For two hot days last February, Zimbabwean Georgina Muziti sat inside a voting tent and slept on the floor next to the ballot box at night. She went without a bath, a hot meal, or a change of clothes. With charges of voting irregularities flying during Zimbabwe’s first-ever constitutional referendum, women like Muziti would not be budged. By the end, her legs were swollen, she had the flu and a headache, but “that ballot box never got out of my sight, no way,” she says. “My bones hurt, but I am happy. I would do it again. For Zimbabwe.”
It was a critical referendum—a vote for democracy or dictatorship. Zimbabwe chose democracy, and women’s activism was a big reason why. When President Robert Mugabe proposed a new constitution, women reacted quickly. They publicized the fact that it would grant Mugabe sweeping powers to suspend human rights, and that it failed to address gender discrimination. It also ignored the legally sanctioned cultural traditions, known as customary law, which treat women as second-class citizens, preventing them from, among other things, owning property or holding public office.
Led by the Women’s Coalition, an umbrella group of 22 organizations, the mobilizing began six months before the actual vote. “This is the first time that women overcame class, race, and political differences,” says Margaret Samuriwo, a program officer with Oxfam, an international development organization that works with Zimbabwean women’s groups. The coalition ran workshops for community leaders, developed TV and radio programs, and distributed flyers in eight languages.
At press time, coalition members were preparing for the presidential election scheduled for May. “We saw how officials trick illiterate voters and rig vote counts,” said Sekai Holland, chair of the Association of Women’s Clubs, which is training 2,000 women to be poll monitors. Coalition chair Lydia Zigomo adds, “Grassroots women are saying ‘We’re full citizens and we want our full share.'”