My Body, My Zimbabwe, My Miniskirt!

By Yeshica Weerasekera, Thousand Currents’ former Regional Director for Africa 

Katswe Sistahood’s Stop Child Marriage campaign poster – Photo: Yeshica Weerasekera

In Zimbabwe, I observed firsthand the importance of supporting young women and girls with their reproductive rights and sexual health. Many young people cannot access information and resources easily, and there is a critical need for educational work to tackle the high incidence of child marriage, young motherhood, and maternal deaths.

As a young women-led organization, Katswe Sistahood is filling that role by using a unique and potent model. Katswe is building the capacity of young women and girls to claim and defend their rights by providing safe spaces to talk, commiserate, learn, and organize. These Pachoto (“by the fireside”) circles take place in 13 high-density areas in Harare, Marondera, Mazowe, Bindura, Domboshava, and other areas. Unique and safe, the Pachoto circles have become so popular that they have expanded into more formal meetings. Open to any and all young women and girls between ages 15-35, these gatherings create sustained dialogue on issues related to women’s bodies, sexual health and rights, reproductive health, general wellness, trauma, and gender-based violence. And for these young women, they also provide a cheerful space to have some light-hearted fun, to sing and celebrate themselves and their successes.

A core part of Katswe’s work is their signature Heart, Body, Mind program that focuses on the total well-being of a young person. Many of the young women encounter multiple challenges on a daily basis both at home and in public spaces, or may be living with unresolved issues from past traumatic events or experiences. This work allows them to grapple with and confront taboos, stigmas, as well as break down and challenge patriarchal practices and attitudes. At the same time, the program helps with addressing stress, healing trauma, and centering their focus. Something shifts powerfully and beautifully for those attending. As they find their voice in their own spaces, these young women and girls emerge to take on new roles and leadership.

At a rural Pachoto Circle, young women listen deeply. Photo courtesy: Yeshica Weerasekera

Young women from the high-density areas have also helped Katswe to do more with addressing economic solutions for generating income. Further, they are learning that girls and young women in the zones between urban and rural areas have particularly acute needs around daily survival. Due to extreme economic hardships they often get very little to eat, or become young wives or mothers due to customary practices. It was impressive to observe how potent their organizing techniques are, especially in Pachoto circles in more isolated communities. After the seriousness of the discussions, there is always some joyful singing and dancing. In such a setting, it was also remarkable to witness young Katswe women engage collaboratively, assertively, and yet respectfully with elders and ministry officials to locate hard-pressed resources to address their concerns.

“My body, my Zimbabwe, my miniskirt”

 

A young rural woman answers a confidence-building question. Photo Courtesy: Yeshica Weerasekera

Katswe’s work intersects with key issues that emerge for young women within their circles, some of which include poverty-driven sex work and issues around sexual orientation and gender identity. Their work sometimes requires quick and timely action. On October 4, 2014, Katswe very courageously organized a Mini-Skirt march in the capital city of Harare. This was not a light matter about fashion, though. It was an organized response to an attack of a young woman at a bus depot who was stripped and abused by a group of men for wearing a short skirt. The march created quite a firestorm, and led to a heated dialogue across the country. Many people supported the protesters, while others made fun and dismissed them as a bunch of immoral attention seekers.

As one Kastwe sista says, “Even if the dress were ‘that short,’ nobody has a right to police my body- to brutalize me and tear my clothes and drag me on the tarmac. We can’t allow the violations to carry on. We will fight and reclaim our streets, our bodies, our voices, our dignity, our lives! Zimbabwe is our only home. I’m my sister’s keeper!”

Katswe Sistas participate in a protest against gender violence – Photo Courtesy: Katswe Sistahood

A few weeks later when a video emerged of another brutal attack and stripping of a young woman, Katswe sprang into action again. They took the video footage to the police to demand action, and pressed the police to investigate the crime and launch a search for the perpetrators. Joining with other women’s groups in the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, they quickly put together a press conference, spoke on the radio, and effectively deepened the debate on women’s constitutional rights to bodily integrity and personal security. After presenting a statement and list of demands, they are continuing to work with the Minister of Women’s Affairs, and the Ministries of Transport, Home Affairs, and Local Government to move forward with measures to promote the safety of women.

And it hasn’t stopped there. Their young Zimbabwean sisters in two other cities – Bulawayo and Gweru – have invited Katswe to visit and to spark those local fires!

 

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