Secretary Rice spotlights Jennifer Williams, founder of WOZA
By Jim Fisher-Thompson
USINFO Staff Writer
Washington — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spotlighted the achievements of Zimbabwean human rights activist Jennifer Williams with an International Women of Courage Award presented at the State Department March 7.
Williams, founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) — a civil society organization established in 2003 to protest government abuses — accepted the award in the name of the group’s more than 45,000 members.
“The award is a great honor, but the real award will be a free and independent Zimbabwe ,” Williams told USINFO during an interview at the State Department on the day of the ceremony.
The Zimbabwean was one of 10 recipients of the courage award chosen from among a field of 82 women activists nominated by U.S. embassies worldwide.
The ceremony was held on International Women’s Day, during a month that the United States celebrates as National Women’s History Month.
Announcing the award for Williams, the department cited the “harassment and physical abuse” she suffered under President Robert Mugabe’s regime and commended her for “providing an example of courage and leadership by working for change through peaceful and nonviolent means.”
In establishing the award in 2006, Rice said, “Women of courage are standing up for freedom and human dignity and the United States stands with them. We must not forget that the advance of women’s rights and the advance of human liberty go hand in hand.”
Arrested more than 25 times for leading protests against Mugabe’s regime, Williams said, ” Zimbabwe supposedly got independence in 1980.” But under “dictator” Mugabe’s disastrous land-seizure policies the economy is being destroyed and the country is turning into a beggar of international food aid.
Because of resulting malnutrition and lack of proper health care, she said, “Women are dying at age 34 [median age]; men, at 37. You can’t earn a living. The authorities tear down houses that are not squatter houses and stop you from making a living.”
Hardships fall especially hard on women, Williams said, because it is the children “who beg mama for more food or want to know why they can no longer go to school” when there is no money for school fees.
Williams, a Matabele from Bulawayo , has paid a high personal price for her social and political protests. She received death threats following her arrests. Her thriving public relations business is defunct and her husband and children live in “economic exile” in Britain . A Matabele is a member of the Bantu people native to southern Zimbabwe .
Despite the personal sacrifices, the activist said she feels empowered because WOZA’s strength lies in its community members “who have ownership” in the organization. “It is because of our united struggle, hand in hand, that we are going to get the Zimbabwe we want,” she said.
“Another very important aspect in saving our [protestor’s] lives is the solidarity we get from people around the world,” Williams said. And in that regard “the American Embassy in Harare has been very helpful.”
“On the 12th of December I was arrested along with 300 others at parliament,” she related. “It was an incredible thing to see a U.S. Embassy vehicle parked right there where we were seated on the ground under arrest. One police official after another tried to get the Americans to move but they just kept sitting there saying, ‘we are just here to observe the process.’”
“That gave us a lot of courage,” Williams said. “We had been brutally beaten just two weeks before at a demonstration and we just needed to know that someone was watching out for us this time around. And at the demonstration at parliament, the police allowed us walk away free, which had never happened before.
“So, we think it is important for the diplomatic community to play a role in helping us achieve our struggle,” she added. “We can do it ourselves but it helps when the Mugabe authorities know the world is watching.”