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Her hair tightly woven into an African-style braid, Jenni Williams raises her arm in the air as she asks the crowd at a popular Washington cafe to chant “the healing wind of WOZA.”
The phrase has been repeated over and over since 2002 by women protesting against the government on the streets of Bulawayo, the second-largest city of Zimbabwe.
WOZA is an acronym for Women of Zimbabwe Arise, an organization selected to receive the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Ms. Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, co-leaders of the group, are in Washington to accept the award Monday from the late senator’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, in a private ceremony.
“Bread and butter is not enough. We want more than that. We want healing to come back to Zimbabwe,” Ms. Williams told supporters during a forum Friday at Busboys and Poets on U Street in Northwest Washington.
Since 2002, the organization has organized more than 100 peaceful marches for women’s rights, democratic reforms and better living conditions. They often end up being attacked by police.
“What are the issues that make us risk everything,” asks Ms. Mahlangu rhetorically. “Education, malnutrition, women empowerment.”
“We want to bring back the attention to the lives of the ordinary people. No one talks about food insecurity or lack of water,” she says, referring to the government of President Robert Mugabe.
Mr. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980.
The country began to fall apart in 2000, when Mr. Mugabe’s government began a coercive land-reform program to distribute white-owned farms to landless black peasants. Combined with a drought, the program resulted in a disastrous plunge in agricultural production, with famine-like conditions forcing millions of Zimbabweans into exile in neighboring countries such as South Africa.
Zimbabwe made headlines last year for fraud-tainted elections followed by months of violence, in which police and pro-Mugabe gangs beat and tortured opposition supporters.
A unity government formed in February paired Mr. Mugabe as president with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister.
At a food summit in Rome this week, Mr. Mugabe blamed his nation’s food shortages on global warming and economic sanctions by “neocolonialist enemies,” according to Agence France-Presse.
The Zimbabwean leader also said climate change has had the “most devastating impact” on food security in Africa.
The Kennedy award was created in 1984 to support human rights defenders.
“When they are doing the most difficult things, we want to let them know that we stand in solidarity with WOZA. This is about the people,” said Monika Kalra Varma, human rights director at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
Last year, Ms. Williams and Ms. Mahlangu received a human rights award from rights watchdog Amnesty International in recognition of WOZA’s work.
WOZA has about 75,000 members, almost all of them women. About 3,000 of its members have been arrested in the past seven years.
“And yet they keep doing it. That is an incredibly powerful statement to an oppressive regime,” said Tracy Leigh Doig, another member of WOZA.
Ms. Mahlangu and Ms. Williams have each been arrested more than 30 times. Their latest arrest was in October 2008 after a demonstration. They stayed three weeks in a prison near Bulawayo, making multiple appearances in court only to have their case postponed each time. They are still waiting for the court to set a trial date, perhaps with their next scheduled appearance on Dec. 7.
Zimbabwean law allows police to detain prisoners for 48 hours before taking them to court.
Ms. Doig said this authority is often abused. WOZA asks people in Zimbabwe and abroad to call police stations and send letters to the attorney general to put pressure on them to release people who are arrested after demonstrating. “It freaks them out,” she said.
Once the breadbasket of Africa, the country has been marred by hyperinflation, sending the prices for basic items such as bread to trillions of Zimbabwean dollars.
Zimbabwe abandoned its currency in March, and it now conducts business with the U.S. dollar or South African rand. As a result, food has returned to empty store shelves.
But Ms. Williams said she is skeptical that economic stability will last.
“There is food on the shelves. You can see some aspects of business pick up, but it is not sustainable if it does not come with economic reform,” she said.
WOZA asks its members to come to demonstrations prepared for jail, to bring any medication and leave babies at home.
Prisoners do not have access to food or sanitation during their stay in police stations.
Ms. Williams recalled the night of parliamentary elections in March 2005, when 265 people were arrested after a prayer vigil, including more than 30 babies. Prisoners, she said, were “denied food and water the whole night.”
“The babies, crying out of hunger, that was something else. They released the mothers the next day at noon.”
“The award will elevate our voice and will provide some level of protection to people when they are in custody. It will show that the perpetrators can’t get away with it,” said Ms. Doig.
Why such hatred toward America's freedom of religion?
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