Jenni Williams, a Zimbabwean activist, spoke Tuesday as part of the Sanela Diana Jenkins International Human Rights Speaker Series. Williams is national coordinator of Women of Zimbabwe, Arise!, or WOZA, a nonviolent organization that protests against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
“We are human-rights defenders to the nation, mothers to the nation…we defy unjust laws and take our issues to the streets to find a nonviolent way of protesting,” Williams said after showing her audience a slideshow titled “Zimbabwe’s Elections: 30 Years of Torment, Torture & Death,” which depicted images of torture under Robert Mugabe’s regime in her homeland.
Following the slideshow and a video showing members of WOZA protesting for proper electricity, Williams started her speech on a somber note.
“2011 is going to be a year of hell in Zimbabwe, so excuse me for not saying, ‘Happy New Year,’” she said.
In a country where the average life expectancy for women is 37 years, the unemployment rate is 94 percent and Mugabe has been in charge for 30 years, leading a regime accused of corruption, nepotism, bribery and human rights abuse, WOZA seeks to bring democracy and justice to Zimbabwe, she said.
“We aim to mobilize through civic education,” she said. “We capacitate ordinary people with skills for community leadership…we’re creating a society where no new Robert Mugabe can flourish.”
WOZA has carried out 35 street demonstrations in the last 18 months. The grassroots organization relies on ordinary Zimbabweans. Both women and men have swelled its ranks to 75,000 members.
“Our activists are not the employed or the ones who go to university,” Williams said. “They are ordinary people struggling for ordinary everyday things that the politicians needs to be focused on.”
After choosing to remain in Zimbabwe despite mass exodus and the migration of her husband and children to the UK, she has been arrested 33 times, including after the electricity protest. She was held in prison for six days, then returned to her activism once she was freed.
Williams also moves between safe houses in Zimbabwe every six months and was at one time under risk of assassination, she said.
Nonetheless, Williams said, she believes fully in nonviolence, quoting Gandhi and saying, “We love anyone, even our enemies.”
“She’s a pioneer for protecting human rights,” said Davis Albohm, a graduate student in African studies. “She’s doing incredible work that I think a lot of people would not be brave enough to undertake.”
Williams credited her fellow WOZA members for their achievements.
“A shared burden is a burden lightened,” she said. “Our organization has empowered people. We’ve trained them to be human-rights defenders…we see the Zimbabwe we want in our mind’s eye, and we feel it in our hearts.”
Williams said Zimbabwe’s political environment “remains highly violent, uncertain and tense,” speaking of the very real possibility that President Mugabe, now 86, will die in power before opposition defeats him.
Williams said her group’s goals went beyond simply deposing Mugabe.
“Robert Mugabe is only the face of a political system…we want to put the democratic yeast within the society so the loaf will rise,” she said.
Victoria Alvarado ’14 said the talk was “very, very emotionally striking.”
“I found myself in tears at points. She came here to show us that we can help,” Alvarado said.
Williams’ suggestion to the audience was to “appreciate what you have and protect your own rights and freedoms. We need a model to copy.”
And on why she continued to fight a dangerous struggle, Williams cited the future, not only of her nation but of her family.
“If my grandchildren cannot get a better Zimbabwe, they will think of me badly,” she said. “We have to correct the past wrongs and re-establish the social dignity of our people.”