From 1982 to 1987, Zimbabwe's Magodonga Mahlangu witnessed the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Matabeleland by the Zimbabwean government, including some of her family members. Determined to expose the brutal rule of the Robert Mugabe regime, Magodonga came to lead the Women of Zimbabwe Arise, or WOZA, movement, co-founded by Jenni Williams in 2002.
In the face of beatings, death threats and imprisonment Magodonga and other brave members of WOZA continue to wage a campaign of peaceful protests that have helped mobilize international support for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe.
For her tireless efforts to empower women to speak out against the abuses of the Mugabe regime, Magodonga was honored recently by President Barack Obama with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. The award, established in 1984 to honor human rights defenders around the world, was presented to Magodonga at a White House ceremony on November 23.
"By her example, Magodonga has shown the women of WOZA and the people of Zimbabwe that they can undermine their oppressor's power with their own power, that they can sap a dictator's strength with their own," said President Obama.
Zimbabwe's citizens have suffered from the political and economic crisis that has plagued the country under Mugabe's rule, elements of which persist today despite the transitional government that has been in place since February of this year. President Obama cited "desperate hunger, crumbling health and education systems, domestic violence and rape, and government repression ranging from restrictions on free expression to abduction and murder of dissidents."
President Obama noted that WOZA has grown from a handful of activists to a movement of 75,000 people, including an affiliate NGO for men called MOZA. "Over the past 7 years," he said, "they have conducted more than a hundred protests – maids and hairdressers, vegetable sellers and seamstresses, taking to the streets, singing and dancing, banging on pots empty of food and brandishing brooms to express their wish to sweep the government clean."
Peaceful demonstrators "have been gassed, abducted, threatened with guns and badly beaten," said President Obama. Some three thousand of their members have been in prison or police custody, and both Ms. Mahlangu and Ms. Williams are facing a possible 5-year prison sentence from a December 7, trial.
Despite 30 arrests, beatings, and other abuse suffered in Zimbabwe's appalling prisons, Magodonga Mahlangu remains an inspiration to all who stand for democracy and human rights.