Unsung heroes: How Zimbabwe’s women fought for national and personal freedom A large number of women including very young girls, fought alongside their male comrades during the struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe

Stanford Chiwanga, [email protected] 

THE fight for Zimbabwe’s independence from white minority rule was not just a man’s war. Zimbabwean women also played a critical and multifaceted role in the liberation struggle, defying traditional gender roles.

 This article honours all the women who contributed to Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, from the celebrated heroines to the countless whose names remain unknown. Every woman, whether they fought with weapons or provided the fighters with food, played a vital role in the movement’s success.

According to Tanya Lyons, in her 2004 seminal work “Guns and Guerrilla Girls,” women donned fatigues, becoming indistinguishable from their male counterparts, and engaged in guerrilla warfare with a ferocity that belied their supposed “feminine” roles. In that era, women became warriors alongside their male counterparts.

For women, the fight for liberation wasn’t just about national freedom; it was also about personal liberation for women. Their participation in the struggle challenged traditional patriarchal norms and offered them a glimpse of a more equitable future. Within the liberation movements, women were given opportunities for education, military training and leadership roles, fostering a sense of empowerment.

Their contributions went far beyond the battlefield. As scholar Patricia Chogugudza argues, women were the backbone of the support network, providing crucial intelligence, food and shelter to guerrilla fighters traversing the country. Women gave their all to the cause, providing food, shelter and financial contributions to sustain the freedom fighters. They smuggled weapons and ammunition, acting as couriers across enemy lines. Their knowledge of the local terrain and ability to blend proved invaluable for fighters on the move. They listened to the voice of Zimbabwe on the radio, their hearts heavy with hope and fear, as they awaited news of their loved ones at the frontlines (Mugaragumbo-Gumbonzvanda, 2009). This logistical support, often undertaken at great personal risk, kept the armed struggle alive.

Women weren’t just bystanders. Many joined the liberation movements in significant numbers. “They formed an unprecedented number of combatants,” highlights historian Terence Ranger. Estimates suggest one-third of Zimbabwe’s guerrilla fighters were women. These female fighters, known as “Mujibas,” played a crucial role in combat, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. They excelled in combat, often specialising in sabotage and close-quarter fighting due to their agility. Mujibas also played a vital role in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, using their social networks and ability to move undetected to gather information on enemy movements and outposts.

In 1961, thousands of women demonstrated in Salisbury (now Harare) against a constitution that promoted racism, leading strikes and protests with a determination that would eventually contribute to the downfall of colonial rule. This mass demonstration where over 2 000 women were arrested, showcased the unwavering spirit of resistance. Women also organised boycotts of colonial businesses and participated in strikes, further crippling the Rhodesian economy.

However, the struggle for gender equality after independence remains unfinished. While women undeniably played a pivotal role in Zimbabwe’s liberation, their experiences haven’t always been fully acknowledged in the national narrative. Under the Second Republic led by President Mnangagwa, there is a growing recognition of the need to rectify this. Efforts are underway to ensure that the heroism and sacrifices of Zimbabwean women are properly documented and celebrated. — @plainstan


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