Listening to the Courageous Women of Zimbabwe

Against the odds, women leaders in Zimbabwe have committed to put aside their divides and work together to foster equality, democracy and peace in their troubled country. Women leaders from the three main political parties reached a first of its kind agreement to protect the well-being of Zimbabwean women and ensure their voices were heard at this pivotal moment in their nation's history.

We were invited by the Unity Government at the urging of women ministers from different political parties to join them in Zimbabwe and listen to and support the country's women as they sought to forge a shared path forward. Our delegation, which visited Zimbabwe in late April , included six women leaders from different part of Africa. We found a vibrant women's movement, but one still struggling with political tensions, and in need of support to achieve empowerment and equality.

During our week-long mission, we met a cross section of Zimbabwean society including women in rural areas, civil society organizations, government officials, advocacy groups, human rights defenders, young women and adolescents living with HIV as well as representatives of the diplomatic community. We learned first-hand of the high incidence of domestic violence and the ongoing fear of renewed political violence.

With our delegation's encouragement, representatives from each of the women's wings of the three political parties in the Inclusive Government of Zimbabwe -ZANU-PF, MDC-T and MDC-M -- met and adopted a resolution committing them to joint action. What had been planned as a half-hour exchange turned into a four -hour meeting that allowed the breakthrough to occur. As the discussion unfolded, we realized that these female political leaders welcomed the rare opportunity to talk together that our presence provided. Olivia Muchena, Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development (ZANU-PF) said the moment the agreement was reached was one of the happiest of her life. Minister of State Sekai Holland, one of three members of Zimbabwe's Organ on National Healing Reconciliation and Integration, welcomed it as the first step in genuine building of trust and reconciliation.

As a follow up to our visit, members of the Organ invited the Women's Coalition to an event‑--its first formal meeting with women's organisations, to seek views on how to address the fear in communities as the Constitutional outreach commences. Plans are already underway to develop a roadmap for dialogue and action for women's empowerment and leadership on peace building that will lead to a national symposium in 2011 and possibly an international symposium in 2012.

The potential significance of these steps depends upon the follow up support and resources women receive to implement their vision and roadmap. We were encouraged that both President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai expressed support for the roadmap going forward and for women's voices being heard in the constitutional review process.

These signs of a more unified women's movement give us hope, but must be set against a wider context. The political environment in Zimbabwe remains fragile. Indicators suggest the ongoing constitutional review process may not be as inclusive and participatory as hoped for if communities participate with fear or intimidation. Some expressed concern that a move to early elections could trigger another round of violence.

If political violence continues in Zimbabwe, along with threats and lack of support for survivors of torture and those displaced by conflict, then women and girls will be the most impacted -- as persons, mothers, and community leaders. Yet, the Zimbabwe women we met, visited and interacted with are seeking economic empowerment and real opportunities for the future of their children.

The world community needs to recognize the scale of the challenges facing the women of Zimbabwe and find new ways to support their brave efforts to navigate the painful and politically difficult past. There are a number of steps that should be taken to demonstrate solidarity with Zimbabwe. For example, the region and the international community should seek to act as observers of the current constitution-drafting and outreach process, as a sign of supporting positive efforts of the inclusive government and provide a measure of assurance and security to all those who participate in the process. Current restrictive measures imposed on Zimbabwe should be re-considered as they are proving to be blunt instruments that may well impede the very democratic processes they aim to foster.

Supporting the courageous efforts of women leaders in Zimbabwe could pay handsome peace dividends. We have seen the positive effects of ensuring women's active role in conflict resolution and reconstruction in other parts of Africa--in Liberia, where women played an important role in ending the bloody civil war, in post apartheid South Africa, and the role women played in the constitution making process--and there are similar initiatives blossoming in the Sudan and the Mano River Region.

Women in Zimbabwe deserve our full support and encouragement. Their actions are speaking loudly and eloquently. We must listen.