#StoryOfResistance — Responding to shrinking spaces for civil society organizations in Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, civil society and women’s rights organizations are experiencing restrictions in operating spaces through limiting their right to freedom of association. Human and women’s rights defenders and activists have also faced institutional harassment as a result.
We talked with representatives from two UN Trust Fund grantee organizations funded under the EU/UN Spotlight Initiative about shrinking civic spaces and how civil society and women’s rights are working to address it in Zimbabwe. Sandra Zenda, Programs Coordinator at the Institute for Young Women’s Development (IYWD) and Morgen Chinoona, Program Officer & Ending Violence against Women Technical Lead at Family AIDS Caring Trust (FACT) Zimbabwe bring light to this topic.
IYWD has been running a project in partnership funded by the UN Trust Fund with Just Associates of Southern Africa (JASS SNA) since January 2020. The project, implemented in the Manicaland province and in the Mashonaland region, focuses on building women’s capacities and strengthening alliances and networks to challenge social norms and values that perpetuate violence against women and girls (VAW/G).
Family AIDS Caring Trust (FACT) Zimbabwe is a women-led organization dedicated to improving the lives of marginalized communities through health and poverty reduction interventions. Their UN Trust Fund-supported project “Voices from the Fringes” addresses violence against young women, adolescent girls and self-identified female sex workers and to promote their sexual and reproductive health rights in five districts of Zimbabwe.
How has your organization adapted as a response to the increasingly shrinking spaces in your context?
Sandra Zenda: Our feminist movement building strategy, which focuses on power imbalance as a root cause of violence, has in fact served as an adaptation mechanism. Women receiving training in movement building can immediately mobilize themselves to engage powerholders and influence changes in behaviours, values and beliefs perpetuating violence against women and girls (VAW/G). This approach has enabled us to have a wider reach and to ensure that our work could continue, even if civil society organizations (CSOs) could no longer operate due to the increasingly tense socio-political situation. With this approach, activists could continue operating in their communities despite movement restrictions and closure measures during COVID-19. We have also leveraged working relations with government partners to create convening spaces for civil society actors. For example, our partnership with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs enabled us to hold a civil society convention that resulted in co-created Action Plans and referral pathways to prevent and mitigate VAW/G cases — despite an increasingly tense political climate against CSOs.
We also switched to digital platforms thanks to additional COVID-19 funding, which served as an adaptation mechanism. For instance, a Facebook group called “Fountain for Girls and Women” was created to advocate for women and girls’ empowerment and to help prevent VAW/G. Additionally, we have built coalitions with other feminist organisations to conduct collective advocacy challenging shrinking civic space tactics and instruments such as the Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Bill.*
Morgen Chinoona: This PVO Amendment Bill has not yet been passed but for us, it has already sent a warning message to CSOs on the possibility of shrinking civic space as it implies a more institutional involvement in CSOs’ work.
As a response, FACT has adopted a more diplomatic and cooperative approach to reduce confrontation. We cultivate a culture of accountability within institutions we are engaging with, while at the same time working on raising awareness of women and girls’ rights and what they can and should expect from service providers.
In Zimbabwe, the local women’s movement has made some progress in advocating for legal reforms especially on issues around rape and age of consent. CSOs will continue to monitor the implementation of these reforms that affect the lives of women and girls.
How can donors better support civil society organizations working on feminist movement building?
Sandra Zenda: Donors may support them by allowing for adaptive programming and unrestricted flexible funding mechanisms. As part of our feminist movement building strategies, project participants are trained to become leaders and to organize in unique, innovative ways in their communities. At the community level, facilitators often plan ad hoc meetings based on contextual developments that may not necessarily be planned in the programme. Such organizing at community level is only made possible when we are given the space, time and resources to adapt and when we are provided with flexible funding.
Morgen Chinoona: For us, long-term funding is particularly key for movement-building projects as attitudes and policies are slow to change, but also for advocacy activities. Usually, projects are funded for three years, but institutionalization requires more time: we recommend 5-year grants that can help build a project and allow it to be internalized by stakeholders and beneficiaries. It is critical to make long-term support available for such projects.
Sandra Zenda: In terms of technical support, donors can also support women’s visibility in different aspects of their work, such as promoting women’s role as grassroots researchers. Feminist movement building means bringing forward women’s agency as researchers and as archives of knowledge.
Morgan Chinoona: As movement building is often limited by legal and policy environments, donors could also increase their support of advocacy for policy and legal changes, including regarding issues that are deemed “sensitive” such as self-identified female sex work that are often seen as an illegitimate social group and therefore not worthy of respect and protection.
Sandra Zenda: That’s right! Lastly, donors can acknowledge their power and mainstream feminist methodologies within their own institutions to create safe workspaces for women. It will also enable grassroots women’s movements to communicate with donors and participate in advocacy processes and platforms.
Morgen Chinoona: They can also promote economic empowerment for marginalized women to further their independence and enable them to demand accountability for all their rights.
*The Bill seeks to amend the Private Voluntary Organizations Act. It includes clauses amending the definition of “private voluntary organizations” and making provision for the creation of an offence where a private voluntary organization is involved in supporting or opposing a political party or candidate in relation to the offence created in the Political Party (Financing) Act.
#StoryOfResistance is an editorial series during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence 2022 of the UN Trust Fund. The series features the important, lifeline work of women’s rights organizations in ending violence against women and girls, in the context of overlapping crises and rising pushbacks from anti-rights and anti-feminist movements.