Category Archives: Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award

African Commission for Human and Peoples Rights accept WOZA case

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) has received formal notification from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) that a recent communication, outlining continued human rights abuses perpetrated against WOZA members, was accepted during the 14th Extraordinary Session held from July 20-24, 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya. By accepting the communication, the ACHPR requests that the Zimbabwean government respond to the rights violations included in the document.

The communication number 446/13 was taken by Jennifer Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, and WOZA against the Republic of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe Lawyer’s for Human Rights (ZLHR) and the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) now have 60 days to argue for admissibility of the case.

The nature of the complaint is that the Republic of Zimbabwe – which ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on May 30, 1986 – has routinely violated WOZA’s right to peaceful protest and assembly. The communication, which was initially submitted in April 2013, documents a lengthy series of arrests, beatings, arbitrary detentions, and general physical harassment of WOZA members for over a decade between 2003 and 2013.

Formed in 2002, WOZA is a mass civic movement with a countrywide membership of approximately 85,000 citizens. WOZA lobbies and advocates on issues pertaining to women and their families in Zimbabwe and participates in a range of peaceful campaigns, both locally and internationally. WOZA’s principal aim is to mobilise Zimbabweans, particularly women, to demand social justice and educates its members about their rights and freedoms and encourages them to fully participate in important civic processes. WOZA conducts civic education programmes and teaches its members nonviolent ways to advance and protect their basic human rights.

WOZA take right to protest complaint to African Commission

On 13th April 2013 Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) legal representatives from Washington based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) filed a communication to the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights during its 53rd session in Banjul, The Gambia.

The applicants in this communication are Jennifer Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu and WOZA. The two WOZA leaders have been arrested over 50 times in the 10 years of WOZA’s existence. Williams has filed as the official representative of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA).

The communication demonstrates Zimbabwe’s clear and systematic pattern of suppression of WOZA’s rights to engage in peaceful protest and public demonstrations. It details over 24 incidents of violations over the course of two years of the Applicants’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, non-discrimination, and equal protection of the law-all protected by the African Charter.

Article 6 of the Charter states that every individual shall have the right to liberty and to the security of his person. No one may be deprived of his freedom except for reasons and conditions previously laid down by law. In particular, no one may be arbitrarily arrested or detained. Article 9 of the Charter, protects the right to freedom of expression, and states that every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.

WOZA are of the view therefore that the right to engage in peaceful protest is an “essential and constituent element of democracies” and anchored by the twin pillars of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Pending the finalization of this matter the two activists and WOZA members have requested the African Commission to grant provisional measures interdicting the Republic of Zimbabwe from interfering in any way with the Applicant’s right to peaceful protest and public demonstrations, particularly in the time period between the date of filing this communication and the 2013 Zimbabwean elections. In particular, the Applicants requested the African Commission to interdict the Republic of Zimbabwe to refrain from arresting or detaining the Applicants and other members of WOZA when they are engaging in peaceful protest and public demonstrations as protected by the Charter.

The applicants also requests that the Commission orders the Republic of Zimbabwe take measures to facilitate the right to engage in peaceful protest and public demonstrations and remove any restriction of the rights of freedom of expression and assembly in law or practice that is incompatible to the Human and Peoples Rights Charter.

The timing of this communication is due to escalation of repression on civic society organisations and the shrinking space for exercising and protecting human rights as Zimbabwe gears for harmonised election.

WOZA took this course of action after the Zimbabwe Republic Police have failed to respect the Supreme Court ruling of 26 November 2010. (Jennifer Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu v. Phathekile Msipha, the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General, Judgment No. SC 22/10). The ZRP continue to clamp down on WOZA and the repression has taken the form of criminalising peaceful processions and WOZA gatherings. The police have disturbed hundreds of peaceful processions, indiscriminately beating and arresting over 3000 members. During the 10th peaceful processions of Saint Valentine’s Day on 13 February, in Harare and in Bulawayo on 14 February 2013, police deployed tear gas, beat and arrested members.

Additionally, WOZA members who were marching on 13th November 2012 to demand Bulawayo city council adhere to water load shedding timetables and that the council deal with politicisation of water supply were beaten, insulted and dumped at a graveyard. The level of tribal insults and the symbol of dumping the members at the graveyard are serious threats against the organisation and its members. WOZA analysis points to a more direct tribal repression being practiced in Bulawayo by Police officers based there. This repression is part of the marginalisation of the region despite the fact that the orders carried out by Bulawayo police officers originate from the same command structure in Harare.

Despite this harassment by Police officers, WOZA have painstakingly attempted to engage the police leadership. Specific request have been that they follow the legal guidelines on dispersing peaceful protests rather than perpetrating abuses. When this failed, letters of complaint were written and ignored. The Joint Monitoring and Operating Committee (JOMIC) refused to deal with WOZA complaints arguing that their mandate was to focus on political parties despite clear requirements detailed under the global political agreement.

After the so-called Arab spring, repression increased and the Supreme Court ruling became completely ignored, leaving the human rights defenders without a route to hold the Police accountable and their right to assembly and peacefully express their views severely diminished.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a civic movement with a countrywide membership of over approximately 85,000 women and men formed in 2002 to lobby and advocate on issues affecting women and their families in Zimbabwe. WOZA participates in a variety of campaigns locally and internationally and has conducted hundreds of peaceful protests and public demonstrations in Zimbabwe since 2002. WOZA’s express aim is to mobilise Zimbabweans, especially women, to demand social justice and it educates its members about their rights and freedoms and asks them to fully participate in all civic processes. WOZA conducts civic education programmes and teaches its members nonviolent ways to speak out about their issues.

Magodonga Mahlangu’s acceptance speech – 26th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, 23 November 2009, The White House, Washington, DC

Good evening Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, members of Congress and the diplomatic corps, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great honour to be standing here accepting this award tonight and I thank you. The accolade of winning the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award should be a cause for great celebration. Yet, I find that even as I stand here, humbled and grateful, for the recognition, I find little to celebrate.

The Global Political Agreement signed in September of last year should also have been a cause for celebration. This agreement brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was to be a foundation for dialogue and cooperation between political parties.  A year later, however, we find ourselves in a situation of great uncertainty and violence.

Human rights defenders continue to be targeted for arbitrary arrest, harassment, torture and abduction by state agents.  Oppressive laws designed to silence democratic voices are still in place and still being used against us. My colleague, Jenni Williams, and I return to court on 7 December, facing charges of disturbing the peace for saying that people need food aid. We are facing five years in prison.

This harassment is also visited upon ordinary citizens. A badly paid police force routinely solicits bribes from people going about their business. Innocent people are arrested for loitering and vendors often have their goods looted for the personal use of police.

The economy has also not recovered enough to bring relief to the average household. We see food on supermarket shelves, but we cannot eat with our eyes. Unemployment remains at close to 95%, and with informal trade criminalised, most people remain locked in a daily struggle to feed themselves and their families.

The healthcare and education systems remain in crisis. While some schools have reopened, more and more children are dropping out as parents continue with the daily struggle to decide whether to put food on the table for the day or send a child to school for a week. Child-headed households are also becoming increasingly prevalent as HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, stress and a collapsed healthcare system combine to hound our people into early graves.  In Zimbabwe, the average life expectancy for a woman is 34 years.

This is the backdrop against which WOZA operates, providing Zimbabweans across political lines with a platform to speak out about their issues. Almost every month for the last seven years, women and men have taken to the streets to demand social justice and hold their leaders accountable through peaceful direct action. Invariably these peaceful protests have led to conflict with the state.

Thousands of my colleagues have faced arrest, torture and abduction – their only crime, wanting a better life for themselves and their families. I myself have been arrested more than 30 times in the last seven years for peaceful actions.  Once, I was even arrested for teaching women how to make lemon jam!

These arrests do not deter us because WOZA has empowered us to believe that we deserve better. We deserve to have a roof over our head, food in our stomachs, our children in schools and the nation working. We deserve to live in dignity and free from fear; and it is our right to have our voices heard and respected. That is why I joined WOZA. While Mugabe boasts of having degrees in violence, I and 75,000 WOZA members who stand beside me, have degrees in non-violence.

Our aim is to uphold universality and nonviolence, for a better life-for ourselves and for our children. The Robert F Kennedy award not only validates WOZA’s work, it amplifies our voices. Your efforts send the message that we are not alone and that the world is watching.

I would like to appeal to my sisters and brothers from Africa, guarantors to the Global Political Agreement (GPA). Since it was signed last September, there have been thousands of violations. We call on SADC and all friends present to ensure that the spirit and the letter of the GPA are fully respected and implemented.

We appeal to you to help us rebuild our healthcare and education systems and ensure that every person has enough to eat. We are not asking you to solve our problems for us. We are asking you to support our choices and help us implement them.

In the words of Robert F. Kennedy, “The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future.” Help us achieve ours.

I thank you.

Jenni Williams’s acceptance speech – 26th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, 23 November 2009, The White House, Washington, DC

Good evening Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to add my thanks to that of Magodonga’s to the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and friends here present for the recognition given to Women of Zimbabwe Arise.

WOZA was formed to give voice to ordinary women and men and to demand social justice for all Zimbabweans.  We did not set out to seek recognition beyond that of our own government respecting us as citizens and recognising our concerns as legitimate.  We are mothers of the nation, longing for the award of dignity, and a bright future for our children. It is unfortunate however, to note that our activism – demanding our rights as citizens  —- comes at a cost. I personally find WOZA members constant courage inspirational and would like to take this opportunity to salute their dedication.    Although some have paid the ultimate price ——– their lives sacrificed at the hands of police harassment, or due to a health crisis, brought about by a government, that prioritises power over human life.  As I stand here in the White House, I pay tribute to them –  Tembelani Lunga – Julia Chapeyama –  Fungai Chabata –  Douglas Magwaro –  Maria Moyo and others.

Maria’s story is an example of how life is cut short in Zimbabwe.  A veteran of the liberation struggle, Maria looked after her six orphaned grandchildren, struggling to educate them by selling tomatoes.  Finding that the country’s hard-won independence had been squandered, she once more engaged in struggle and became an active member of WOZA. It was upon her tenth arrest and two nights in filthy police cells, Maria contracted the flu.  Her condition steadily worsened as she had insufficient food and no access to medicine.  The final straw came when she was abducted from her sickbed by police early one morning and interrogated in the bush for hours.  Maria died days later, never recovering from the trauma of her torture.

Maria embodies the spirit that drives us.  WOZA was formed to turn a victim mindset into the one of a survivor — determined to finally realize the promises of the liberation war – for the ideal of “one person-one vote,” for equality and for the right to education.  Blood has already been spilt for these ideals.  WOZA leads a nonviolent struggle and we are committed to giving it a chance to complete our long walk to freedom.

To help us, we draw inspiration from the work of Martin Luther King Junior.  He challenged us to ‘make injustices visible’ and to work so that ‘fear can be turned into hope.’  We modelled our training programmes on his advice, and today, we have a membership of 75,000 strong to show for it.

We are not fighting a revolution in Zimbabwe, we are leading an evEolution.  And civic education is our tool to evolve the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans, to build a strong, new, African democracy, where respect, tolerance and accountability are key.  The building blocks of this democracy are being laid in cattle kraals, tiny two-roomed houses and church halls across the country.

Mr President you know how invaluable community mobilising can be – We have learnt that knocking on doors, talking with and listening to people is the way  WE CAN rebuild our nation. We call on you, to support community mobilizers who are organized to knock on doors, and empower Zimbabweans to deliver change from the ground up.

Magodonga has already appealed to friends here present, I would like to add my plea that Zimbabweans be allowed to develop their democratic voice without harassment.

The constitutional reform process is currently stalled in Zimbabwe.

Little has been done under the Global Political Agreement to ensure there is a secure environment for people to participate in this process and that they can freely say what they want to be included in the content of our new constitution.

We are extremely worried that the structures of violence organized during the presidential run-off last year are currently being reinstated, to intimidate us into silence, and allow the fast-tracking of the so-called “Kariba Draft” of the constitution, endorsed by the political parties. Why is this money being spent for violence instead of funding the constitutional reform?  We want to be able to express our views and still live to see the new constitution working.

We ask for help in establishing a Southern African Development Community monitoring mechanism of the GPA, that would focus on individuals’ security, and the constitutional reform process.  WOZA can take care of the speaking out, and the freedom to express, but we need help to make sure there is freedom after expression.

I thank you!

Speech by President Barack Obama, Presentation of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, White House, Washington D.C., 23 November 2009

Thank you so much.  Thank you.  Please, everybody have a seat.  Everybody have a seat. What a wonderful evening.  Before I begin, let me just acknowledge some folks here in the crowd.  First of all, Ms. Kerry Kennedy, for the great work that she’s doing day in and day out.  Mr. Philip Johnston, thank you to both of you for helping to organize this tonight.  Obviously I’ve got to say thanks to my favorite people — Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy, also known as Ethel Kennedy. To Representative Donald Payne, Representative Gregory Meeks, and Representative Edward Markey, who are all here — thank you for your attendance and your support of this important award.

You know, every year for 24 years, starting the year this award was established, my friend, Senator Edward — Ted — Kennedy, spoke at this event.  And I’m told that he looked forward to it all year — that he relished the chance to shine a bright light on an injustice and on those fighting it, and to support them in that fight.  He also enjoyed a family reunion.  He relished the chance to pay tribute to those carrying on the unfinished work of his brother’s life — work that for nearly half a century in the U.S. Senate he made his own.

He was pleased that this award honored men and women across the globe doing a wide range of urgent work — fighting to end apartheid, advance democracy, empower minorities and indigenous peoples, promote free speech and elections and more.  Because Ted understood that Bobby’s legacy wasn’t a devotion to one particular cause, or a faith in a certain ideology — but rather, it was a sensibility.  A belief that in this world, there is right and there is wrong, and it is our job to build our laws and our lives around recognizing the difference.

A sensitivity to injustice so acute that it can’t be relieved by the rationalizations that make life comfortable for the rest of us — that others’ suffering is not our problem, that the ills of the world are somehow not our concern.

A moral orientation that renders certain people constitutionally incapable of remaining a bystander in the face of evil — a sensibility that recognizes the power of all people, however humble their circumstances, to change the course of history.

Those are the traits of Bobby Kennedy that this award recognizes — the very traits that define the character and guide the life of this year’s recipient.  And while we feel a certain sadness that Senator Kennedy is not with us to honor her, let us also take pleasure tonight in knowing just how much he would have loved and admired Magodonga Mahlangu and the organization that she helps lead — WOZA, which stands for Women of Zimbabwe Arise, and is represented tonight by one of its founders, Jenni Williams. As a young girl raised in Matabeleland — in the Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, Magodonga witnessed the — I’ve got to make sure I get this right — Gukurahundi massacres — the systematic murder of many thousands of people, including her uncle and several cousins — many of whom were buried in mass graves that they’d been forced to dig themselves.

She witnessed the fearful silence that followed, as talking about these events was forbidden.  Magodonga found this to be intolerable.  She wanted to speak out — she wanted people to know the truth about what was happening in her country.

So it was a revelation when, years later, she discovered a group called WOZA whose mission is the very opposite of silence.  WOZA was started back in 2003 to empower women to speak out about the issues affecting their families and their country — desperate hunger; crumbling health and education systems; domestic violence and rape; and government repression ranging from restrictions on free expression to abduction and murder of dissidents.

WOZA’s guiding principle is “tough love” — the idea that political leaders in Zimbabwe could use a little discipline.  And who better to provide that than the nation’s mothers?  Since its founding, the organization has grown from a handful of activists to a movement of 75,000 strong.  There’s even a men’s branch, I understand — MOZA.  And over the past seven years, they have conducted more than a hundred protests — maids and hairdressers, vegetable sellers and seamstresses, taking to the streets; singing and dancing; banging on pots empty of food and brandishing brooms to express their wish to sweep the government clean.

They often don’t get far before being confronted by President Mugabe’s riot police.  They have been gassed, abducted, threatened with guns, and badly beaten — forced to count out loud as each blow was administered.  Three thousand WOZA members have spent time in custody or in prison, sometimes dragged with their babies into cells.  Magodonga and Jenni are due back in court on December 7th, charged with “conduct likely to cause a breach of [the] peace.”  They face a five year sentence if convicted.

That so many women have decided to risk and endure so much is in many ways a testament to the extraordinary example of tonight’s honoree.

Each time they see Magodonga beaten back — beaten black and blue during one protest, only to get right back up and lead another — singing freedom songs at the top of her lungs in full view of security forces — the threat of a policeman’s baton loses some of its power.

Each time her house is searched, or her life is threatened, or she’s once again arrested — more than 30 times so far — she continues to stand in public and inspire the people of Zimbabwe — the power of the state then seems a little less absolute.

Each time she has emerged from incarceration after enduring deplorable conditions and brutal abuse — and gone right back to work — the prospect of prison loses some of its capacity to deter.

By her example, Magodonga has shown the women of WOZA and the people of Zimbabwe that they can undermine their oppressors’ power with their own power — that they can sap a dictator’s strength with their own.  Her courage has inspired others to summon theirs.  And the organization’s name, WOZA — which means “come forward” — has become its impact — its impact has been even more as people know of the violence that they face, and more people have come forward to join them.

More people have come to realize what Magodonga and the women of WOZA have known all along:  that the only real way to teach love and non-violence is by example.  Even when that means sitting down while being arrested, both as a sign that they refuse to retaliate, absorbing each blow without striking back — and a warning that, come what may, they’re not going anywhere.

They even manage to show love to those who imprison them.  As Jenni put it, “Many a time we have in effect conducted a ‘workshop’ for our jailers, acting out the role of a mother and teaching how the country can be rebuilt if we have love in our hearts.” When asked how they can endure so much violence — and what keeps them going in the face of such overwhelming odds — the women of WOZA reply, simply:  “each other.”

And that may be Magodonga’s greatest achievement — that she has given the women of Zimbabwe each other.  That she has given people who long for peace and justice each other.  That she has given them a voice they can only have collectively — and a strength that they can only have together.

They are a force to be reckoned with.  Because history tells us, truth has a life of its own once it’s told.  Love can transform a nation once it’s taught.  Courage can be contagious; righteousness can spread; and there is much wisdom in the old proverb:  that God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers.

In the end, history has a clear direction — and it is not the way of those who arrest women and babies for singing in the streets.  It’s not the way of those who starve and silence their own people, and cling to power by threat of force.

It is the way of the maid walking home in Montgomery; the young woman marching silently in the streets of Tehran; the leader imprisoned in her own home for her commitment to democracy.

It is the way of young people in Cape Town who braved the wrath of their government to hear a young senator from New York speak about the ripples of hope one righteous act can create.

And it is the way that Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams and the women and men who take to the streets of Harare and Bulawayo and Victoria Falls because they love their country and love their children and know that something better is possible.

Bobby Kennedy once said, “All great questions must be raised by great voices, and the greatest voice is the voice of the people — speaking out — in prose, or painting or poetry or music; speaking out — in homes and halls, streets and farms, courts and cafes — let that voice speak and the stillness you hear will be the gratitude of mankind.”

Magodonga and WOZA have given so many of their fellow citizens of Zimbabwe that voice — and tonight, we express our gratitude for their work.

It is now my pleasure to join with Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy to present the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to Magodonga Mahlangu and WOZA.  (Applause.)

Remarks by Kerry Kennedy 26th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, 23 November 2009, The White House, Washington, DC

41 years ago, Robert Kennedy said “Peace and justice and compassion towards those who suffer.  That’s what the United States should stand for, and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States.”

Robert Kennedy dreamed things that never were and 4 decades later, we are blessed to have a “why not ” president.  Why not stop torture?  Why not bring troops home from Iraq? Why not close Guantanamo?  Why not restore the standing of the United States as the Beacon on the Hill for Human Rights.   Mr. President and First Lady Michelle Obama, thank you for welcoming us to your home and for using the torch that was passed, to light the fire and spread the audacity of hope for justice and freedom across the world.

Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the 26th annual RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony.  The Tour de force behind the RFK Center is now and has always been Ethel Kennedy.

I’d like to thank the many people who made today possible.  Thank you to the members of the Kennedy Family, Phil Johnston and our board of directors, the  RFK human rights Award judges, RFK leadership council members, Lynn Delaney, Monika Kalra Varma, John Heffernan and the RFK Staff,  Dean Rudoy and Tom and Lori Macpherson for underwriting the Awards, and all our donors and supporters gathered here today.  Thank you to the Members of the diplomatic community, Members of Congress and the many friends who are our colleagues in the field who join us today.

And a special thanks to our  past RFK human rights award laureates, heroes one and all, with whom we have the honor to work on ending farm worker slavery, establishing the rights to health care, food and water, stopping ethnic cleansing, and more.  Lucas Benitez, Stephen Bradberry, Delphine Djiriabe, Loune Viaud, Dr. Mohammed Ahmed, and Dr. Doan Viet Hoat.

Robert Kennedy understood that he had a role to play as Attorney General, bringing the force of law to the civil rights struggle, but he also understood that he could only succeed if he partnered with Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, John Lewis and the civil rights defenders at the cutting edge of social change on the ground in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and beyond.

So today, The RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights defends heroes who are the champions of justice… the Martin Luther King’s and Cesar Chavez’s of their countries.  People who face imprisonment, torture and death in the quest for protection of human rights.  We partner with them for a six year period and provide capacity building, strategic advocacy and alliance opportunities to help achieve laureates’ social justice goals. Through Speak Truth to Power, we tell their stories, we educate students and the general public alike about our laureates work, and we give students a tool kit for action so they can create change in their classrooms, communities, countries and our shared world.

The worst form of abuse, say survivors of torture, is not the beatings and the cattle prods, but the taunt by wardens that you are alone.  Forgotten.  No one cares.  This year’s RFK human rights award laureates have been collectively tortured too often to remember and imprisoned more than one hundred times.

So, Magodonga and Jenni, I want you to know, that, from this day forward, you will never be alone.  Today is the beginning of a long term partnership.  Look around this room.  No matter what the bullies do, we will stand with you, shoulder to shoulder in your struggle for women’s rights, peace and justice.

There’s one gaping hole in this evening’s picture perfect program and that’s the annual speech by Uncle Teddy.  He served on the RFK Board since its inception in 1968, and spoke at nearly every RFK human rights award ceremony.

Last night I came across a letter Teddy wrote to me forty years ago today, dated November 23, 1969, in which he wrote about daddy talking about grandpa.  It reads, “Your father’s words ‘he called forth the best that was in all of us’ is something you should always remember.  Although grandpa is no longer with us, we shall never forget his love for all of us. Love, Ted.”

Teddy called forth the best in all of us and we miss his love, his leadership, his laughter.  He was a true hero for human rights.

Please watch the video tape.

Closing Remarks

Thank you Magodonga and Jenni, for your work, and for showing us what the human spirit is capable of achieving, even under the worst of circumstances

For the past thirty years, the people of Zimbabwe have suffered under the relentless tyranny of Robert Mugabe.  15 % of adults in Zimbabwe have HIV/AIDS.  Maybe 1 in 10 kids will not see their 10th birthday. Few will ever drink a clean glass of water, and inflation has surpassed all other nations at a rate of over 80 sextillion – that is 10 to the 21st power.

The damning facts go on and on. And the people who suffer most under Mugabe’s oppression, are predictably, the women.

When the cupboard is bare, the mother can see it in the tears of her children and hear it in her baby’s cries. When the tap is turned off or the river runs dry, it is the woman who must walk the extra mile to haul the bucket of water.  When the teachers aren’t paid and the schools close, it’s the mother who is left to tend to her kids, complete her chores, and worry about how her children will be educated.

In the face of this misery, WOZA members approach their activism from the unique perspective of being a woman in Zimbabwe.  This is not about their physical attributes, but their role in society.  Like women across the world, WOZA members are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives-people who identify themselves largely by their relationship to other people.  And they are bound together by the responsibility they feel, responsibility born of the love they share with others.  This collective concern is the strongest root system for a flourishing democracy.

It is in this context that WOZA was formed.   This is a group of 75,000 women.  They do not communicate by email or cell phone or text.  They communicate solely by word of mouth. And then thousands of them they take to the streets, where they are met by the batons of the riot police.

They are battered, still they demand  food and water, and they hand out roses. They are beaten.  Still they demand medical care and education and speak about non violence. They are brutalized.  Still they demand democracy. And talk about compassion. They are raped. Still they demand an end to violence against women. And act with love.

And after they are finally released from days, weeks, months in prison, they talk with one another, hold meetings, go onto the streets, and do it again – for their daughters and sisters, for their fathers and sons, for their families, their communities, for the country they love.

The women of Zimbabwe are doing their job.  It is time for the rest of the world to do our job as well. To start, the RFK Center will urge our friends here today from the Southern African Development Community to hold Mugabe and all political leaders accountable for violations of the Global Political Agreement, which is the power sharing deal negotiated last year, now largely violated with total impunity by Mugabe and other forces.  As of today, the RFK Center and all of us in this room are watching and galvanizing support for the women of WOZA.  We will investigate, advocate and educate on the issues WOZA confronts.  We will stand with the women of WOZA as they speak truth to power.

Robert Kennedy implored us to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of the world.  Today, Magodonga, Jenni, and the women of WOZA are taming the savageness of men.  And, as they make gentle the life of Zimbabwe, they make gentle the life of the world.

I would like to end with these lines which capture the spirit of WOZA, written by the most famous woman poet. Anonymous:

Today is ours, Lets take it
And love is strong, Lets give it
A song can help, Lets sing it
And peace is dear, Lets bring it
The past is gone, Don’t rue it
Our work is here, Let’s do it!
The world is wrong, Lets right it
The battle is hard, Lets fight it
The road is rough, Lets clear it!
The future vast, Don’t fear it!
 Is faith asleep, Lets wake it!
Today is ours, Lets take it.

Congratulatory letter from President Khama of Botswana

Letter received from President Khama of Botswana upon receipt of RFK Human Rights Award
Letter received from President Khama of Botswana upon receipt of RFK Human Rights Award

President Obama and Ethel Kennedy Present RFK Award to Zimbabwean Rights Defender and Movement

By Jesse Berney

President Obama with Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams

Washington, DC – President Barack Obama and Ethel Kennedy presented Magodonga Mahlangu and her organization, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), with the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award this evening at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award annually honors courageous and innovative human rights defenders throughout the world who stand up against injustice, often at great personal risk.

“By her example, Magodonga has shown the women of WOZA and the people of Zimbabwe that they can undermine their oppressors’ power with their own power — that they can sap a dictator’s strength with their own. Her courage has inspired others to summon theirs. And the organization’s name, WOZA — which means “come forward” — has become its impact — its impact has been even more as people know of the violence that they face, and more people have come forward to join them,” said President Obama.

The event, sponsored by the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center), also included remarks by Kerry Kennedy and a tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy, an RFK Center founding board member from 1968-2009. RFK Board Chair and former Chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party Phil Johnston, introduced the President. Over 200 guests including First Lady Michelle Obama, Administration officials, Members of Congress and the Washington diplomatic community attended.

WOZA is a grassroots movement working to empower women from all walks of life to mobilize and take non-violent action against injustice. WOZA helps its members to stand up for human rights and speak up about the worsening economic, social and political conditions in Zimbabwe at great personal risk. Since its founding in December 2002, WOZA has staged hundreds of peaceful marches in support of democratic reform and women’s empowerment. The Government of Zimbabwe has jailed Ms. Mahlangu along with WOZA founder Jenni Williams over 30 times and thousands of WOZA members have spent time in police custody.

“Arrests do not deter us because WOZA has empowered us to believe that we deserve better. We deserve to have a roof over our head, food in our stomachs, our children in schools and the nation working”, said Ms. Mahlangu. “We deserve to live in dignity and free from fear; and it is our right to have our voices heard and respected. That is why I joined WOZA. While Mugabe boasts of having degrees in violence, I and 75,000 WOZA members who stand beside me, have degrees in non-violence.”

“We are not fighting a revolution in Zimbabwe, we are leading an evolution. And civic education is our tool to evolve the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans to build a strong, new, African democracy where respect, tolerance and accountability are key”, said Jenni Williams, who accepted the award on behalf of the organization.

Williams added, “Mr. President you know how invaluable community mobilizing can be. We have learnt that knocking on doors, talking with and listening to people is the way we can rebuild our nation. We call on you, to support community mobilizers who are organized to empower Zimbabweans to deliver change from the ground up.”

Ms. Mahlangu, along with hundreds of WOZA members, conducts WOZA protests with their signature style of peaceful, yet relentless actions. Together with Ms. Williams, she has led campaigns with WOZA supporters to address many of the most crucial human rights issues facing Zimbabwean women, including domestic violence, the rights to food and education for children, and the rights to participation and association.

“As of today, the RFK Center and all of us in this room are watching and galvanizing support for the women of WOZA,” said Kerry Kennedy. “We will investigate, advocate, and educate on the issues WOZA confronts. We will stand with the women of WOZA as they speak truth to power.”

For 41 years, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights has worked for a more peaceful and just world. The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award was first established in 1984.

Today, the RFK Center works hand in hand with RFK Human Rights Laureates on innovative long-term campaigns to combat modern day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields, empower survivors of Hurricane Katrina to return home and rebuild their communities, and work to create a peace and reconciliation process in Darfur.

Winners are selected by an independent panel of human rights experts. The 2009 panel included Claudio Grossman; Gay McDougall; Makau Mutua, Dean of University at Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York; Sushma Raman, President of Southern California Grantmakers; Dr. William F. Schultz, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

President Obama’s speech can be viewed via the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGPu-O7fYKw