So, I’ll breeze right past travel because it is the worst, always, and I am truly concerned that it may one day prevent me from going anywhere, ever, unless it is first class, which I will never be able to afford. When I arrived Sunday, Brian, my supervisor, gave me some really light optional work and I went to bed early.
As an introductory matter, I was in Harare, Zimbabwe to do some field work on a project I’ve been working for The University of Chicago Law’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). Zimbabwe ratified a new constitution in 2013 that is very progressive, and enumerates several previously un-enumerated women’s rights, such as equal participation in public life and in marriage. That being the case, some of the laws which currently exist in Zimbabwe have been rendered unconstitutional–and yet, the supremacy of the Constitution is not being recognized. The government, through the ratification process, has also taken on new affirmative obligations towards women–but many (if not most) are yet unmet. IHRC–working on behalf of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA)–has been investigating ways to remedy these inconsistencies, either through legislative reforms, or through affirmative action program proposals, or through grass-roots awareness campaigns. On Monday, we met with Netsai Mushonga, to get her input on some of the solutions that we’ve been developing for ZWLA.
Netsai is the National Coordinator for the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ), an umbrella organization of more than 60 women’s rights organisations in Zimbabwe. She was instrumental in the push to pass Zimbabwe’s Domestic Violence Act of 2007, as well as in the constitutional reform effort that led to Zimbabwe ratifying their new constitution in 2013. She sits on the council for the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence (alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu) and she has also been a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. (H/T to this blog for some of this biographical information.) She’s also a writer: She’s written eloquently about her experiences with child marriage, as well as this rather harrowing account of being arrested for her organizing activities. Needless to say, we were really fortunate to meet with her.
Our meeting Monday was really exhilarating. Netsai listened patiently to our short presentation and endured more than two hours of questions from us regarding what she thought would be the most effective ways to address gender inequality in Zimbabwe.
She was particularly insightful regarding the issue of child marriage in Zimbabwe. Both her professional and personal experiences–including the experiences of her school-age children–really helped to crystallize the current state of affairs for us. Child marriage itself wasn’t something we had really addressed in our research, since it’s barred by the 2013 Constitution (which sets 18 as the minimum age of marriage) and since the Constitutional Court struck contrary provisions in the marriage laws (which allowed marriage under the age of 18) early this year. However, in a country with relatively little governmental oversight, particularly in rural areas, our conversation with Netsai made it very clear that change doesn’t really come from the legislature or the courts, but from the people. People can easily circumvent or even ignore the law, which is why education and awareness programs have to be a key component of efforts to improve the situation of women. Fathers need to be convinced that pledging their daughters to marriage isn’t in their best interests; community leaders–civil, traditional, and religious–need to be convinced to advocate for and enforce the law when given the opportunity; even girls need to be convinced that marriage is not glamorous, nor the pole star by which to guide their progression as women.
Brian and I got lunch afterwards and then I went back to my room and reconfigured our presentation until pretty late, all high on the buzz of the potential for progress. We talked a little at lunch about how excited I am to start on the next phase of the project–developing work-product for ZWLA, whether it’s proposed legislative amendments or educational materials to help try to effectuate some of that grass-roots change. And we’re not even done with our week. We have meetings coming up with a legal scholar and her class at the University of Zimbabwe, a labor court judge, and ZWLA, as well as a larger meeting at the UN complex, a political activist, and a member of Parliament.
Also worth noting that one component of the IHRC next semester is meeting with the Human Rights Division of the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago (yes, the very MacArthur Foundation “committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world”) to do a “donor simulation,” where we’ll have the opportunity to pitch projects the same way that grantseekers who have progressed past the inquiry phase would. This is an amazing opportunity, and my wheels are already turning around how to best take advantage of this for my clients and for women and girls in Zimbabwe.