Undaunted, WOZA Fights For Women’s Rights

Women of Zimbabwe Arise Refuse to Have Their Right To Protest Taken from Them

“Strategic nonviolence” is the calling card of Women (and Men) of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a powerful activist organization founded by Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu in 2002. Since then, WOZA has activated almost 100,000 members over hundreds of peaceful protests and public demonstrations that advocate for the too-often-repressed rights of women and their families in Zimbabwe.

Almost without fail, those protests have been met with fierce opposition from the Zimbabwean state and result in direct suppression of the very freedoms they protest to maintain: the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. WOZA demonstrators have been tear-gassed and severely beaten by riot police. Meetings have been raided and broken up without warrants. Members’ families have been harassed. Arbitrary detentions are a consistent state tactic, with over 3,500 WOZA members having been arrested—many, multiple times.

Jenni and Magodonga are unquestionably the main targets, having been detained dozens of times each, including for manufactured kidnapping charges in a still-ongoing case. This pattern of systematic repression, coupled with repeated threats and harassment from the state, led the group to fight for what was ultimately a victory before the Supreme Court in Zimbabwe in 2010. Despite the express protection of the freedoms of expression and assembly recognized in the court’s decision, the group continued to face repression of their right to protest in the country, remaining a target of systematic efforts by the state.

Why is this a key case?

The repeated criminalization of WOZA’s right to protest in Zimbabwe reflect both the state’s systematic attacks against civil society and its routine repression of the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression. The state’s continued denial of the right to engage in peaceful protest presents a danger to the foundation of a democratic society and the rights of all Zimbabweans to participate freely in the governance of their country.

How is RFK Human Rights Supporting Jenni and Magodonga?

In 2009, Jenni and Magodonga were presented with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award by President Barack Obama—an award whose prize comes with ongoing support from the organization through tools including strategic litigation. In March 2013, RFK Human Rights filed the first case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights seeking to protect the right to protest.

In November 2022, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights issued a positive decision in Communication 446/13 between Jennifer Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu, and Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) and the Republic of Zimbabwe. It found that the government of Zimbabwe violated the Complainants’ rights to freedom of association, assembly, expression and their right to liberty, among other rights. In its decision, the Commission urged the government to investigate, prosecute, and punish all State actors responsible for the violations.

This decision sets important legal precedent as it is the first time that a mechanism of the African human rights system has held that peaceful protests without prior authorization from the State should enjoy a presumption of legality, even when such authorization is required by domestic law. The Commission concluded that assemblies should not be automatically penalized for failure to notify the State. This decision elevates the provisions of the African Commission’s Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa on notification regimes from persuasive guidance (soft law) to binding State obligations under Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

To learn more about the case, read our Q&A and Analysis: WOZA v. Zimbabwe.

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