Justice for women ?

Date: January 1, 1970
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All of the efforts to find a political solution in Zimbabwe focus on important, but short-term, goals À“ most notably establishing a new government under a power-sharing deal. However, political questions and challenges resonate much further, with the need for truth, accountability, and justice À“ for both men and women – to stay firmly on the agenda.

According to gender advocates, youth militia, government-aligned thugs and other pro-Mugabe elements have targeted women, particularly in rural areas. There are consistent reports of medical help, doctors and medics refusing these women treatment for fear of reprisals.
These echo years of reports accusing the youth militia of consistent, politically motivated mass rape against women – including those at the youth camps. In addition, women have been victims of the general political violence: murders, beatings, burnings, torture and their bodies mutilated.
The end of Zanu-PF political rule will not mean the automatic undoing of its organs of violence and repression. Beyond the very narrow interests represented at government level (those of political parties, not a national dialogue) there are questions about what a political change will mean and look like.
Zimbabwean women have had a distinct, identifiable, political presence for a long time – and not just as victims. Vice-President Joyce Mujuru – like other Zimbabwean women – has a long, prominent history in the country – from the days of chimurenga to post-independence political power and her current position. On the other side, the political violence and repression has also had a visibly female response and resistance through groups like WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) and other women’s groups, as well as the “dignity campaign” for women.
However, the danger is that women are only deemed relevant now because they are politically useful as victims of violence – and are useful and visible metaphors of the repression. If peace deals across the continent (and elsewhere) are anything to go by, women’s visibility, political needs and political strength will quickly disappear from the national agenda.
There is a need for concerted work on the female dimension of Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses, otherwise female victims of political violence will find that they have outlived their political usefulness when the country draws up plans for redress, reparations and remembering this particular chapter of history.
Recognising this the human rights organisation, Aids-Free World (headed by former United Nations AIDS envoy, Stephen Lewis) intends collecting testimonies of female survivors of political mass rape, which could then be used in this any future transitional mechanism (i.e. an official inquiry, a truth commission or human rights trials).
Acknowledgement of wrong, redress and the restoration of dignity are important ways to afford a sense of justice. Unless there is documentation about women’s experiences, they will likely be left out of these justice processes, as well as the history books.
Justice for women is not untested or uncharted territory. The United Nations court prosecuting those responsible for Rwanda’s genocide established rape as both a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. The prevalence of rape of Tutsi women in Rwanda – as well as in the former Yugoslavia – meant that justice mechanisms could not ignore or subsume rape as a sub-section under other crimes.
However, there are little guarantees that any transition will deal fairly – or even consider important – female-specific political crimes. In South Africa, during the closed Truth Commission hearings, women did talk of their experience of political sexual violence during the anti-apartheid struggle. However, South Africa’s TRC refused to recognise rape as an act of political violence and repression – and so they have remained part of “women’s stories,” rather than a historically more accurate part of the political record.
Other truth commissions have had special hearings on women’s experiences of war – like in Sierra Leone – and this will most likely happen in Liberia’s current truth commission. In issues of reparations and re-integration of former combatants, women (like in Sierra Leone) have always drawn the shortest lot, and have ended up marginalised, silenced, vilified and ostracised by their communities.
In Kenya, the establishment of the new national unity government has all but silenced previous talk of investigation into the political violence. In the peace process for northern Uganda, women are demanding a real role in the talks – including raising questions on what reverting to traditional justice means for women’s rights and how reparations and re-integration affects female victims.
Overall, transitional processes still treat women as if they are a foreign entity to what is human in a country. Not only is this the result of women being marginalised throughout the world, but African women face further marginalisation by the international workers, organisations and political bodies who help in transitional processes.
Just ask any successful black woman on her experiences of the white left (including feminism) and with international organisations – and it becomes apparent that it is common practice for black women to be treated as non-humans and to be denigrated. How do these practices translate into policy when these same organisations are responsible for reconstruction efforts and efforts to restore dignity to African female victims?
The lack of acknowledgement of women in transitional processes not only further marginalises women and creates economic disadvantages when they cannot access demobilisation and reparation benefits, but it also erases them from any historical record.
Unless political sexual violence is dealt with – and male perpetrators are identified and removed from positions of power – women constantly live to see their abusers rewarded, and still holding positions in the police, army and political parties. Women’s experiences become a “dirty secret” and a constant reminder of just how valueless they are to their country.
Women’s needs in political transitions are not a call to do women a favour and to condescend to them. They are equal citizens in a country – and national processes should treat them as such.
Beyond the immediate demands of a transition in Zimbabwe, the country must deal with the real questions of justice and accountability. Not in the too-hasty and glib way of saying “never again” that is the mantra of justice activists, but in the real political work of building strong institutions and a public culture that will not allow for abuses.
Any political changeover in Zimbabwe must be more than a change in government make-up; it needs to be a fundamental change in governance. The new Zimbabwean state inherits not only the repression and abuses of the past few years, but a state that comes with the accumulated history stretching back to the Matabeleland massacres, Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) white supremacist rule and colonialism.
Unless the particular political violence visited on women is publicly given equal weight as other acts of repression, at any future political crisis in Zimbabwe the cycle of mass political rape of women will resurge, with the aching familiarity of “yet again.”
Karen Williams is a journalist who works in Africa and Asia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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