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Women, War and Peace: What We Can All Learn From The Zimbabwean Women Fighting Violence As Elections Approach

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Five years ago, during the 2008 elections, Zimbabwean women were punished for claiming their right to have a say in the future of their country. Their move towards fair involvement in the political process as activists, advocates, interested citizens and voters were opposed by perpetrators' use of rape and other forms of extreme violence including beating, torture and murder. It is estimated that over 2,000 women and girls were raped at militia camps during the 2008 elections. Following the new constitution in March of this year and the general elections which will follow (although the exact date is not yet set) the drive is on to ensure that these outrages do not recur.

Women in Zimbabwe are taking action against gendered violence - which, we must remember, is globally endemic and transcends all differences in perpetrators' nationality, religion, culture, colour, class, country and language. The Women's Coalition of Zimbabwe is a network of organisations and activists who are working to prevent male violence against women, to inform women of their rights, to uphold laws against gendered violence and to challenge the misogyny and machismo that underpin the tolerance of the abuse of women and motivate the excusal of perpetrators. These issues are pertinent to all world societies and not just Zimbabwe. The Women's Coalition's goal is to safeguard women's human right to live self-determining lives free of violation, exploitation and abuse and to ensure that women are equal participants, agents and representatives in social, political and peace processes at all levels: family, neighbourhood, community, region and country.

Zimbabwean women's activism has been successful and their Women's Roadmap to Elections demonstrates the clarity and rightfulness of their goals. Global support for the women of Zimbabwe and for free and unthreatened political involvement in the country is currently strong, with both Womankind Worldwide and Amnesty International producing coverage and organising campaigns and fundraising.

In the longer term the solutions to violence have been to foster participation and empowerment at a local level, create women leaders to speak in their own words and inspire other women of all ages and communicate with existing leaders to educate them. This method is one which any women's advocate in the world will recognise as hearteningly universal and collective, yet dishearteningly still necessary. The first stage is the creation of space for women not only to discuss the reality and prevalence of male violence, from harassment to rape to murder, but also the other worldly factors which combine to keep the oppression of women so all-encompassing, such as deep inequalities in terms of economics, education and health (including contraception and pre- and post-partum care); the burden of unpaid caring work including cooking, cleaning, running a home and family and looking after ageing parents as well as children; pay inequality and labour ghettoisation outside the home, with women over-represented in underpaid, unstable, overworked, undervalued, unpromising roles; and women being ignored when it comes to involvement as influencers, experts, advocates and leaders in public life.

There is also the task of examining the deeply-borne psychological beliefs by which women's exploitation and oppression are justified: the belief that a woman is a source of labour and not ideas; that women are stupid; that a woman is an object to be used for menial work, nurturing work and sexual work and then thrown away and is not a mind whose intelligence is to be appreciated; that sexual harassment is flattering and the sexual abuse of us is rare; that we can be bought and sold as sexual utilities; that she has no place in and deserves to be hounded out of public spaces and public life, political process and political life; that women are there to sweep up (literally) once men have made important national decisions; that women are lying, stupidly mistaken or over-sensitive about the harassment, abuse and violence we experience every day. Again, these are universal issues. Women all over the world including the UK confront them all day, every day.

When it comes to violence, the Zimbabwean Women's Coalition is working with police forces and other community authorities on response and prevention. Yet the political context is an uncertain one, following over a decade of economic and political unpredictability and a now four year old coalition government which is still struggling to attain stability.

These factors compound women's inequality and poverty and worsen violence against women, supported by a general tolerance and justification of such abuse. There are many laws designed to protect women from male violence but governments are not implementing these laws and are not acting to support women and punish perpetrators. According to Womankind Worldwide's project report on Zimbabwe, one in three women will experience some form of violence at least once in her lifetime, six out of 10 murder trials in the High Court involve domestic violence, and 62% of HIV positive people are women, many of them as a result of male sexual violence.

We can see from this that women in Zimbabwe bear the brunt of 'everyday' violence - and how it pains me to write that phrase, as though violence against women is a common as the weather. At the same time there is extreme inequality according to all other criteria, in addition to marginalisation when it comes to speaking out and wielding the power necessary to make changes. According to the UN's gender statistics, 80% of women work in the informal economy, earn 75% less than men and have a life expectancy of 50 years. Despite high literacy rates, women make up only 19.6% of Parliament and 10% of local government positions, so issues affecting women get no hearing, attract no respect and receive no consideration. As a result, there is no systematic understanding of gendered and woman-specific inequalities; and this in itself is a result of gendered and woman-specific inequality. Even when discussing peace for the future, both the contribution and the oppression of women are ignored - which in itself is an oppression of women.

What must be effected not just in Zimbabwe but globally is the deep cultural change which occurs when women's experiences of violence are believed and our very significant role as practical peacemakers is acknowledged, honoured and expanded through political enfranchisement. Instead, our pacifism and our labour are expected, used, exploited until depletion and then we are discarded. People of both sexes expect women to be non-violent, humane, harmonising, practical and constructive; yet these qualities, which are the building blocks of thriving peacetime states, are not rewarded or enabled by the worldly position, funds and broad influence which would make the full use of women's talents - so sorely needed - possible at a national level.

Without women, there is no peace; and no peace process is true and just if it ignores women. Last year, Action Aid produced a fascinating report called From The Ground Up, which assessed women's major role in peace building in Afghanistan, Liberia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sierra Leone - for the full report click here and for my summary of it click here. The report showed that women are tireless, successful creators and maintainers of peace at a local level but are simply ignored by men in power when it's time to hand out the money, status and influence. This is something which this week's 4th annual conference of the Nobel Women's Initiative will no doubt corroborate and take steps to rectify. Running from until 31st May in Belfast, the Initiative aims to give women our rightful place as equal participants in world matters and to place non-violence at the centre of conflict solution and global policy. Researching the Initiative and the eight incredible Nobel Peace Prize laureates who founded it is a humbling experience and one which restores faith in the viability of an anti-macho, antimilitarist, anti-war stance.

World peace will not come from the macho mindset which has destroyed world societies. It'll come from the non-violence which makes the global women's movement the most profound, poignant, successful and ongoing revolution the world has ever seen.