Digital Skills, Women, and Human Rights Work: a Conversation with Thando Gwinji.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said, “In many countries, women who dare to speak out for human rights are stigmatized and called bad mothers, terrorists or witches, silenced and marginalized from decision-making and can even be killed. It is particularly worrying that the hostility they face comes not only from State authorities, but also the media, social movements, their own communities and even their family”.  “Public shaming, attacks on women’s honor and their reputation, doxing or publishing their personal details on the internet, sexual violence and attacks against their children and loved ones, are used to silence women human rights defenders,” he added. 

The Mwala Campaign as pioneered by Word Smash Poetry Movement in Southern Africa supported by #IMATTER through Oxfam International seeks to bring to prominence statements by women, girls and the LGBTQI+ communities in Zambia but have been displaced from their various areas due to war, political and economic deteriorating environments in DRC, Burundi Zimbabwe and the suppressed voices of young female activists in Zambia calling for Peace and Sustainable Peace. The project presents here a six part blog Series on the Successes and Challenges of Women Human Rights Defenders from Southern Africa with spotlight on Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi targeting SADC and AU Commission.

In this session, Word Smash Poetry Movement (WSP) had an interaction with Thando Gwinji (TG) the Managing Director of Youth for Innovation Trust from Zimbabwe on various issues of context as far as Women, Security and Peace are concerned in Zimbabwe. Below is the chat:

WSP: Do you think there is a looming threat for the work you do, more so for being a woman? Where, if ever, is such a threat vivid in your activist journey?

TG: With the shrinking civic space in Zimbabwe the working environment has been difficult and the COVID19 regulations have been used to stop activism work. Police brutality has risen and I am a recent victim of it, they use it as an intimidation tactic. Hence, there are threats of being arrested and being shut down through the new NGO Bill.

WSP: Defending human rights is often a statement of war against those that abuse other’s rights. Why throw yourself into the middle of the crossfire and what joys, if any, do you reap from involving yourself in such a fight?

TG: “If you are neutral in situations of oppression you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Throwing myself into the middle of this crossfire that is defending human rights is the right thing to do, and knowing that you are doing that which is right is a joy on its own. “Even if I know that the world will end tomorrow, I will still plant my apple tree.” And those who plant trees might not sit in their shade; hence, I am motivated to plant the good seeds than just reaping. 

WSP: Justice, gender equality, and peace are some of the crucial tenets of society. Why is it important for young/women today to participate in protecting them?

TG: Currently, the average African is young, female and 19 years old, this means that now more than ever, it is pertinent for young women to find themselves in spaces that will protect and provide for the average African. This demands active participation in pushing for gender equality, peace and justice as these are very important for creating a basis of a just and productive society for all towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2063 of the African Union. This work cannot be done without defending human rights and young women are better positioned to take up that task. 

WSP: As a young person leading other young people in defending human rights, what interventions do you think must exist to ensure better participation of young women in human rights defending work and the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda?

TG: There should be policy consistency and a systematic way of implementing policy cushioned by strong and resilient institutions. Most of the issues that young women in human rights work face that hinder their meaningful participation is that policies are changed willy-nilly leading to gaps in their protection as human rights work. On top of that, key institutions working on peace and security are polarized and this endangers the existence of young women in human rights work hence, the full achievement of the indicators of SDG16 on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions will tackle these issues head-on. 

WSP: Out of Zimbabwe regarding Women Human Rights Defenders, other than you I have heard and read of Tsitsi Dangarembga and her contributions are praiseworthy. Any other notable human rights activists we should know of that are tirelessly contributing to the defense of human rights in your country?

TG: Yes! The likes of Sikhangele Ngwenya, Marvellous Tshuma, and Caroline Mudzengi among others have been and still ae defending human rights. 

WSP: Would you say the participation of women in human rights defending work is high in Zimbabwe? If yes, why is it so?

TG: The participation of women in human rights defending work in Zimbabwe is high because there is quite a number of human rights defenders’ holding each other’s hands from the different corners of the country. However, the documentation of their work has been missing and their efforts go unnoticed. 

WSP: You have been active in human rights work for a long time, what are some notable highlights of your activism around human rights?

TG: I have touched a lot of lives especially around the protection of women’s human rights and I regard every win as an important highlight of my work. I have led key movements that protect young people’s rights at a national level and these include the Activista Zimbabwe Movement and the Zimbabwe Young Feminists Movement, through these and other roles I have stood up against oppression and positioned young people nationwide to confidently claim their rights. Around local work, I have been tirelessly advocating for justice for the victims of the 1980s Matabeleland Genocide in Zimbabwe. 

WSP: When you do something for a long time, some time you lose the real reason you do it. How do you keep yourself interested in seeing more people know and enjoy their human rights? 

TG: The people whose lives I have touched are a constant reminder of why I started, I sleep at ease knowing that I did the best that I can to make the world a better place and I wake up rejuvenated each new day. 

WSP: What is your most outrageous goal you’ve set for yourself in the fight for equal enjoyment of human rights? Are you any close to achieving it?

TG: I promised myself that every girl around me needs to have knowledge on the use of technology and the digital space so that they can fight for their own rights through it and use it make a living as well so that they do not have to compromise their rights for food. I am far from achieving it, but I have had a good start and I am in the right direction. 

WSP: What are some already existing opportunities that young women (and young men) would maximize to contribute in owning and achieving your outrageous goal?

TG: COVID19 is an opportunity to get into the online space whether we like it or not, this on its own should stimulate interest for young people to learn new digital skills and utilize them to hold advocacy campaigns and monetize. 

ABOUT

Thando Gwinji is a human rights defender, gender champion and digital media specialist. She is the current Managing Director of Youth for Innovation Trust, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Young Feminist Movement, and the African Union Youth Charter Hustler for Zimbabwe. Through the roles, Thando has been empowering young women and girls to claim their space in male dominated sectors of development such as the ICT sector. As recognition for her work, Gwinji was honored with an award for being a Gender Champion for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence in 2019 with the Dutch Embassy.

Word Smash Poetry Movement (WSP) is a creative free expression Southern African youth Artivists Social-Enterprise. Its main thrust is to provide a platform for young creative feminist activists, Women Human Rights Defenders, LGBTQI+ and artivists to speak truth to power through spoken word. As a social movement, Word Smash Poetry was established in August 2017 and was later legally listed as a social business in February 2019 for administrative purposes but remains fluid and an energetic Social Movement. We amplify the stage works on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Wordsmashpoetrymovement /.

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