Between a rock and a hard place – women human
rights defenders at risk
The human rights situation in Zimbabwe has been deteriorating rapidly since 2000. Human rights violations
are taking place in a context characterised by a fast-shrinking economy that is being accelerated by
government policies. Those policies, particularly on land reform and forced evictions, have contributed
significantly to reducing the entire population’s capacity to obtain access to their rights to food,(1) health,
education and housing.
Zimbabwean women, who are active in dedicated women’s rights organizations and in other human rights
organizations, are mobilising to confront the government in response to the violation of economic and social
rights. They are demanding respect for and protection of their own human rights and the rights of members
of their communities.
After the government of Zimbabwe‘s programme of mass forced evictions in 2005 an estimated 700,000
people lost their homes or livelihoods or both.(2) The forced evictions drove people not only from their
homes, but also from their market stalls, depriving informal traders of their means of earning a living.
Women were disproportionately affected by this policy since they constitute the majority of informal market
traders and are often the primary providers, not only for their own children but also for other children
orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.(3) Many women, from both urban and rural areas, are finding it
increasingly difficult to buy food, pay for medical care and earn a living.
As economic and social conditions have worsened, the government of Zimbabwe has become increasingly
intolerant of critics of its policies. Since 2000, the government has condoned the widespread use by the
Zimbabwe Republic Police of excessive force, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention of government critics.
These include trade unionists, human rights defenders, media workers, NGO workers, lawyers, students and
other perceived opponents of the government.(4) Since 2005, hundreds of human rights defenders, the
majority of them women, have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for engaging or attempting to engage in
peaceful protest marches or meetings. Most women interviewed by Amnesty International have reported
being subjected to beatings and ill-treatment while in police custody. The beatings, in some instances,
amounted to torture.
Women, standing up to defend their economic and social rights, face further human rights violations as
women and as human rights defenders, including sexist verbal abuse and derogatory accusations. Women
human rights defenders have been persistently denied their rights to freedom of expression, association and
assembly. In addition, women human rights defenders in rural areas are being denied equal access to
necessary cheap maize sold by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). Since 2000, the government has used
the law, in particular, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the Miscellaneous Offences Act (MOA) and
later the Criminal Codification Act to undermine the ability of human rights defenders to promote and protect
human rights. The police have categorized as criminal all legitimate activities of human rights defenders, as
recognized in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders(5) and reaffirmed by the African Commission
on Human and Peoples’ Rights in their Resolution on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Africa.(6)
Women human rights defenders in detention have been humiliated and denied food, water, medical care
and access to lawyers. Some have even been detained while pregnant or with their babies or infants. They
are held in deplorable conditions which fall far below international human rights standards.
The treatment of women human rights defenders in custody has had dire consequences on them and their
families, particularly on children who are often left without care while their mothers or carers are detained for
However, in the face of an increasing government clampdown, Zimbabwean women human rights defenders
have demonstrated great resilience, bravery and determination to end human rights violations. They are
aware of the obstacles and the dangers they face, yet they refuse to be intimidated.

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