Open Up: Two Years Later

Open Up: Two Years Later – Taking Stock of ZimRights Women Empowerment Drive

By Dzikamai Bere

On 8 March we commemorate International Women’s Day. At ZimRights we take this moment to salute all women activists who drive the struggle for human rights. In commemoration of this important day, we reflect on the just ended ZimRights National Council meeting that passed a vote of confidence in women leading ZimRights regions across Zimbabwe, and the silent heroines who make everyone shine.

On 8 February 2023, the ZimRights National Council met in Gweru for its first meeting of the year. The meeting was attended by 30 delegates including 21 members of the National Council from all the 10 provinces. The meeting happened in the backdrop of the deteriorating human rights situation as the country prepares for the upcoming national elections. A lot was on the agenda, including the upcoming PVO Bill and the dangers it brings to the work of ZimRights. ZimRights is registered as a PVO since 1993 but still believes that the PVO Bill in its current state is bad for the country.

The association also took the opportunity to reflect on the progress made in implementing the Shifting Power to the People Strategy. An important part of that shift is the effective implementation of the recommendations from the Open Up Campaign that was launched in 2020.

The Open Up Campaign is an initiative by ZimRights designed to advance the leadership of women in human rights. A special resource, the Open Up Handbook was published in 2021 which outlined clear strategies for strengthening women leadership. Seven recommendations were directed towards ZimRights’ own internal transformation process. Recommendation 5.2 (v) states, ‘Charity begins at home. ZimRights should engender all its structures including governance structures, secretariat, and membership by ensuring that a gender sensitive ratio of women to men in leadership is achieved.”

Following the launch of the campaign, the National Council tasked the National Chairperson to open dialogue with ZimRights’ 11 regional councils, which at the time, were all led by men. The dialogue was meant to seek avenues for implementing recommendation 5.2 (v).

“These are not easy conversations,” the National Chairperson Mr. Takesure Musiiwa advised his colleagues, “As a grassroots organisation, our structures are made up of elected officials. We therefore need to ensure that we do not appear like we are subverting an upcoming electoral process.”

It was agreed that ZimRights would not implement affirmative action but would go the empowerment root, strengthening women leaders in the provinces to ensure that they can compete effectively and emerge victorious.

“Human rights work is very tough in Zimbabwe owing to the many dangers that accompany it,” ZimRights Gender Advisor Perlagia Kapuya advised the Women and Human Rights Leadership Group, “Women have to be strong to keep standing no matter the dangers.”

A series of engagements were put together throughout the country to strengthen women leaders to face the rigours of human rights work.

In January 2021, ZimRights held its elections for all structures from local to national. The elections saw a significant rise in women leadership with 4 out of 11 provinces electing women to lead them. At the AGM that followed, 6 more women found their way into the National Council while three women went into the Management Committee. This was a significant shift.

Two years down the line, the National Council on 8 February faced the question: is it working?

“Unlike in the previous years in which you look forward to hearing from the Management Committee on the state of the Association, we believe this year we must dedicate an entire session to hearing from you.” The National Chairperson told the delegates, effectively moving management reports down towards the end of the agenda. A power shift.

He explained that the state of the association is what is happening in the communities and the challenges that local organisers are facing. That set into motion a series of reflections from community leaders. Immediately, it became clear that the principles of the Open Up campaign were on trial. It was clear that out of ZimRights’ 11 regions, 4 regions that are led by women appear to be the most troubled. After a two hour deliberation, the meeting came up with 4 key lessons that will help in strengthening women leadership in communities.  We share these principles here as a way of encouraging other organisations trying to strengthen women leadership. But as a grassroots movement of over 250 000, we are confident that this is a conversation that we want to have openly.

The first lesson is that patriarchy always fights back.  ZimRights women leaders in the communities have acknowledged that while their tenure is facing many challenges related to shrinking civic space, they feel they are at times victims of backlash from communities that do not seem to believe in women leaders. This raises on them the bar to deliver beyond expectation. The important lesson for us is that patriarchy is sometimes deep culture. It is not the men in the room who may be champions for empowerment, but it is the deep culture out there that says prove yourself then gain my confidence. How we prepare emerging women leaders to confront the deep culture must be an important part of the transformation process. We must include an outreach into communities ahead of a transition, to conscientize and build support systems that women leaders can depend on when duty calls. The Open Up Handbook gives a directory of organisations in the provinces that can help as this support system. They must be ready to reach out with confidence and humility knowing that there are many people out there ready to support women leaders.

Secondly, local organisers must be capacitated to operate efficiently and deliver as real leaders worth of the title, not merely statistics. When a transformation process brings in women leader in power, it must not be a matter of ticking boxes. In some places, the new women leaders had hoped to depend on their predecessors to get things done. This help can only last for so long as. Institutions must therefore invest in internal capacity development even in things that may appear obvious. This like record keeping, distribution of labour, communication and the use of technology to organise better. This capacity building is not just convening a workshop. It is designing practical tools for every day community organising and recruiting a support structure that drives progress. The ZimRights communications team based in the regions has been an important tool for driving local structures’ digital activism capacity.

“Fambai nevanofamba. ” This was the advice from our National Treasurer Jannet Kanavete. Do not be held back by those who live in the past. While it would be great to move along with everyone, if the risk of inclusion in stagnation, then progress demands that we leave behind those who doubt the vision. “Vana vembwa havazvinuri musi mumwechete.” (Puppies don’t receive their vision on the same day.) Some will believe by seeing. The lesson was not lost to the champions who believe much more needs to be done in building a team of believers but starting with those who are ready to step forward and move.

Lastly, the struggle must go on record. The meeting agreed that there are no apologies for the transformation that seeks to bring women into leadership. As such the challenges and the progress must be clearly documented and open conversation must be promoted. This will help come up with strategies to ensure that the Open Up campaign delivers on the expected transformation.

As we forge ahead with the Open Up Campaign, reflections like these are important as they allows us to take stock. To the women leaders in ZimRights who are staying the course despite the backlash, we encourage them that they have the power. Happy International Women’s Day ZimRights Women. You are our inspiration.