Formed in 2003, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) is an activist organisation that aims to provide women in Zimbabwe with a united voice. It encourages them to stand up for their rights and freedoms, and to empower female leadership in the community.
Its membership is now estimated at 70,000 men and women across the country. And many are made to pay for their campaigning activities - founding member Jenni Williams has been arrested over 40 times since the organisation began.
Punished for peaceful protests
On 19 and 20 September 2013, WOZA organised demonstrations in Harare and Bulawayo to mark the UN International Day of Peace. Many WOZA members were beaten by police and a number were arrested made including leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, at both events. No charges were made. WOZA reported that 1,500 of its members participated in the peaceful marches.
Over the past decade WOZA members have been arrested, harassed and severely beaten in police custody for exercising their right to peaceful protest. They are often denied access to food, lawyers and medical care while in detention.
Of the many risks that WOZA leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu face for their work, the ones most commonly deployed are arbitrary arrests and criminal charges.
When WOZA celebrated its tenth anniversary with a peaceful demonstration in Bulawayo Jenni Williams and 13 others including four bystanders were arrested. They say that riot police assaulted demonstrators and members of the public.
Detainees were released the following day on free bail, but Jenni Williams and nine other WOZA members are facing trial on criminal nuisance charges.
Less than a year earlier, on 21 September 2011, 12 WOZA activists were illegally detained at Bulawayo Central police station. Once again, they were arrested for participating in a peaceful march – this time to commemorate International Day of Peace.
Ten of the women were released without charge, but Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu were charged with “kidnapping and theft” connected to an allegation laid by a former WOZA employee who had been dismissed. They claim that these charges are fabricated.
Supreme Court ruling
Among many other examples, Jenni and Mogodonga were also arrested and detained after a peaceful protest in 2008. On the 26 November 2010, The Supreme Court of Zimbabwe rules that this arrest and detention was wrongful. It said that the state had failed to protect the activists from abuse.
The authorities are yet to observe this ruling.
Every year on Valentine’s Day WOZA members take to the streets to hand out roses with the message ‘the power of love can conquer the love of power’
14 February 2013 marked the tenth anniversary of their first Valentine’s Day demonstration and Jenni Williams sent a message to everybody that has supported them:
'Greeting from Women of Zimbabwe Arise. Valentine’s Day 2013 signals a decade of work defending human rights in Zimbabwe by members. This work has been in a framework of great sacrifice in the face of escalating repression. Often times, WOZA has felt very lonely on the streets of Zimbabwe and in the war trenches between an elite dictatorship and the defenders demanding democracy and social justice. Amnesty members the world over has made that loneliness easier to bear by occupying our solidarity corner.
'Amnesty members have spoken for us when we could not speak! The yhave helped send a clear message to the individuals and institutions that oppress us to respect Human Rights and those human rights are women’s rights. WOZA value the friendship of Amnesty but ask that members strengthen their solidarity in 2013, a crucial year in Zimbabwe. Please help us demand the space to work without harassment and violence. Please stay in our corners as we face the escalating repression of highly contested political space. We need your love to make sure that the power of love can conquer the love of power. This year’s theme is ONE LOVE, lets unite in love for our rights, lets fight together to enjoy them.'
That day, 181 WOZA members were arrested at a peaceful Valentine's Day demonstration in Bulawayo. The WOZA members were calling on police to respond to complaints about police beatings and brutality. The day before a further eight WOZA members were arrested at a peaceful demonstration in the capital Harare.
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17 Feb 2014, 1:28pm