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Mary Robinson recently made a five-day visit to Zimbabwe with several eminent African women leaders. While there she witnessed an historic agreement by the women of all parties to work together.

It was a real pleasure to be back in Zimbabwe. I last visited in 1994 when I was President of Ireland and had the good fortune to tour this majestic country. A lot has changed since then. Sadly, much has not changed for the better. However, the international community would do well to recognise the efforts and progress being made by the women of Zimbabwe.

I was in Zimbabwe to attend a ‘High Level Dialogue on Women’s Empowerment in the Political and Economic Arena’. I was joined by several eminent African women leaders. The aim of our five day visit was to show solidarity with those working to achieve greater women’s empowerment in Zimbabwe.

The meeting was co-hosted by women’s groups from government and civil society, and it sought to establish a clear role for women in the implementation of the country’s Global Political Agreement.

The Global Political Agreement (GPA) was signed on 11 September 2008. It is a power sharing agreement between the country’s leading political parties (ZANU-PF, MDC-T and MDC-M) and forms the base on which Zimbabwe is ruled today. Importantly, the GPA contains a clear commitment to gender equality. It supports women’s participation in all efforts to build a participatory democracy that ensures respect for the rule of law and protects the human rights of all citizens.

Sadly, the human rights of women in Zimbabwe are all too often violated. As I prepared for my visit, I learned that one in three has experienced physical violence, and 25 percent report experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives. I was particularly shocked to learn that in 1990 the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe for men and women was 61; now a woman’s average life expectancy is just 43. She can expect to live healthily for just 34 years.

There are, however, some signs of progress. Women’s representation in parliament increased from just 10 percent in 2005 to 15 percent in 2008 – although this is still far short of the South African Development Community’s goal of 50 percent women in political decision-making by 2015. Legislation such as the National Gender Policy Law, the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual offences Act has also been adopted. Now, the challenge is to make sure that such progress is codified in Zimbabwe’s constitution.

Zimbabweans are currently drafting a new constitution; it is seen as pivotal to the success of the GPA. Community outreach programmes are a key part of this process; Zimbabwean citizens must have a say in the development of their constitution. After all, this is to be a document that enshrines their rights as citizens and defines their vision for their homeland.

My African sisters and I wanted to highlight how important it is that women fully participate in this process. No constitution which has failed to fully ensure the perspectives and concerns of women can be seen as fully legitimate.

What struck me most during my visit was that the work that Zimbabwe’s women are doing has truly re-energised the political landscape. Women from diverse backgrounds are providing a new impetus to civil society, political debate and the business culture. Women political leaders from all sides agreed that the nation should provide support urgently to survivors of violence, as well as define ways for justice and healing.

A meeting with representatives from each of the women’s wings of the three political parties in the Inclusive Government, (ZANU-PF, MDC-T and MDC-M), would prove to be quite pivotal. As the discussion unfolded, I suddenly realized that these women very much welcomed the rare opportunity to dialogue together that our presence provided.

It turned out that the meeting had enabled a breakthrough to occur. In the supportive environment created, the Zimbabwean women admitted they would like to work together in some visible way. With strong encouragement from our delegation colleagues, they had agreed the language for a draft resolution, which was signed by the leaders of the women’s wings of the three main political parties the next day. The resolution committed the women’s wings of the political parties to work together to accelerate the implementation of the GPA and to build a common agenda for women’s empowerment. I was witness to the signing of this historic declaration which was immediately endorsed by the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus of Zimbabwe and welcomed by women’s organisations across the country.

Olivia Muchena, Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development (ZANU-PF) said the moment the agreement was reached was one of the happiest of her life. Minister of State Sekai Holland (MDC-M), one of three members of Zimbabwe’s Organ on National Healing Reconciliation and Integration, welcomed it as the first step in genuine building of trust and reconciliation.

In separate meetings with the country’s highest political leadership, I expressed to President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that I came to Zimbabwe as a friend and friends tell each other the truth, however painful. I shared my serious concern about ongoing reports of serious human rights violations, including torture, harassment and the persecution of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. As individuals, mothers and community leaders, the rights of women and girls are doubly impacted by such violence.

I stressed that with the drafting of a new constitution, Zimbabwe faces an opportunity to reaffirm and give true meaning to what Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed more than 60 years ago: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. I also noted that women are finding the opportunity to link significantly and that they need the strong support of the Inclusive Government.  Prime Minister Tsvangirai embraced this way forward and President Mugabe said that he is "Open, amenable and ready" to support women working together to build the nation.

With their recently declared commitment to cooperation and the equal rights of all citizens, Zimbabwe’s women are providing their male counterparts with an example they would do well to follow.

Realizing Rights: Mary Robinson Reflects on Solidarity Mission to Support Women Leaders in Zimbabwe

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