Source: Frontline Defenders
On 13 and 14 February 2013, peaceful protests held in Harare and Bulawayo by Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) in order to mark Valentine's Day were violently suppressed by police, with over 188 protesters arrested and many others beaten. One member of WOZA remains in detention.

WOZA is a women's rights organisation with a country-wide membership of over 75,000 women and men. Since its inception in 2003, it has organised multiple campaigns and protests aimed at allowing women to speak out on issues that affect their daily lives. This is the 11th year WOZA has conducted such protests and this year's theme was “One Love”.

At 4:00 pm on 14 February 2013, members of the Bulawayo branch of WOZA planned to stage a Valentine's Day protest outside the Police Headquarters in 9th venue, at Southampton House. The protesters, numbering approximately 800, demanded that police respond to formal complaints of alleged police beatings during a protest at water shortages on 12 November 2012, and release detained activists.

As protesters approached Southampton house, riot police reportedly intervened and beat several WOZA members. WOZA leaders Ms Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu regrouped the protest and managed to get members to sit down on the pavement so that the protest could get under way.

Police subsequently requested Jenni Williams to enter the Police Headquarters in order to hold a dialogue with the police provincial leadership. After obtaining assurances that the remaining protesters would not be harmed, she and a colleague went upstairs. During the meeting, police stated that a formal letter requesting an appointment should be submitted in order for WOZA to receive follow-up on complaints issued. The meeting ended when Jenni Williams received a telephone call from Magodonga Mahlangu, informing her that 179 protesters had been arrested by the Riot Reaction Police and taken to Bulawayo Central Police station.

The protesters were subsequently released from custody, while a number were reportedly subjected to beatings by police. One WOZA member, Ms Bertha Sibanda, remains in custody on grounds of “indecent exposure”, after she stripped naked in the police station in frustration at not having her complaints addressed. It is reported that six WOZA members had medical attention, one of whom has to have three teeth removed as a result of being beaten by police.

At 2:00 pm on 13 February 2013, members of the Harare branch of WOZA held a peaceful protest by marching towards Parliament buildings in two separate groups, numbering over 1000 people. Riot police who had gathered outside the Parliament disrupted both protests and reportedly fired five canisters of tear gas to disperse the crowd. While protesters ran for cover, many were hit with the tear gas, including over 25 WOZA members, who had to seek medical attention as a result.

Eight WOZA members and human rights defenders Ms Jenni Williams, Magodonga Mahlangu,  Clara Manjengwa, Hilda Murapa, Enia Mazambare, Tambudzai Manangazira, Siphetheni Ndlovu and Maria Majoni, along with one bystander, were arrested and reportedly beaten by riot police during a 20 minute wait for a police van to take them into custody. The nine were released approximately two hours later, and spent another three hours lodging a formal complaint about the arrest, beatings and tear gas. They were then taken to hospital for treatment for injuries sustained.

Prior to the protests, police officers reportedly telephoned several WOZA members offering money in exchange for information on plans of the Valentine's Day protests. Members of WOZA have been repeatedly subjected to judicial harassment, threats, beatings and arrests since WOZA's foundation in 2003. Front Line Defenders has issued several urgent appeals on WOZA, including on 11 July 2012, 28 June 2011 and 27 February 2009.

Front Line Defenders expresses grave concern at the excessive use of force by police at peaceful protests, including arresting and beating large numbers of peaceful protesters. Front Line Defenders believes that the beatings and arrest of WOZA members are directly related to their work in the defence of human rights, in particular their work to follow up on complaints issued to police. Front Line Defenders sees this as part of an ongoing trend of harassment against women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, in particular members of WOZA.


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