Zimbabwean government must end malicious prosecution of women human rights defenders
The theme for Human Rights Day 2020 focuses on the impact of COVID-19 and the need to address failures exposed and exploited by the global pandemic. Women are being disproportionately impacted in a myriad of ways, and in countries ruled by repressive regimes, governments are using the crisis as an opportunity to clamp down on women’s rights and silence opposition.
One such country is Zimbabwe, where there are serious concerns about the mistreatment by the government of human rights defenders Cecilia Chimbiri, Netsai Marova, and Joana Mamombe.
The women were arrested in May after attending a peaceful protest to express legitimate concerns about widespread food shortages during the pandemic. They were taken from police custody by five unidentified men — believed to be members of the state security force — and held incommunicado for 36 hours. During this time they were subjected to torture, rape and physical assault, which has caused them long-term physical and mental health problems.
Despite the credibility of their allegations, Zimbabwean authorities have failed to conduct a timely and impartial investigation. Instead of seeking to bring those who are criminally responsible to justice, the government has targeted the trio by charging them with falsely reporting their abduction and abuse.
Following a global outcry about their treatment, state authorities have embarked on a campaign of intimidation and disinformation in the media.
The trial has been postponed numerous times and the court has ordered that Joana, who is an MP for the opposition party MDC Alliance, be tried separately from her co-accused.
Joana, Cecilia, and Netsai have demonstrated considerable courage by speaking out about the abuse and trauma they have endured, and international women’s rights organization Equality Now is extremely concerned about the ongoing ill-treatment that they are being subjected to.
It is abhorrent that Zimbabwean state officials are targeting these women for peacefully calling for positive social change. Women’s participation in public life is already limited because of gender discrimination and the government’s activities are curtailing women’s ability to participate in civil society. Women should be free to exercise their civil rights without the fear of arrest or torture.
The actions of the Zimbabwean government and security forces amount to gross violations of the rights of women; the unlawful curtailment of the freedom of lawful assembly; reprisal against the legitimate activities of human rights defenders; torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.
The situation in Zimbabwe is particularly worrying as there is a pattern of reprisals and acts of violence against human rights defenders, journalists, and others exercising their lawful rights of expression and assembly.
We reiterate our call to the Government of Zimbabwe to ensure due process and stop the malicious prosecution of Joana, Cecilia, and Netsai. The state should also launch an independent investigation into the brutal attack committed against them and the perpetrators should be held fully to account.
ABOUT EQUALITY NOW: Equality Now is an international non-governmental, human rights organization that was founded in 1992 to advance the rights of women and girls across the world. The organization holds governments responsible for ending legal inequality, sex trafficking, online sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. Equality Now champions for legal and systemic change by setting important legal precedents and exposing barriers that hinder access to justice.