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Q&A: Zimbabwean Women Have Had ‘‘More Trauma'' After Independence

Interview with Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) National Coordinator Jenni Williams

CAPE TOWN, Sep 13 2008 (IPS) - Zimbabwean women have experienced higher levels of trauma, including violence and lack of food, after the country's independence from Britain in 1980 than before.

Jenni Williams: "Yet women survive" Credit:  Stephanie Nieuwoudt/IPS

Jenni Williams: "Yet women survive" Credit: Stephanie Nieuwoudt/IPS

This is one of the findings of a study conducted by the civic movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) on trauma in the collapsing southern African state.

The study reveals the complexities of the emergency caused by the political and economic crisis. Trauma has not only been inflicted through direct violence (beatings, torture and rape) but by food deprivation and a lack of access to medical treatment and shelter.

State violence, economic decline and the destruction of social capital have had severe consequences for women.

According to the report, most women interviewed experienced more incidences of trauma after the country’s independence from Britain in 1980 than before independence.

Of the 1,983 WOZA members interviewed, 14 percent experienced a lack of food in 1979, compared to a staggering 66 percent between 1980 and 1999. While nine percent did not have access to medical treatment in 1979, this figure shot up to 24 percent between 1980 and 1999. Similarly, while six percent did not have access to shelter in 1979, 12 percent reported a lack of shelter between 1980 and 1999.

From 2000 the incidences of ‘‘experienced trauma’’ were annually higher than incidences of ‘‘witnessed trauma’’. Children, who are often in the presence of their mothers during these incidents, are equally victimised. Stephanie Nieuwoudt spoke to Jenni Williams, national coordinator and one of the founders of WOZA. WOZA is the Ndebele word for ‘‘come forward’’.

IPS: How do women survive financially in a country where the price of a loaf of bread is millions of Zimbabwean dollars? Jenni Williams: That is the trillion dollar question. The answer is that we simply do not know how it is done. In Zimbabwe, it is a huge achievement if one manages to send your children to bed at night with one meal in their bellies.

I was at a conference in South Africa where I ate three meals a day at the hotel where I was staying. I felt sick. My system could not handle three meals a day. Zimbabweans do not eat that much any more. The meals we have are substandard.

Yet women survive. They are scavenging all the time. The informal trade is still very much alive. A woman will, from somewhere, find a few vegetables to sell at the side of the road and when they are gone she will look everywhere to find more to sell.

Some people go shopping in neighbouring countries and bring back goods to sell in Zimbabwe or they look for piece work. They survive from day to day.

The efforts by (Zimbabwean president) Robert Mugabe to criminalise informal trade have to stop because it is an important part of the economy. For thousands of people in Zimbabwe it is the only way they can survive.

It is mostly women who are involved in informal trade. They are the ones who support their families financially. The irony is that many of the top brass in Zimbabwe who support the actions against illegal traders probably come from homes where their mothers were informal traders.

Women are still the backbone of rural agriculture, but they are mostly forced to hand over their crops to the army.

Zimbabwe has great agricultural potential. It was one of the most important agricultural countries in Africa. It is an agricultural giant which has been forced into unconsciousness. If women and other farmers can be supported with inputs – seeds, fertiliser and so forth – there can be a quick recovery.

The people in Zimbabwe are ill. Their health is jeopardised by eating irregularly and when they do eat, it is substandard produce. Many are HIV positive and suffer from opportunistic HIV-related illnesses. But there are too few people to care for the sick.

Many doctors and other healthcare workers have left the country. There is no medicine. It is even difficult to find a headache tablet. The hospitals are like ghost towns.

Zimbabwe was one of the most educated nations in Africa. Robert Mugabe promised free primary education but the education system is in shambles.

Stress, trauma and illness are killing people. The life expectancy of a woman is 34 and that of a man 37. I am 46 and there are not many people of my age around.

IPS: What has been the most surprising finding of the research WOZA did on the trauma suffered by Zimbabwean women? Jenni Williams: On average we found that violence increased more than three times since 2000. People suffered an average of more than 16 events of trauma since 2000, compared to 2.9 in 1979 and 5.8 from 1980 to 1999.

The increase seems improbable when one remembers that the 1970s was a time of open struggle. Yet the figures prove that the increase since 2000 was dramatic. This is under the rule of a man who was once regarded as a liberation war hero. History will judge Robert Mugabe harshly for this.

It is also surprising that when women do get counselling, they prefer to discuss issues of displacement rather than their experiences of violence and torture.

IPS: The report focused to a large extent on trauma suffered by women in Matabeleland, in the south of the country. Why? Jenni Williams: My generation suffered under ‘‘Gukurahundi’’ – the 1980s conflict between government forces and opposition movements in Matabeleland. Over 10,000 Ndebeles in this region were executed by government forces. In one case 55 men and women were shot and killed in one day.

People were burnt alive in their huts or executed publicly. They were suspected of being members of the opposition party Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). These people suffered a lot of trauma.

There is huge support for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, in Matabeleland. The people are ready to be mobilised.

IPS: The members of WOZA are often beaten and thrown into jail. You were arrested in March this year and a court case is still ongoing. In August you were arrested again but released after being severely beaten. Jenni Williams: WOZA has more than 60,000 members. It is a mass-based organisation. But members know when they sign up that they run a risk of being arrested and beaten.

We have workshops training people on how to cope with reprisals. The members are totally committed even though they know of the high risk.

Nine of our members were arrested in August on the charge of malicious damage to property after they wrote our WOZA slogan, ‘‘Woza Moya’’ (come healing spirit) on a road in Bulawayo.

I was arrested along with 13 others in May when we protested against the election violence in Zimbabwe. I was kept in prison for six weeks on the charge that I would mobilise a Kenya-style uprising against the government during the run-off election.

I was freed after (Movement for Democratic Change leader) Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-offs. This case is still pending.

Ironically we view police stations as the final place to get a particular message across. When we are imprisoned and it becomes news, we know the message has hit home – people from around the world take notice of what is happening in Zimbabwe.

We often do not get arrested because the police officers are the sons of members. They know that we are a community-based movement who address issues which are Zimbabwe’s issues and not just women’s issues.

However, even though some police officers understand what we do, the police remain the main perpetrators of violence against us. When they arrest us, we focus on telling them that we are fighting for a better Zimbabwe with social justice for us and them. WOZA has a history of six years of non-violent protest.

The people of Zimbabwe live in fear all the time, regardless of who they are. There is a deep awareness that one can be arrested at any moment and tortured and killed. Our study revealed that repeated exposure to trauma has a cumulative effect. Some 53 percent of the women who were surveyed had scores indicative of a psychological disorder.

WOZA is investigating models of peace and reconciliation in Rwanda and South Africa. Can one really start thinking about healing while Robert Mugabe is still in power?

It is of the utmost importance that the people of Zimbabwe are healed. If healing does not take place, we will continue to have a violent society. In South Africa we are looking at what the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions achieved and in Rwanda we are looking at the Gacaca courts.

WOZA was founded because of the oppressive regime of Mugabe and, in spite of him, it grew into a massive organisation. We need a structure to promote the agenda of healing. In the meantime we have ways and means of accessing people and helping them on a one-to-one basis.

In the long term we hope to engage the security forces as well. We need some form of reconciliation with the same people who are responsible for the trauma and atrocities.

By openly writing peace slogans like ‘‘Woza Moya’’ on the streets and marching against oppression, we show the next generation that one can fight in a non-violent way against a terrible situation.

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