  Finally she arrives. The queue is long and winding but she doesn’t mind. The woman in front of her has a baby on her back, wailing like a banshee- not surprising, who wouldn’t in the heat. The sun is scorching, hitting hard on her bare arms she feels like she is cooking. But patiently she waits, moving an inch at a time as the queue snails forward. “They are conducting a meticulous verification of the voters’ roll. They have to make sure it is you on the list,” one man who had just completed the process said on his way out. Finally, 7 long hours later it is her turn. She hands the polling officer her National Identity Card.

Officer: D! D! D! You are not here! You are not on the list!

Woman: But I registered.

Officer: Where did you register?

Woman:  Right here in Chikomba.

Officer: Where do you live?

Woman: Right here in Chikomba.

Officer: Where have you lived since you were born?

Woman: Right here in Chikomba.

Officer: Have you lived anywhere else in the past 5 years?

Woman: No, I have been right here in Chikomba

Officer: When did you register?

Woman: In 1999. I voted right here in Chikomba in 2000, 2002 and 2005

Officer: I am sorry your name is not here, there is nothing that I can do to help you.

She leaves, dejected, despondent, demoralised. She has waited for 3 years and will not be able to say who lives in the big white or grey or pink house-who knows what colour it is??? No one is ever allowed to go in there, at least among the ordinary people like her and those who have been inside are beyond her reach.

I have a similar story. A historic process is unfolding in my country, that of constitution-making. I have been feeding into the process in any way I can, after all I am a patriotic Zimbabwean. I have been raising awareness through blogging, tweeting, facebook and even live broadcasts on radio to let people know what is going on with the constitution making process from the alarming days when people thought the Kariba Draft would stand, to the days of the formation of the Thematic Groups, to the First Stakeholders’ Conference, the release of the First and Second Drafts and now the Second All Stakeholders’ Conference. So was it too high an expectation for me to want to be accredited for that Conference?

I submitted my name through civil society because that is who I am. I am an independent member of society contributing to the promotion, protection and advancement of human rights. People may call me whatever they like, a human rights defender, an activist, a feminist but what holds true is that I am in pursuit of justice, equality, and respect for human dignity but to my surprise my name was not on the list. Groups would arrive in trucks and their names would mysteriously appear on lists fished from the back office and before long they walked out with their accreditation identity cards. Names were being crossed off the ‘original’ lists replaced with those of more ‘important’ delegates. Even some members of civil society, whom I knew, were coming to ‘pick’ special civil society delegates whose presence at the Conference was deemed more necessary than others, escorting them inside for accreditation. They looked right through me as if they had never seen me before. The very same people I had sat with several times deliberating issues of elections, transitional justice among others.  “Which party are you being accredited under?” the security at the gate asked me. What party? I am not a member of any political party. I am civil society. Why should my name appear under ZANU-PF or MDC-T or MDC?

But that one single factor is why I did not make it to the Second All Stakeholders’ Conference. None of the parties thought I was a critical enough individual to ‘endorse.’ I remembered the question that a journalist asked one of the COPAC Chairs, Honourable Mwonzora at a Press Conference at the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights Offices when the Honourable mentioned that 571 delegates would be from civil society. The journalist asked,”who will decide which civil society organisations will go?” That question was never answered satisfactorily but now I know. Political parties determined who went in and who didn’t. Was that transparency? Is that the Zimbabwe we want? What then is civil society if it can be endorsed by political parties for a national process that should be transparent and open? What do you call a watchdog if it drinks beer with the robbers? There shall not be another 2nd Stakeholders Conference in a COPAC driven constitution making process. I missed my chance, like the woman who waited for 3 years to cast her vote and her name was missing from the voters’ roll.

I watch, I observe, I write—history has it on record.

Female Zim human rights defenders assess media coverage

Top female Zimbabwean human rights defenders criticized coverage of women working to promote and defend human rights and challenged media to see themselves as partners in the fight for democracy and eradication of patriarchal stereotypes against women.  These female human rights defenders included Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer, Irene Petras, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and Virginia Muwangiwa, Chairperson of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe were speaking at an event, an initiative of the Women Journalism Mentoring Program (WJMP) implemented jointly by the United States Embassy and the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC).

The three panelists were unanimous in calling on the media to be ethical, fair and balanced about the work of women human rights defenders, to contribute to democratization and social economic justice issues. They criticized what they considered superficial coverage of women generally and women working in the field of human rights specifically.

“There is a lot terrible character- assassination of women human rights defenders,” Irene Petras, told participants at the event held on the 12 July 2012. “Even the abuse that they face in their professional work is very gender-specific.  There is a lot of verbal abuse and character assassination which specifically goes to the gender issue, in addition to being exposed to much more in terms of violations such as sexual harassment and rape,” she said.

Petras went on to say “Any media practitioner who is looking at any women human rights defender who is doing their work needs not just to start with what they are doing on a daily basis, but all those challenges that they have to put up with everyday just by virtue of being a woman in the human rights movement.”

Read the full report at:

Kudos to these women for challenging the media for biased reporting of women who are fighting for equality and eradication of patriarchal stereotypes of women.

New UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

On the 22nd June 2012 the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Zainab Hawa Bangura, currently the Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone, as his new Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Zainab Hawa Bangura

She will replace Margot Wallström, who had served in the position since it was created two years ago.

According to a statement from Mr. Ban’s spokesperson, Ms. Bangura brings to the position over 20 years of policy, diplomatic and practical experience in the field of governance, conflict resolution and reconciliation in Africa. She has been instrumental in developing national programmes on affordable health as well as advocating for the elimination of genital mutilation.

She is also experienced in meeting with interlocutors in diverse situations, including rebel groups, and familiar in dealing with State and non-State actors relevant to issues of sexual violence while fighting corruption and impunity.

“She is an experienced results-driven civil society, human and women’s right campaigner and democracy activist,” the statement added.