Zimbabwe gained independence from white-minority rule in 1980, but has struggled in recent years under the increasingly autocratic hand of President Robert Mugabe. Political violence and the repression of human rights defenders are commonplace. Women are most impacted by Zimbabwe’s challenges, with a poor economy and high unemployment rate making it difficult for them to provide for their families. On top of that, Zimbabwe is a deeply patriarchal society in which women have limited control over their own bodies.
Winnet is determined to challenge these cultural norms, and enable women in Zimbabwe to take control over their own bodies and futures. Some of Winnet’s work focuses on empowering women who have turned to sex work as means of supporting their families.
Growing up, Winnet questioned the power imbalance in her family—why the woman’s role was always in the kitchen and as a caretaker. Early on, she also realized that women are at risk in public spaces. One day while she was heading to school with friends, Winnet was arbitrarily arrested on charges of soliciting for sex. Winnet has been arrested three times on similar charges while going to school or simply hailing a taxi. During her detainment, she also faced beatings and harassment.
Zimbabwe’s laws make it illegal to solicit for sex, which leaves women vulnerable to police officers who often abuse their powers by detaining women they accuse of being sex workers and then sexually assaulting them.
This abuse of powers makes sex workers particularly hesitant to take necessary security precautions. Carrying a condom is used as a proof of a sex worker’s status. Some women won’t carry the condoms, making them vulnerable to disease. And since they are in a hurry to get off the street, they often accept clients quickly—increasing the risk of a violent attack.
While change is slow, some shifts in attitudes are taking place—and women are standing up to demand their rights. For example, women are working with parliamentarians to advocate for rights for sex workers—a “catalytic” moment for collective organizing in Zimbabwe.
“Once mindsets start shifting, I know we will be able to collectively start doing things that can really change the world.”—Winnet Shamuyarira.