With her back leaning on the white-washed wall, a young mother tries to breastfeed and calm her infant. Several other backs try to find support on the homey surface and several more arms carry tiny but hungry and disturbed human beings. All in a temporary shelter of sheer survival.

Such appears to be an increasingly familiar sight in Zimbabwe, as more populations are harmed and displaced with the state-sanctioned violence before and after the second round of presidential elections. Opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai was short of emerging victorious in the polls held last 29 March as massive cheating gave him less than 50 per cent lead. But even before the MDC could engage in the second round of elections, Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw, with the escalating violence targeted at MDC and its supporters and the civilian population as a whole. During the campaigns before the second round, 500 MDC supporters are believed to have been murdered, 5,000 remain missing and hundreds of thousands have been displaced [1]. For the MDC, it has been a continuing chronicle of debacle and death, whose proportions are way beyond what was foretold.

At the centre of the whirlwind of violence are women and girls, whose bodies have borne the brunt of political greed and have so much at stake in the political project of democracy.

Beyond body count: Women and girls in crisis The facts and figures above are astounding on their own. But these are inadequate in reflecting their deeper implications and consequences. As inflation skyrockets at 165,000 per cent, unemployment 80 per cent, and homes are burned down, more pressure and vulnerability are placed on the backs of women and girls [2].

In June, the wife of Harare's mayor along with her 4-year old child was kidnapped, with her eyes still blind-folded when her lifeless body was found hours later [3]. More details were revealed before the Human Rights Council by Zimbabwe-based women's groups: A 15-year old girl with her pregnant mother stripped naked and beaten in public; several girls and women raped, with youngest aged 3; and 200,000 women displaced [4]. Much more infuriating details have surfaced recently: MDC women supporters physically and sexually assaulted; women and girls raped due to their relations with MDC officials and supporters [5]; girls indentured as cooks and sex-slaves of youth militia in Zanu-PF bases, which were built from school houses[6]; and many more.

The agonising personal trauma emanating from such violence against women and the perpetuation of fear among the populace are aggravated by the highly probable transmission of HIV-AIDS as well as unwanted pregnancies. Today life expectancy in Zimbabwe stands at 34 years for women and 37 years for men.

These harrowing details on women and girls not only indicate the gendered nature of the crisis and its impact. They also point out that much of the cost of national liberation are charged against women's bodies and participation. In many cases, women's bodies have been used as weapons of war, in violation of various national and international laws and frameworks including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, the United Nations Security Council 1325 and the most recently, UNSCR 1820.

Death of democracy

The elections was a much anticipated event for it was a chance to end an atrocious regime through a consolidated mandate from the people. It could have been an opportunity for people to exercise their rights and citizenship, learning from the lessons of past rigged elections. It could have heralded broader participation in governance processes which are in dire need of reforms. It could have allowed a larger stake for women in nation-building.

Nine-hundred nineteen women vied for councilor, parliamentary and senate seats, a 49 per cent increase from the 2002 elections [7]. A hundred women also participated in election monitoring trainings conducted by YWCA-Zimbabwe alone. Twenty-eight women successfully claimed seats at the lower house of assembly.

Such milestone, however, was marred by the persistent harassment and cheating in the run-off towards the second round of presidential elections. Tsvangirai's withdrawal signaled a loss of an alternative choice, rendering the elections a failure. But instead of calling for a status quo, the elections continued where the winner no longer mattered but an impossible margin of victory. The peoples' will was once more thwarted mainly by one man's will to politically survive.

Democracy likewise largely remained an unarticulated word during the African Union Summit last week in Egypt. While the heads of state condemned the violence in Zimbabwe, few laid the blame on Mugabe. One of the more straightforward critique came from Asha Rose Migiro, UN deputy secretary general and the first African woman to hold such position: “We must also stand by the people of Zimbabwe, who are facing an extremely grave crisis. This is the single greatest challenge to regional stability in southern Africa, not only because of its terrible humanitarian and security consequences, but also because of the dangerous political precedent it sets. The climate in which the 27 June run-off election occurred was not conducive to credible, free and fair elections because of the violence and intimidation that prevailed. Regrettably, the run-off went ahead despite the concerns raised and calls made by the international community, including by the Security Council, to suspend the vote. This is a moment of truth for regional leaders [8].”

But the leaders failed to seize the moment and uncover the truth, possibly because the truth might stare at them too hard. Instead, they nodded at the prospect of power-sharing. The world's longest serving head of state, Gabon's Omar Bongo even asserted non-interference as a principle and called for the acceptance of Mugabe's presidency [9]. Despite a few dissident voices, the old boy's club that is the AU was also tongue tied on the proposed sanctions at the recently concluded G8 Summit in Tokyo and later, at the UN Security Council.

At the crossroads...

Zimbabwe is once more at the crossroads towards liberation. This time not from Rhodesia but from the betrayal of its very own hero of independence. Sanctions may not be the solution for the crisis, as these may only escalate tensions and violence. Sanctions against Mugabe and his allies are also inadequate. His political survival has not been ensured by his charisma and later, his thuggery alone. He has been supported by fundamentalist and neoliberal forces [10]. The latter includes those who share his zeal for power and wanton disregard for human rights and loaned him billions in exchange for the country's natural resources and trade concessions. Ironically, it includes some who are now calling for sanctions.

Genuine democracy never grows on grounds defined by external forces. Neither will it thrive without truth and accountability especially for violations of human rights. It is always a balance between home-grown nationalism and an internationalism, whose main feature is a respect on human rights.

Zimbabwe is once more at the crossroads where bridges are built on backs of women. Some have been destroyed, some still survive but all are integral in a historical continuum from the past to the present. However, the question is: What kind of historical continuum? The marks of rape and other abuses can never be erased in the consciousness of women and other people who experience the Mugabe regime.

Only when justice and accountability prevail, can these bridges truly mature in strength and set the directions of the future.

References:

[1] Tepperman, Jonathan. (7/14 July 2008). “Not in this Africa” in Newsweek, Vol. 152. No 1 / 2,18-21.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thornycroft, Peta. (18 June 2008). “Zimbabwe: Wife of Harare's MDC Mayor Killed.” URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/2151048/Zimbabwe-Wife-of-Harare-mayor-murdered.html

[4] Zimbabwe Women's Coalition et. al. (June 2008). “It's an Emergency: Stop the Violence and Protect Women and Girls Now” (Statement delivered during the June 2008 session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland). URL: http://isiswomen.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=980&Itemid=204

[5] Bakwa, Poterai (pseudonym) (20 June 2008). “Eyewitness: Raped for opposing Mugabe.” URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7465101.stm

[6] Los Angeles Times. (7 July 2008). “Zimbabwe youth militias accused of holding women as sex slaves.” URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-sexslave7-2008jul07,0,5401767.story

[7] YWCA. (16 April 2008). “World YWCA stands in solidarity with Zimbabwean women.” URL: http://www.worldywca.info/index.php/ywca/world_ywca/ywca_news/world_ywca_news__1/world_ywca_stands_in_solidarity_with_zimbabwean_women

[8] “Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt,30 June 2008 - Deputy Secretary-General's remarks to Eleventh Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union.” URL: http://www.un.org/apps/dsg/dsgstats.asp?nid=116

[9] Raphael, Alison. (1 July 2008). “Zimbabwe: Dim Outlook for Power-Sharing Deal.” URL: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=43027

[10] World Bank has refused to lend further loans to Zimbabwe due to arrears amounting to US$889 million as of 2000. Other IFIs, governments and institutions have also ceased to provide financial and credit assistance to Zimbabwe, supposedly due to the increasing human rights violations. China has cushioned such financial blow as it poured some US$1.6 billion in the last two years exchange for energy and mining concessions and access to mineral resources including platinum, gold, chrome, coal, nickel and diamonds. See Zimbabwe's profile in the World bank, URL: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/ZIMBABWEEXTN/0,,menuPK:375742~pagePK:141159~piPK:141110~theSitePK:375736,00.html http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/ZIMBABWEEXTN/0,,menuPK:375742%7EpagePK:141159%7EpiPK:141110%7EtheSitePK:375736,00.html ; British Broadcasting Corporation. (4 October 2000). “World Bank halts Zimbabwe loans.” URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/955657.stm ; Besada, Hany. (2 July 2008). “Why is Zimbabwe still afloat? China.” URL: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080702.wcomment0702/BNStory/specialComment/home

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