I was looking forward to a restful Easter, when on the eve of Good Friday I went into a meeting where I thought I would be in a safe space. This was a feedback meeting from those who had attended the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The UN CSW was held in February 2009 in New York, and a number of Zimbabwean organisations who are seen as the leaders in advocating around gender equality, women’s rights, and anti-stigma and discrimination of vulnerable or marginalised communities. One of the organisations present is a male-led men’s organisation that focuses on challenging the traditional concept of male dominance over women, seeking to transform men’s mindsets into treating women as equals, with respect and dignity. The other four organisations are women-issues-focussed, led by women proponents of women’s rights as human rights.
I must say I went into this meeting by default – my organisation which is a network of positive women was never invited. The director of one of the organisations that I work with received an invitation, and as she was unable to go, she asked me to represent the organisation at the meeting. Other participants in the meeting were from Harare-based NGOs, one based outside Harare, and legislators. Each participant in that meeting was asked to introduce themselves by saying their names and the organisations they represented. When it was my turn, I decided that I would introduce myself as who I identify as, considering the nature of the meeting and the gathering. I said my name, and stated that I am a feminist. The response was laughter around the room – I am not sure why they laughed.
Then the first shocker in that meeting then came from one of the women – a respected lawyer, working for a women’s organisation that looks at women’s rights in regards to the law – “Oh! So you don’t do men!” It was not a question – a statement that shocked me in terms of what being a feminist had to do with “doing men or women”; why such a “safe space” all of a sudden was apparently not so safe for all women. I assumed by her saying that I don’t do men she was insinuating that I was sexually attracted to and slept with women. After the first reaction of shock, I became disgusted by the whole system and the process we engage in – calling ourselves advocates for human rights of all, when some of us can unashamedly display such homophobic and discriminatory statements in the presence of other human rights advocates. In the meantime, no one else said anything about that statement. To me, that meant the derogatory statement was condoned, and that if there were any same-sex loving people in the room, they lost hope of ever having the “human rights advocates” ever stand for their rights.
The main issues discussed were to do with care work and criminalisation of HIV. It was revealed in this meeting that the law on criminalisation that is applied in Zimbabwe today was passed in 1996. The questions were what position we take as a nation. On the criminalisation issue, one of the prominent women leading lawyers stated that she suggested we take a position to keep the law as it is, proposing that it was a good law that protects women. I was astounded as I wondered whether the law gurus who speak for us and protect our interests had ever cared to consult with the women in the communities, explaining the law and hearing their views. In the absence of full information, and adequate health services that ensure access for every Zimbabwean citizens, those whose mandate it is to ensure that the service is there are the ones who should be prosecuted under this law, as they are failing the nation.
While the experience frightened and immobilised me for a while, I committed to say this out loud. Maybe some day, some people will learn. Maybe some day, human rights advocates will learn to truly encompass human beings in their advocacy for human rights.