IT is 5pm and it’s time to go home. Chipo Swiza gently wipes off the dust on her torn clothes.
Home to her is a little shack built of scrap metal and plastics at Tongogara squatter camp in Whitecliff, Harare.
After spending a hectic day moulding bricks at a nearby yard, Swiza managed to raise a $300 billion ($30 revalued) which is not enough to buy a loaf of bread to feed her three hungry children.
Above all, she cannot buy medicine for her ailing husband.
Swiza looks malnourished, the skin of her face and legs is cracked. She cannot afford to buy a bottle of petroleum jelly.
When she arrives home she still has a lot of work to do – fetching firewood to cook supper for her children and nurse her bed-ridden husband.
Her children do not go to school because she cannot raise fees.
Life has been difficult for her, but she now pins her hopes for a better future on the ongoing talks between Zanu PF and the two MDC formations.
She prays day and night that the talks mediator, South African President Thabo Mbeki, will manage to unite the protagonists and come up with a negotiated political settlement to the country’s decade-long crisis.
Swiza’s only worry is that there is no significant representation of women at the negotiating table to articulate the challenges she is facing as a result of the political and economic crisis.
While most women and feminist organisations have welcomed the signing on July 21 of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Zanu PF and the MDC, they feel they have been let down by the under-representation of women at the talks.
Only the Arthur Mutambara-led MDC has a woman among its negotiators – Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga. The MDC Tsvangirai’s women assembly chairperson Theresa Makone is playing a “back-up” role in the faction’s delegation.
Founder of Girl Child Network (GCN) and gender activist Betty Makoni decried the absence of women at the talks. She argued that women were the most vulnerable to political violence that took place in the countdown to the June 27 presidential election run-off.
“As a woman who has been working on the ground I cannot control the volume of reports that came to me personally on women and girls raped in Zimbabwe during the political violence,” she said. “I am still trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened.”
She said with women and girls making 52% of the population in the country, she did not expect only one woman to be in the talks.
“Only Arthur Mutambara has been kind enough to send Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga to represent women. The mediator is male and all those who give us updates are male, showing that those to be liberated first are males and when they think we should, they will call us. So far these are male talks and it is a shame that they have not pronounced peace plans which we can work on locally,” she said.
Makoni said during the violence it was the girls and women who suffered the most.
“We must be given a platform to break silence on rapes that were perpetrated by the youth militia. We want the leaders in our country to pay particular attention to this,” she said. “We would like to see to it that we deal with issues of rape as a weapon of war in Zimbabwe and the region. It must not happen again. We have the names of those who raped women and government must allow justice to prevail.”
Makoni demanded 50% women representation at the talks and national building programmes, an improvement in education and health sectors with the best professionals. She added that there was need for increased humanitarian aid.
The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) demanded a 50% representation, space and audience within all processes of the negotiations.
The women demanded that they be included in peace building and socioeconomic and political reconstruction processes.
The women’s organisation said females have been targeted as weapons of war where they have been forced to cook and clean for perpetrators, watch or be cheer leaders or actively perpetrate violent actions.
The women expected an immediate dissolution of torture bases where they claimed women were grossly abused.
“We demand a revamping of the legal and policy framework beginning with constitutional reform, adoption of legal measures that restore the dignity of women and girls and the building of public trust in law enforcement agents,” WCoZ said. “Women, since they bore the burden of the political violence, demanded that they be granted assistance in rebuilding their shelter, and accessing health, education and other services.”
South Africa-based Zimbabwean gender activist Everjoice Win expressed discontent with female representation at the negotiating table.
Referring to the MDC Tsvangirai faction and Zanu PF, she said: “Surely you can’t tell me that you have no women with functioning brains and mouths in your parties.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? This year the only one with a woman on his team is Arthur Mutambara. That is just unacceptable. Both of you have female vice-presidents, what is their role? It just showed you only wanted them to get your votes.”
Win demanded the redistribution of land to poor black women in their own names as citizens, a new constitution, freedom of expression without any fear, and pluralism in the media.
She also demanded a restoration of quality education at secondary and tertiary level, an end to the brain drain, improvement in the health sectors and availability of medicine to women.
“I would like young women to have hope, as they once did, that with laws, policies and attitudes changing, they can become anything they dream of. Not just sex slaves.”
Pressure group, Women of Zimbabwe Arise recently demanded the promotion of freedom of expression and assembly during and after the proceedings of the MoU.
The group demanded an end to political violence and torture, an address of the humanitarian crisis, a fair and equitable land reform programme and an independent electoral commission to oversee a referendum on the new constitution and a free and fair election process.
By Wongai Zhangazha