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:

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