WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama praised representatives of a women’s organization whose members have been beaten by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s police force and face court trials for challenging Zimbabwe’s government. He said their grassroots efforts could improve the African country.
Honoring activists Jenni Williams and Magondonga Mahlangu, Obama said they empowered women of Zimbabwe to speak out on the desperate hunger, crumbling health and education systems, and domestic violence and rape in Zimbabwe. Obama said the women worked despite government repression and free speech restrictions.
“They often don’t get far before being confronted by President Mugabe’s riot police,” Obama said in bestowing on them the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. “They have been gassed, abducted, threatened with guns and badly beaten — forced to count out loud as each blow was administered.”
Obama’s remarks — and his hosting the two activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise in the White House’s East Room — signaled U.S. unhappiness with Mugabe’s government and how it treats those who question it. He said the organization’s motto of “tough love” underscores “the idea that political leaders in Zimbabwe could use a little discipline.”
Behind him sat Ethel Kennedy, widow of the assassinated senator, who attended the ceremony with other members of the Kennedy family and human rights activists.
It has been a rough path for the Women of Zimbabwe Arise members who shared the stage. They say they have been beaten, crowded into lice-ridden jail cells and degraded with nightly strip-searches. Yet they still cling to hope for Zimbabwe.
During an interview before the ceremony, they talked of hope that the devastated country still might be able to write a homegrown constitution, which would lead to real elections and recovery from the depths that a decade of increasingly malign misrule has dug.
How can these women, together arrested more than 50 times for leading nonviolent protests against the Mugabe government, still think such things?
“Look,” Williams says, flinging out her arms, “we’re trying to be optimistic here!” Both women laughed.
The pair are co-founders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, whose acronym WOZA forms an Ndebele word that means “come forward.” About 70,000 Zimbabweans have signed on to do that. Like the founders, many have been beaten and worse; the two leaders say more than 3,000 have been arrested for demonstrating.
An absolute for WOZA’s demonstrations and its newer male counterpart, MOZA, is nonviolence, the founders insist. No matter what, demonstrators are told, do not strike back.
During his remarks, Obama tied them to civil rights struggles around the world.
“It is the way of the maid walking home in Montgomery, the young woman marching silently in the streets of Tehran, the leader imprisoned in her own home for her commitment to democracy,” Obama said. “It is the way of young people in Cape Town who braved the wrath of their government to hear a young senator from New York speak about the ripples of hope one righteous act can create.”
Williams and Mahlangu’s latest struggle with Mugabe’s judicial apparatus began a year ago. They had been attacked and jailed for leading a sit-in to demand food for hungry Zimbabweans and a power-sharing government between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai after the octogenarian president claimed victory in what many believe was a tainted election last year.
Williams and Mahlangu expect little from the Zimbabwe judicial system, although WOZA and other activists often have been supported by judges who ordered them to be released. Normally the government ignores judges’ writs and releases activists only when it wants to, they said.
An Amnesty International researcher in London accused the Zimbabwean government of “using detention to frustrate the work of human rights defenders.”
Williams, 47, is the granddaughter of an Irish Republican Army fighter who gravitated to British-ruled Rhodesia and became the common-law husband of Ndebele tribeswoman Bahlezi Moyo, Williams’ grandmother. She is the wife of an electrician and mother of three grown children, all of whom live in Britain.
Mahlangu, 35, is a one-time sports administrator in her native Matebeleland, the home of the Ndebele tribe.
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