Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Zimbabwe has a rich and nuanced history of women’s rights activism. The works of Hope Chigudu, Shereen Essof, Everjoice Win, Patricia McFadden, Fungai Machirori and many others analyse the motivations, modes, successes, and challenges shaping Zimbabwe women’s organising and movement building. This piece documents the dynamic nature of the collective mobilising by women activists, professionals, and ordinary women driven to transform power relations in the patriarchal and conservative Zimbabwean society.
The report Resilience in Adversity: The changing face of women’s activism in Zimbabwe 2000–2014 explores the status of women’s activism in Zimbabwe, and its persistent nature as the actors and organisations collectively pursue gender equality and women’s rights. It reveals the multi-generational dynamic within the movement.
Generation 1: “Beijing generation” (a reference to those activists who were part of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action). Women activists and professionals within the movement during the 1980s–1990s. This generation politicised women’s rights agenda and mobilised to challenge power. Whilst the liberation struggle addressed racial inequities and colonial forces, discrimination against women and girls persisted in the post-independence era. Operation Clean Up of 1983 demonstrated how state power and patriarchy colluded to restrict women’s movement in public spaces and rehabilitated them. State authorities conducted raids nationwide, arbitrarily arresting women as they removed “prostitutes from the street”. However, sex workers weren’t the only women arrested. Over 6,000 women of different professions and ages were arrested.
Strong collaboration between academia, civil society, women’s groups, political parties, and state machinery worked to lobby and advocate for policy and legal reforms. For example, the 1982 Legal Age of Majority Act recognised women legally as adults. For the first time, women could own property, enter contracts, and make legally enforceable decisions without male consent. In response to Operation Clean Up, a women’s pressure group, Women Action Group emerged. They held workshops and public meetings to challenge violations of women’s rights and create spaces for women to speak about their experiences.
Not only did the women’s movement tackle cultural nationalist discourse but they also contended with the gendered impacts of global neoliberal liberalisation and structural adjustment in Zimbabwe. In 1990, the government implemented economic structural adjustment programmes (ESAP), eroding the social development and opportunities citizens enjoyed in the first decade of independence. As with several countries across the developing world, Zimbabwe implemented imposed conditionalities set by the World Bank and IMF. This resulted in the privatisation of state entities, extensive liberalisation of price and import control, and reduced public spending on education, health, and other social services.
Noting mass retrenchments, increased poverty and reduced social welfare, women’s organisations criticised the economic policy. Organisations such as Zimbabwe Women’s Finance Trust and Zimbabwe Women in Business advocated and mobilised on women’s economic interests. Eerdewijk and Mugadza note that the language of gender and development evolved within the movement. Gender mainstreaming emerged as a critical tool in advocacy whilst sexual and reproductive rights emerged as new areas of activism.
Generation 2: Professionalisation of women’s rights work. By 1995, over 25 women’s rights organisations were registered. These organisations advocated, mobilised and documented various aspects of women’s rights issues within urban and rural areas. The second generation emerged at a difficult political moment in Zimbabwe’s history. From 1997–2000, two competing processes of constitutional reform occurred. In 1997, a collective of academia, CSOs, churches, trade unions and others sought to draft a new people-centred, democratic constitutional development process. It was a key tool to improve the rights of women. In 1999, the government aimed to overtake this process and started its own process, which was disputed by some National Constitution Assembly members. As a result, the draft constitution was rejected. The unsuccessful constitutional reform process of the year 2000 contributed to the fragmentation of the collaborative and collective women’s rights position. This moment’s impact includes the adoption of gender equality language over women’s rights and issue-based rather than cross-cutting approaches.
Eerdewijk and Mugadza define the 2000s as the decade of many elections. Elections were held in 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2013. The women’s movement was weakened by the political polarisation and electoral violence which shaped the 2000 elections. Essof notes that many women’s rights activists went underground after these elections as women’s bodies were sites of political warfare. It is in this context of fragmentation and political polarisation that the second generation of women’s activists emerged. This cohort of women’s rights activists entered established women’s organisations and continued the critical work of the movement.
Generation 3: Younger radical feminist generation. Emerging from 2005 onwards, this generation found itself in the context of multiple waves of rapid economic decline from the mid-2000s. As previous generations of civil society contended with state economic policies and growing corruption through lobbying, advocacy and documentation, the younger generation pushed for more confrontational approaches with the state authorities. Chitapo contends that the 2013 election defeat by the opposition party, MDC, contributed to citizens’ fatigue with opposition politics. Rather than seeking political change through electoral processes, social movements such as Occupy Unity Square and Hashtag movements like #ThisFlag emerged as critical avenues for collective action. Whilst often dispelled by state authorities, these surges of political protest provide space for Zimbabweans to express their discontent with the political and economic situation.
Young radical feminists address the gendered impact of economic and political collapse on women and girls. The country’s month-on-month inflation rate in June 2023 was 74.5%, a substantial increase of 58.8% from May’s rate of 15.7%. As inflation spirals, tax injustice affects women’s and girls’ ability to benefit from public services such as hospitals, clinics, and schools. It greatly impacts the provision of sexual and reproductive health services. Muchena argues that corporate companies such as mining firms’ failure to pay taxes results in the underdevelopment of communities. In the absence of social security nets, women’s unpaid care work increases.
These realities are compounded by the anti-poor and anti-worker policies adopted by the state. In January 2023, the government enacted the Health Services Bill. This law forbids health workers who are classified as an “essential” service from striking for more than three days. Those who do not comply face a fine or imprisonment of up to six months. This emerged as health workers engaged in persistent strikes due to poor pay and deteriorating working conditions.
Eerdewijk and Mugadza state that this generation finds itself in a highly politically polarised country where sexual violence is used as a tool of repression by state bodies and political actors. Gendered and sexual violence occurs online and offline in Zimbabwe. For women within the political sphere, gendered and sexual violence is used to control and dissuade women from public office. However, this violence is not restricted to established and aspiring female leaders. UNPFA states that in Zimbabwe, about one in three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about one in four have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. Women face sexual harassment within public spaces such as streets, public transport, markets, and workplaces. This violence also exists within the home.
Eerdewikj and Mugadza argue that within this difficult context, young women reclaim and own feminist labels. They also establish their own formal and informal feminist collectives to address issues that affect them. Modes of organising include technology and social media. Whilst using these platforms, they incorporate traditional art, documentaries, poems, and short storytelling into their advocacy. There is a strong emphasis on telling their stories within private and public spaces.
This piece seeks to add to Eerdewijk and Mugadza’s categorisation of the third generation of Zimbabwean feminists. The analysis draws on the insights from the literature on young women’s activism, feminist movement building, and trends within Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) funding. It is also based on my experience working with different young feminist collectives advocating on SRHR during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Given this categorisation of young women activists in Zimbabwe, and particularly those advocating on SRHR issues, my text seeks to address two questions. First, how did they mobilise for better SRHR outcomes during the height of the pandemic? And second, I outline the successes and challenges faced by this diverse collection of actors and organisations.
The impact of Covid-19 on longstanding SRHR issues in Zimbabwe
Longstanding SRHR issues in the country include access to safe abortion, teenage pregnancies, and early forced child marriages, gender-based violence, homophobia and transphobia, and the neglect of SRHR needs of persons with disabilities and sex workers.
Access to safe abortion
The provisions of the Termination of Pregnancy Act and the Criminal Law Codification Act clearly set three conditions under which abortion can be conducted. These conditions are limited to when pregnancy is deemed endangering to the life of women and their physical health, if the fetus suffers impairment and in the case that the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest.
Pregnancies can only be terminated by a medical practitioner authorised by a court order. Any abortion done outside that is punishable. As 40% of pregnancies in Zimbabwe are unintended, 25% of these unintended pregnancies result in unsafe abortions. During the pandemic and national lockdowns, women and girls had even more reduced access to post-abortion care. Movement restrictions made it difficult to access sexual and reproductive services as they were not regarded as essential services. The threat of physical violence by security officers made it even more difficult for women including sex workers to travel for SRHR services and pursue livelihood activities. Amnesty International observed that restricted access to maternal care and safety concerns deterred women across the country from getting necessary maternal health assistance.
Teenage pregnancies and child marriages
Closure of schools and safe community spaces resulted in increased sexual exploitation of young girls. Between January and February 2021, the Zimbabwean government reported that 5,000 teenage girls were impregnated. Chiweshe and Bhatasara’s study on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Epworth notes that forced sexual activity was perpetuated by both the youth and older men. The government’s report adds that 1,800 girls entered early and forced child marriages. Early and forced child marriages emerged as negative coping mechanisms for households during emergency situations such as health pandemics and climate disasters. These situations are marked by income loss as household members could not travel for work or trade in public places. Girls within rural and urban spaces lost opportunities to gain critical SRHR information about bodily autonomy, social protection and menstrual health and hygiene.
The pandemic resulted in abused women across the globe experiencing lockdown with their abusers. The shadow pandemic of domestic violence saw a global increase of SGBV as governments aimed to reduce the spread of Covid-19. In Zimbabwe, the national GBV Hotline (MUSASA) recorded a total of 6,832 SGBV calls from the beginning of the lockdown on 30 March until 15 December 2020. This was an increase of 40 per cent compared to the pre-lockdown period. The forms of violence ranged from physical to financial abuse.
Feminist activists respond to SRHR challenges
It’s important to acknowledge that young women human rights defenders and young feminists in Zimbabwe are not a homogenous group. The third generation of the women’s movement has established its own formal organisations, and is working on established organisations/coalitions whilst others are coming together to take collective action as young women through informal networking platforms. There is a strong humans right based approached to their mobilisation, but their interpretation and prioritisation of SRHR differ.
A diverse group of activists and organisations employ advocacy and campaigning as key tools for the realisation of SRHR. During an interview in 2022, Hazel Jojo,* a young Zimbabwean feminist organiser stated that young women activists use creative advocacy tools to openly talk about contraceptives, HIV and AIDS, gender-based violence, and early and forced child marriages. Creating safer platforms specifically for young women and girls has offered space for information sharing while they gain other skills.
Natsiraishe Maritsa, founder of the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium Initiative, has been teaching her peers about the dangers of early pregnancy and early marriage while giving them self-defence lessons. An organisation that I’ve worked with, Youth Africa Vibes, runs a mentorship programme for girls and young women in Warren Park, Harare. The programme, “She’s Activated”, switched its mentorship and SRHR capacity workshops to WhatsApp during the pandemic. These young women-led organisations were working prior to Covid-19 but had to adapt to the realities of the moment. Instead of having physical meet-ups at their local community halls or homes, they opted to connect regularly on WhatsApp with their community.
For other activists, the lockdown period offered them the opportunity to expand and document their existing initiatives. A youth led organisation I interacted with strongly focused on improving girls’ understanding of menstrual health and addressing period poverty. Girl UP Zimbabwe hosted workshops teaching girls how to make and use reusable pads. They recently also developed sexual reproductive health and rights booklets that are distributed during their workshops. They hope to scale up the project by printing them in indigenous languages and publishing a digital version. From my observation, grassroots mobilisation is strongly built on relationships and creating safe spaces, especially for activists and communities that face scrutiny in Zimbabwe, and which the pandemic greatly curtailed.
Subverting and creating narratives
Social media and digital messaging platforms are tools for young women activists to mobilise and shift the narratives on SRHR. It also enables them to link with other activists within the region and globally as they build solidarity across networks. As movement restrictions in Zimbabwe affected programming, some activists took to online spaces such as Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Medium and YouTube to disseminate information about reproductive and sexual health.
The organisation Miss Deaf Pride often uses its Facebook page to give visibility to women and girls with disabilities on SRHR issues. During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the organisation had a video campaign demonstrating how to sign gender-based violence, spotlighting GBV issues affecting persons with disabilities.
Digital activism does not occur in isolation. Whilst backlash emerges against “Twitter Feminists” and “keyboard activists”, this valid form of activism is often coupled with offline activities. Feminist Voices Zimbabwe (FVZ) is a youth and queer led organisation strengthening gender advocacy through storytelling, documentation, and dissemination of information. FVZ’s founder Tinastwe Mhaka began blogging to highlight the gaps within Zimbabwean law as it has not adequately been developed to realise the full SRHRs of women, girls, non-binary and trans identifying persons. The legislation on abortion in Zimbabwe is one of FVZ’s advocacy areas. The organisation’s campaign 80000toomany is an abortion storytelling project to demystify and de-stigmatise abortion, with the broader goal of strengthening lobbying, resource mobilisation and facilitating creative collaboration to decriminalise and avail support for safe abortion in Zimbabwe. Part of this storytelling project included convening spaces for activists and interested individuals to learn more about the pathways to safe abortion. In May 2023, the organisation hosted a Safe Abortion Fair to raise awareness about safe unrestricted abortions. The fair included panel discussion and exhibition stalls from other feminist organisations working on SRHR in Zimbabwe.
Engagement with decision-makers and research
There is also engagement with decision-makers to address existing gaps in delivery of SRHR services. Young activists and professionals seek to assist in gaps and causes for further action by duty bearers to ensure better youth friendly services that call on senior management to create learning and work environments that are free from violence, coercion and abuse. From 2010 to 2020, the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town ran the Young Women’s Leadership (YWL) project. The project conducted participatory action-oriented research on young female students’ reproduction health rights utilising research teams spread across six university campuses in Southern Africa. The project aimed to strengthen young women’s capacity for research and leadership around questions of sexual health and reproductive rights.
The YWL team at the University of Zimbabwe has a long history of engaging senior management to address issues pertaining to sexual harassment on campus. They lobbied for anti-sexual harassment policies at higher education facilities using the evidence-based research they developed. During the pandemic, the collective conducted a study which analysed transactional intergeneration sexual relationships between young women and older non-male students. Their work investigated the various manifestations of SGBV during the pandemic, particularly that affecting the female student population. Their research along with knowledge products created by other young feminists within the movement demonstrate that young feminists are experts on the issues. As young feminist leadership becomes a currency within development programmes and feminist movements, it’s important not to infantilise the third generation of activists.
As articulated by Eerderwijk and Mugadza, the Zimbabwe women’s rights movement is built on coalitions between different women’s groups and activists. I’ve observed that the younger generation of activists encourage cross-agenda activism with strong collaborations between young women’s rights activists working on different issues within SRHR. Organisations that work on mental health issues will partner with organisations focusing on disability justice. Young feminists within established women’s rights organisation may advocate for partnerships with women activists or professionals that have unregistered entities to address the challenge of funding.
There is an emphasis on wellness and collective care within these alliances in response to the patriarchal society they operate within especially given that the hierarchal systems are slow to appreciate or develop positive attitudes towards gender equality, gender expression and sexual orientation.
Challenges facing young feminist organisations and collectives
Young women’s rights activists are often largely self-funded or receive donations to carry out their advocacy work. Those who are not part of women’s rights organisations, or any civil society organisation may not have the experience in proposal writing or do not have access to the network of organisations/funders that can refer them to funding. There are institutional barriers that exclude young women activists from accessing funding.
For those with funding, the issue comes with the type of response modalities made available. Short-term programmatic funding isn’t enough. They require multi-year core funding that allows them to carry out their programmes, pay their staff/volunteers and have the autonomy to decide how they want to carry out their SHRH work.
New trends within philanthropy are emerging as funders are consulting young feminist activists, particularly those within the digital advocacy space, to carry out campaigns. Tinastwe Mhaka expressed that she feels accepted within the mainstream women’s movement and continues to do sponsored work on reproductive justice. However, she expresses concern that with internet penetration rate of only around a third in Zimbabwe, “those who need critical access to information on reproductive justice, sexual education and freedom to gender expression might not access it”. Her concern raises the question, “How do we sustain grass roots organisations that do not engage in digital activism”?
As more actors within the SRHR funding ecosystem create special funds for young feminist activists, they need to radically shift their funding modality to the realities of this generation. It’s important to understand that some entities do not have multiple references nor are they registered. These grass roots organisations may lack safeguarding measures and safety cyber security policies. They may appear “risky” but the work they do is critical to achieving a gender just society in this lifetime.
The rhetoric on youth inclusion in policy making and governance is in abundance. However, the space is often limited to activists within formal women’s rights institutions. There are still barriers to entry as some dialogue spaces are held in big cities. Failure to open these conversations to an array of feminist activists and collectives existing outside the mainstream will create echo-chambers risking missing out the diverse perspectives and varied feminisms which exist within the young feminist movement. Tokenism is a threat to meaningful youth engagement. It is crucial that duty bearers recognise young women as change makers rather than passive beneficiaries of services.
Imagining a different future
Whilst Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, the civic space continues to shrink due to repressive legislation limiting civil society organisations’ freedom of association. The operational context for third generation Zimbabwean feminists remains difficult. Despite these restrictions and funding challenges, the generation remains persistent to achieve a gender just Zimbabwe. Working towards a feminist future demands meaningful partnerships built on intersectional feminist politics. This requires that feminist collectives, organisations, and activists acknowledge the power dynamics within the movement.