Sthembile Mpofu, Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation
Sthembile Mpofu, Centre for Conflict Management and Transformation

The Space that Exists Before the Violence Happens – A Reflection on Women Peace-builders in Zimbabwe




Firstly, I would like to thank UN Women and UNDP for asking me to be a discussant on this panel. It has given me the opportunity to read a very important report and while doing so forced me to think critically about two things –  firstly about the work that I wake up to do every day as a conflict transformation practitioner and secondly about what it means to be a woman in both my private and professional life.

The report highlights the challenges women face as a result of their gender. These challenges take the form of physical abuse, sexual violence, discrimination and exclusion. It clearly lays out the courageous journey that has been travelled by Zimbabwean women over decades, illustrating their trials and tribulations and their hard won victories. The report has had the effect of making me appreciate many rights I take for granted as a woman living in Zimbabwe. And to those who fought for and won those rights I would like to express my deepest gratitude.

As I read the report through the lens of a peace builder, I felt a deep solidarity with the women who are present at every level of society working to build a better society. However, my practitioner’s eye could not help looking for the story that lay beyond the women’s story that is in the spotlight. I tried to see the shape and form of what lay in the shadows beyond the light. When you do conflict transformation work you soon realize that where the destruction or violence manifests is rarely where the problem lies. So I asked myself, “What is happening in that space that exists before the violence and destruction happen? Who lives there and what happens there?” We do of course, men, women, and children, with our dogs and cats and cattle.  It is you and I going about our daily business of living. The question is, how we ALL behave in that space that exists before the violence happens and then we have to deal with the violence. We deal with the effects of the violence through resolutions and legislation and ensuring that there is representation of women in all fora at all levels. This is important work because this is how we must ensure that women are safer and more secure. But how much attention are we paying to that space we all occupy before the violence happens?

This is where the second part of my reflection came into play, where I began to ask myself what role do I play as a woman in that space that exists before the violence happens, what role do all women play in that space before the violence happens. As a daughter, a mother, a wife, a sister, friend, work colleague, director, parliamentarian, Minister, Vice President, President. As women who are working for a better Zimbabwe, I felt that we need to reflect on what we do in this space. I thought of the mother who lives next door to me whose children live in perpetual fear of her violent temper and her belt, I thought of an incident I witnessed at a police station charge office, where a policewoman took great delight in slapping and kicking three drunken men arrested for public drinking. I also asked myself to what extent the women we celebrate as being in those coveted positions of influence have contributed to improving conditions for everyone in the space that exists before the violence happens. When we as women have power and influence at any level in our society are we any less corrupt or divisive than our male counterparts, are we any more transparent or fair in our dealings. Are we kinder, more empathetic, do we hold society’s interest at heart any more dearly than our male counterparts. My answer to myself was based solely on my own assessment of what I see around me every day and that answer was, sadly, that for me, there is little difference.  In looking after that space that exists before the violence happens should we not ensure that equity, justice, fairness, accountability and transparency prevail, if our society is to be a peaceful one?  

In my reflection I concluded that an equal amount of energy and time must be put into working in that space that exists before the violence happens as is being put into working in the space where the violence happens and in the space after the violence happens. And we must, as women, self introspect to see how we in our different roles, contribute to the culture of violence that exists within our society. Ensuring that as women we are making the right choices in our private and professional spaces will contribute immensely to building peace.