By Jackie Abramian
“Institute for Young Women Development was inspired by my personal reality of being a girl child from a poverty-stricken family in rural communal lands of Mashonaland Central Province in Zimbabwe,” says Glanis Changachirere who in 2009, at age 26 founded IYWD to reverse societal disregard for investing in young girls’ and women’s safety, education and future. “I lived with my grandmother, attended a very conservative church which imposed serious effects on its parishioners. After completing primary education, I fought my family’s decision to be married off. I loved going to school and wanted to do things my own way–we fought until they took me to secondary school.”
Today IYWD is a movement of 7,000 young women members across rural and mining communities of the over 14 million populated southern African landlocked country. Funded by Open Society Initiatives for Southern Africa, African Women Development Fund, National Endowment for Democracy, United Nations Trust Fund and Diakonia among others, its staff of 12 has mobilized young girls and women to pursue education and careers beyond strict patriarchal boundaries and expectations. With 65 Community Leadership Structures across four provinces–Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East, Midlands and Harare–IYWD has reached 350,000 young women to challenge oppressive societal norms and empower life choices. Expanding “its wings onto the African continent” IYWD’s African Women Leaders Forum (AWLF) will now focus on cross-cultural, inter-generational learning and solidarity among young women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Recommendations from the program’s survey on Trends of Young Women’s Political Participation in Africa, will inform AWLF’s programmatic focus, says Changachirere.
Against a backdrop of “deepening economic crisis characterized by triple-digit inflation and foreign currency shortages” the young girls and women’s political activism faces low salaries, and increased prices. The nearly 5 percent unemployment continues to push the desperate populace further into “informal employment sector” including illegal mining. With the highest illiteracy levels in the continent, bribes and sexual favors for jobs or school placement are common. Zimbabwe ranks 158 out of 180 countries in corruption index–losing nearly $2 billion to corruption annually and an estimated $100 million a month to gold smuggling, one of the country’s top resources.
Empowering Women In Rural Communities
“One of the greatest achievements of IYWD is raising political consciousness of ordinary young women by educating them. Young women in villages stand up against injustice and challenge the power structure without fear,” Changachirere says while political context intimidates most, IYWD encourages young women to be politically conscious women activists who challenge injustice in their everyday life.
Changachirere herself challenged societal norms and her family’s wishes to be married off at an early age, by taking menial jobs to pay for her own education all the way to the University. In her second year at the university, the government canceled tuition grants–Changachirere once again struggled to find employment to afford her tuition, but also realized the oppressive system.
“It violated our rights when the government erased our grants. They pinned our education–changing the scheme without notification. This triggered my activism at a higher level,” Changachirere interned with a youth organization where she mastered fundraising and campaign management skills, which heightened her commitment to create opportunities for young women in rural areas who may lack the confidence she had.
Engaging Zimbabwean government officials, traditional chiefs and religious leaders and families, IYWD challenges the systems that marginalize young women. It facilitates young women and girls to be empowered as a collective force and challenge oppressive systems and structural barriers. With capacity building and alliance with strategic stakeholders, IYWD navigates power with citizen activism and has transformed 50,000 young women’s lives across Zimbabwe who “resist, disrupt and defend their voice and power in decision-making in their families, communities and national processes.”
Creating Feminist Economics Across Zimbabwe
“The divide between rural and urban Zimbabwe is closing. Economy is on decline. Young women are unemployed and can’t get the lowest of jobs, despite their education. The extreme poverty forces women to earn a living through informal activities and cross-border trade, bringing South African goods to sell in Zimbabwe,” Changachirere says as the pandemic halted cross-border trade, it heightened municipal police violence against unregistered workers and violence against young women.
By teaching women how to speak up and about their rights under the Zimbabwean constitution, IYWD puts the “government to task to deal with these structural injustices facing women in traditional patriarchal courts.” This led to three women being elected in 2018–two into Zimbabwean parliament and one in local government. Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution has a 60-seat quota for women in the parliament which expires in 2023.
“We are not apologetic to be a feminist organization, for pushing a feminist agenda and teaching young women negotiating techniques for their rights without putting themselves at risk. We partner with strategic institutions to help with our mission and work with traditional tribal leaders–the rural gatekeepers are more powerful than parliamentarians. As the custodians of lands–if you offend or challenge these leaders you will be punished,” Changachirere says the collaborations has turned tribal leaders into advocates who highly regard IYWD and insulate the young women from different forms of violence and support the women’s journey through feminist activism. The institute works with local parliamentarians and authorities to generate advocacy, so the women are heard.
The pandemic also revitalized a feministic economics as the abandoned small grains organic farming in Zimbabwe resurfaced. Tribal leaders even allocated land to young women to continue the uptick of eating and growing organic food, says Changachirere. Farmers now grow small grains and use their indigenous knowledge on immune boosting herbs.
Prior to government lockdown, Changachirere arranged a partnership with the Provincial Government and secured a Memorandum of Understanding that provided IYWD a license to operate as part of the Provincial pandemic awareness task force. This provided uninterrupted access to communities for her staff and led to social accountability demands for gender-responsive social services since lack of such social services as water, sanitation, and electricity risked young women to contract and spread the virus. Within a couple of months, the government temporarily provided water and electricity during daytime, resumed garbage collection and reopened health clinics. The provision of Internet and cellular connectivity by mobile telecommunications companies allowed IYWD staff regular contacts with some of its rural members albeit at high communication costs.
IYWD will continue to demand and hold local authorities accountable for gender-relevant social services delivery. It will also continue with campaigns for implementation of the constitution–instead of following the “27 democracy eroding clauses” introduced by government–to ensure young women’s involvement in democratic governance in Zimbabwe.
“In advocating the enactment of gender-equality laws, we will carry to the parliament and Ministry of Justice, in partnership with Zimbabwe Gender Commission, a model Gender Equality Bill. We want to ensure the bill is adopted and contributes to gender equality especially as the country goes to polls to in 2023,” Changachirere underscores IYWD will continue to challenge existing economic models. “Challenging cultural inequalities and injustices that young women suffer due to existing economic models, we will offer alternative models to end the continued sexual abuse and violence.”