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Zimbabwean Unionist Fights for Dignity of Women

  • Fazila Mahomed

In Zimbabwe, political activism -- especially for those who are not ruling party members -- often comes with the threat of violence. One feminist and union activist, Tabitha Khumalo, knows this well. She has persevered in her fight for women's equality, including a drive to give women access to sanitary pads, despite violence by men who oppose public discussions of women's issues.

Tabitha Khumalo says her activism began in 1999, when she noticed a woman walking uncomfortably in the middle of the road. Curious, Tabitha approached her and asked her why she wasn’t walking on the sidewalk. The woman replied by staring downwards, her eyes pleading as she gestured towards the ground. As Tabitha looked down she saw blood pooling next to the woman’s shoe. The woman explained that she doesn’t have enough money to buy sanitary pads.

A packet of 10, average quality pads costs about 500-thousand Zimbabwean dollars. A well-known brand of tampons averages 1-point-2 million Zimbabweawn dollars; that’s between 5 and 12 percent of a month’s salary for a worker in the textile industry.

Tabitha says she was so moved by this encounter that she decided to take immediate action. After a snap survey, she learnt that “Johnson and Johnson” – the sole manufacturers of sanitary pads in Zimbabwe -- had relocated to South Africa.

Khumalo raised the issue with affiliates of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), of which she is a member. It was decided the issue should be brought to government’s attention. Then minister July Moyo promised to investigate the re-opening of the Johnson and Johnson complex, but nothing materialized.

But Tabitha persevered. Last year, for example, she attended several meetings discussing alternate ways of solving the nation-wide shortage of female hygiene products. Her efforts weren’t always welcomed. For example, 25 men gate-crashed one such gathering and began assaulting the participants. Tabitha woke up in hospital. She had 42 stitched to remind her of the brutal incident. Aside from being assaulted, she’d been raped several times.

Ms Khumalo acknowledges she was petrified, but adds she overcame her fears by focusing on helping others….

"Being arrested and beaten up and taken to jail that does not bother me," she said. "Its the name of the game and those are the health hazards of being a trade unionist especially when you are trying to protect and promote the interest of the workers."

Supported by a support network of friends, family and many housewives in Bulawayo, Khumalo has become something of a muse for women around the country.

Tabitha adds her mother, along with her two children, encourages and inspires her…

She said,"Whenever I [go home after being] arrested, beaten, I always have shoulders to lean on, and one of my pillars of strength is my mum. She nurses me and tells me that when it comes to emotional stress, I'm extremely stupid and when it comes to physical pain, I'm extremely courageous."

The activist has not become popular because of the attacks; she’s earned respect for her work. While attending a conference in South Africa recently, she met with several British unionists and NGO representatives. Among the topics they discussed was the issue of sanitary pads. It eventually led to the launch of the “dignity period” campaign.

It drew attention to the medical and psychological dangers these shortages pose for women and girls. The campaigners also sourced sanitary protection from well-wishers, and distributed it to women throughout the country.

Tabetha says a stigma still surrounds the topic. She says it’s a pity not more Zimbabweans, especially men, are able to discuss feminine hygiene issues.

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