Thabitha Khumalo, an MP in Zimbabwe for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, of which she is a founding member, has been fighting for human rights and social justice since she was 13.
Ahead of International Women’s Day today (March 8), Thabitha has spent the week visiting the UK to highlight the scale of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, with thousands of ordinary people being beaten and raped, severe fuel shortages, prices rocketing and Zimbabwe police targeting trade union leaders in a crackdown on protesters.
In a country riven by conflict and violence, Thabitha and many of her fellow Zimbabweans have lived lives that most of us in the UK cannot begin to fathom. But Thabitha’s journey into trade unionism began with an experience that women here and around the world have found all too familiar.
“Just after Mugabe stole the elections in 1980, I was working for a company where I had a boss who would call me to his office under a false pretext,” Thabitha recalled. “He would then come from around his desk, pretend to look at the cabinets behind me and then would touch my bum. At first I thought it was just my imagination but he kept doing it again and again.”
When Thabitha protested, her boss threatened to fire her. And when she took up the issue with the HR department, she was treated dismissively and told she had to have a witness to be believed.
“That’s when I decided I’m going to join the trade union – because of sexual harassment. So I went in guns blazing fighting for the rights of women at a time when it was considered the norm that you had to sleep with your boss to get a job as a woman.”
Thabitha, who previously served as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions vice president, and other trade unionists, fought hard against workplace sexual harassment and eventually succeeded in enshrining laws banning such behaviour in Zimbabwe’s Labour Act.
But in Zimbabwe, laws aren’t always enforced.
“We have many laws in support of women back home in Zimbabwe, but the problem is implementation,” Tabitha explained.
Convicting rapists, for example, is all but impossible in Zimbabwe where there are no functional rape kits and there is no database of offenders.
“In my country, it’s easier to send someone to jail for stealing cattle – it carries an automatic 15 year jail sentence – than it is to put a rapist behind bars,” she said, retelling the case of one man who raped a 12-year-old girl and got away scot-free.
“The offender said he didn’t know she was 12 – that she looked older. And the judge said a 12 year old was capable of consenting. For his crime, the man only had to do community service, and of all places at the same school the victim attended.”
As an MP, Thabitha said she “raised hell” over this case, and eventually the age of consent was changed from 12 to 16.
Thabitha said that despite many setbacks, much cultural and legal progress has been made for women in Zimbabwe over the decades.
Child marriages, for example, are now illegal and there’s been a general cultural shift away from them. But because of the lack of a stable system of enforcement, far too many young women are still being married off to men three or four times their age, and practices such as so-called ‘virginity testing’ still persist.
Another area of progress for women in Zimbabwe is an increase in university attendance rates after Thabitha and her colleagues in Parliament fought to lower entrance points for women.
“So many young women simply couldn’t meet university entrance criteria because so much of their lives are occupied by caring for men , children, the elderly and infirm in their families – doing all the cooking, the cleaning and so on,” Thabitha explained. “Once we lowered the entrance criteria for women, the number of women going to university has massively increased and the vast majority have excelled.”
In yet another show of the progress made for women in Zimbabwe over the years, Thabitha proudly points to Joanna Mamombe, an MP in her own MDC party, who is Zimbabwe’s youngest MP at 24 years old.
But speaking out against the establishment, especially as a young woman in Zimbabwe, is dangerous – Mamombe was recently arrested for addressing a press conference and is now being tried for treason.
It’s an issue that was higlighted at the Women’s TUC conference held in London this week – an emergency motion called on the Zimbabwe government to drop the charges against Mamombe and halt the security service threats Thabitha now faces when she returns home.
Thabitha, who addressed a Unite South West women’s leadership conference in Torquay last weekend (March 2-3), praised the Unite women reps who are training themselves to be leaders in the union and in their workplaces and thanked them for their solidarity.
Thabitha said if she had one message for Unite’s women members it’s to remember that “as women, we are the most powerful species under the sun.
“We don’t know how powerful we are, and we don’t know how to use our power. The time has come to unite as women of the world and stop the serious violations around the globe of our rights. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Thabitha was awarded lifelong Unite union membership in 2007.