Women ex-fighters: The forgotten heroes

Brian Chitemba

AS Zimbabweans commemorate Heroes Day on Monday, prospects and risks faced by women during the liberation struggle should be brought to the fore to pay special attention to the role they played at various levels of the war.
Women played a key role in liberation movements across Africa, particularly in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

 
For instance, on August 9 1956, at least 20 000 women in South Africa — which celebrated Women’s Day yesterday — marched from various regions to the apartheid capital of Pretoria. They represented a cross-section of women who resided and worked in both urban and rural areas of the country.

 
It was the women-initiated struggle against the pass laws that sparked a broad-based mass movement during the 1950s. The major demand of the women’s march on Pretoria was the abolishment of the pass laws that controlled the movement of Africans inside their own country.

 
Besides South Africa, women played pioneering roles in other liberation struggles across Africa, including Zimbabwe.

 
That is partly why the African Union has declared 2010 the beginning of the “Decade of Women — 2010-2020” on the continent.

 
Women played key roles during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. While some women were rewarded with high positions and the trappings of office after the struggle, others who suffered traumatic experiences — including sexual abuse — during the struggle, were abandoned.

 
From the 1960s to the late 1970s, Zanla and Zipra guerrillas fought a protracted bush war against the colonial regime of Ian Smith, culminating in Independence in 1980. But the guerrilla war fought with limited resources was characterised by abuses, some which still haunt female ex-combatants up to this day. Apart from having to duck bullets, some women suffered all sorts of abuses.

 
Besides, female ex-combatants were largely overlooked when former guerrilla armies were integrated into the newly-constituted Zimbabwe National Army in 1980.

 
The experiences of women during Zimbabwe’s struggle were so far best captured by the controversial film, Flame, released in 1995. The first feature film made in Zimbabwe about the country’s war of liberation, Flame stirred controversy. It presented stories of pain, violence, bitterness and a history of broken promises.

 
Directed by Ingrid Sinclair, the film tells the story of two women who joined the struggle for Independence.

 
“This story of two friends is one of many,” narrates Liberty, the film’s central character, conjuring up images of the many women who left their families and schools to travel for days on foot, sometimes without water and food, before reaching refugee and training camps.

 
Flame offered a story that had not been told publicly in Zimbabwe, allowing the younger generation to see for themselves the many sides of the struggle and giving those who survived the war an opportunity to celebrate their achievements and commiserate their losses.

 
Not much has been written about female combatants’ experiences in the war or about their treatment since. While some women have denied stories of rape and abuse, others, including Freedom Nyambuya, one of the more outspoken female ex-combatants, maintain that they were raped. Nyambuya is on record as saying it is time Zimbabwe accepts this truth of what really happened during the war.

 
Whatever the truth, what is clear is that the pain of war lingers. Time has not healed the scars of war among the women of the struggle.

 
Former Zanu PF MP Irene Zindi said although contribution towards the country’s Independence was not based on gender, ill-treatment of women was commonplace. She said despite her participation in the war with fellow guerrillas like Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga, former Attorney-General Sobusa Gula Ndebele and the late Josiah Tungamirai, she has been abandoned.

 
Zindi said she quit the army as a sergeant in 1983 out of frustration while her close friend Catherine Garanewako died after attaining the rank of captain. The highest ranking female soldier ever was Brigadier-General Gertrude Mutasa, who retired from the army earlier this year. Most serving female officers occupy the rank of captain.

 
“We were trained and fought alongside the men during the war, but after Independence it was only men who were handsomely rewarded,” Zindi told the Zimbabwe Independent this week. “The question is where are the women who suffered and endured traumatic experiences in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania? The plight of women remains unaddressed.”

 
Although she was not personally sexually abused, Zindi says abuses were rampant, including sexually aggravated offences.

 
“Most of the female war veterans are suffering in remote rural areas and are even embarrassed to come and speak out,” Zindi said.

 
In her book Re-Living The Second Chimurenga: Memoirs of Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle, former Education minister, Fay Chung, highlighted how thousands of young women guerrillas were used as sex slaves by commanders.

 
She writes about the systematic abuse of women by their male superiors, notwithstanding their efforts to resist their demands.

 
According to the book, female fighters were expected to act as “warm blankets” for male commanders. Chung argues the primary grievance of women fighters was ill-treatment by male soldiers.

 
Another former Zanu PF legislator Vivian Mwashita also poured her heart out over the harsh liberation war days. She said at the height of the war, she contemplated fleeing from the front at the Zimbabwe-Mozambique and Zambia border, but “I had nowhere to run to”. Mwashita, who operated under the command of Air Force commander Air Marshal Perence Shiri, bemoaned lack of opportunities for former female ex-combatants.

 
“I joined the struggle at a tender age, but I soldiered on despite numerous challenges and abuses during the war although now we have been left out,” she said.

 
Zanu PF Women League boss Oppah Muchinguri said women were “manipulated” by commanders and were still suffering oppression in a male-dominated society.

 
Zindi also said women had to endure going without sufficient clothes and sanitary wear.

 
“We lived like animals. The experiences are still fresh in our minds and this continued side-lining of women needs to be addressed,” she said.

 
“I vividly remember at Nyadzonya camp in Mozambique during the war after we had gone for a week without food, how male soldiers would grab all the food from females and run away. We would then be left to starve. It was a do-or-die situation.”

 
Women are also complaining that most of those declared heroes and buried at the Heroes Acre are mostly men despite that thousands of women played key roles during the struggle. Mainly spouses of male heroes are buried at the Heroes Acre.

 
Out of the thousands of women who participated in the struggle, only a few such as Vice-President Joice Mujuru and former ministers like Muchinguri have risen to the top. Some like Margaret Dongo have been sidelined for being outspoken. Others like Thenjiwe Lesabe were denied their places at the Heroes Acre for expressing political dissent within Zanu PF.

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