JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--Bernadette Chipembere singlehandedly uncovered corruption and forced government officials to return land unjustly taken from widows and orphans in the sugar cane growing area of southeastern Zimbabwe, where she serves on the town council.
Last week she won the judges' special commendation at the conclusion of what is hoped to become an annual gathering here of gender justice advocates and government officeholders from throughout southern Africa.
Gender Links, a nongovernmental organization based in Johannesburg, planned the summit with the financial help of donors and partners. The group expected about 120 delegates; 273 showed up.
At the awards ceremony, Gender Links founder Colleen Lowe Morna introduced other Zimbabweans she called her "two mothers." They represent different political parties but work together on women's issues in their village. Neither had been out of the country before, and they secured their first passports to attend.
As other winners' names were called out during the ceremony, participants hugged, chanted, high-fived and clapped. Winners danced up to the stage to receive their honors, some wrapped in their national flags. Morna encouraged everyone to dance after the last award was handed out, declaring, "You're all winners."
The three-day convention drew women and men who presented practical strategies and programs that have improved women's influence, safety, housing and education. Delegates came from 10 southern Africa countries, clad in everything from business suits to red conference T-shirts and jeans to native dress.
The Southern Africa Development Council has set a deadline of 2015 for all its member countries to "enact and enforce legislation prohibiting all forms of gender-based violence" and to provide legal, medical and counseling services to victims.
The matter is urgent. The worries of sex workers flooding South Africa during the World Cup, which starts on June 11, are rampant. Rape is common and many of the assailants are HIV-positive.
Highest Rates of Reported Rape
The Medical Resource Council, based in Pretoria, South Africa, summarized its research findings in a report last June, saying: "South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape reported to the police in the world and the largest number of people living with HIV. The rate of rape perpetration is not known because only a small proportion of rapes are reported to the police."
The 10 countries with representatives at the meeting:
Fiona Nicholson, director of the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Program, a 24-7 treatment and advocacy center in the northeastern part of South Africa, said while the nation's constitution and policies are wonderful in writing, bureaucratic delays interfere with such crucial matters as promptly getting anti-retroviral medicines to girls and women who have been raped. "It makes no sense," she said.
Dozens of women, including some at the meeting, said it is difficult, but not impossible, to change ingrained assumptions about women's traditional roles within tribes and ethnicities.
Although President Jacob Zuma has appointed competent women to his cabinet, many South Africans find it embarrassing to have a leader with three current wives, a fiancee, one ex-spouse and 20 children, the latest from having unprotected sex with a much-younger woman.
Zuma, whose supporters contend polygamy is integral to Zulu culture, has spoken out against sexual violence. In a speech last December, marking the end of the United Nations-created 16 Days of Activism on No Violence Against Women and Children, he emphasized the country's progressive laws and endorsed the idea of summit participants that the effort should be expanded to 365 days.
Activists at the summit said they are ready to hold policymakers accountable and to systematically examine gaps and deficiencies in national plans to curb sexual violence.
In 2008, the U.N. launched the UNiTE to End Violence campaign, which the African Union endorsed in January of this year.
9 Countries Have Adopted Plans
Nine southern African countries have adopted plans to combat gender violence. Case studies of the South Africa, Botswana and Mauritius plans were presented at the summit.
Things sounded so rosy in the small island nation of Mauritius--located in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa--that delegates from larger countries wondered how they could emulate its success.
Mauritius provides sensitive police handling of sexual abuse victims, safe places and free legal counsel to survivors of sexual violence and sex workers. Residents of the island are Muslim, Hindu and Christian. A recent initiative in the country focused on preventing young men from committing sexual violence. The Mauritius delegates, all from government, praised their country's president and prime minister for their efforts.
Erica Jones, director of rural local authorities for Zimbabwe, said she feels better about the efforts in her country after the three-day summit: "We are far ahead," she said. Jones has a master's degree in social science and has worked in government for 33 years, through war, independence and the coalition government of 2008, which she contended has calmed matters considerably.
Years of groundwork preceded this event, Susan Tolmay, director of gender and governance at Gender Links, told Women's eNews.
When the idea of adding gender issues to public agendas is broached, local officials often retort that their business concerns roads, water and security.
Even when quotas for women's representation exist, researchers observe that men condescend to women in meetings, that sessions are held at inconvenient times for many women (such as 5 p.m., when women are expected to be cooking dinner and caring for children after their day jobs) or that women's ideas for cleaning the water or better waste management are ignored, not to mention their direct experience confronting sexual assault.
At the summit, however, men and women stood together to discuss political representation, ways to curb sexual violence and practical steps that can really help, such as installing better street lighting.
Nancy Day is chair of the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago and a freelance writer. She covered the summit during her sabbatical in South Africa.
For more information:
UNiTE to End Violence Against Women
Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme