Interviewed May 2012
Jestina M. Mukoko is the National Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors and documents political violence in Zimbabwe. As Zimbabwe’s premier monitoring body, the organization maintains a strong network throughout the country that is able to bring widespread attention to occurrences of political violence.
A long-time leader in the human rights and activist communities in Zimbabwe, Ms. Mukoko was abducted from her home on December 3, 2008, by state security agents for her work monitoring the brutality of the Robert Mugabe government. During her 21-day abduction, she was tortured, beaten, and forced to confess to a crime she did not commit. She remained detained until a court granted her bail on March 2, 2009.
For her steadfastness on issues related to human rights, Jestina Mukoko was named the 2009 Laureate of the City of Weimar (Germany) Human Rights Prize and a 2010 recipient of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. In 2009, Ms. Mukoko was awarded the NANGO (National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations) Peace Award. For her commitment and perseverance, she received the French National Order of the Legion of Honor award in 2011.
She serves on several boards, including those of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, and the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe. A former news anchor for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, she is also mentoring with the Female Students Network, a youth organization.
A peace and human rights campaigner, Jestina Mukoko is also a mother. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Politics and Administration from the University of Zimbabwe. Ms. Mukoko was the 2010 Fellow at the Oak Institute for International Human Rights at Colby College in Maine. In 2012, she joined other mid-career professionals as a Draper Hills Summer Fellow on Democracy and Development Program at Stanford University.
Women have occupied a very important role in Zimbabwe. Even from the liberation struggle, we have a lot of women that we look up to, looking at what they did for the country. And when we look at Zimbabwe today, we recognize that there are a number of women who are involved in fighting for women’s rights, advocating for children’s rights, also fighting against injustices that affect citizens in the country. And so it is not unusual for a woman to be involved in advocating against injustice in Zimbabwe. So I don’t consider myself to be someone from another planet.
I think it’s quite normal for Zimbabwean women to take the lead because I think we are the mothers of the nation and we really feel the pain that our families go through. And I think I really salute women who have stood up in Zimbabwe, looking at all the issues that they are fighting for.
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in southern Africa, with a population of approximately 12.5 million people. A former British colony, a white minority unilaterally declared independence as Rhodesia in 1965. The Rhodesian government excluded the black majority from political power and failed to win diplomatic recognition. In 1980, an agreement brokered by the British government established Zimbabwe’s independence as a multiracial democracy. That same year, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party, led by Robert Mugabe, swept the first free elections in the country. Mugabe served as prime minister until 1987, when he became president, an office he holds to this day. During more than two decades of Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe’s democracy has steadily eroded.
Mugabe’s social and economic policies have been disastrous. An estimated one-fifth of the population is infected with HIV. Life expectancy has declined dramatically since 1990. Land redistribution in the 1990s cut food production and led to hunger and disease. The government’s mismanagement of the economy led to hyperinflation in the 2000s, reaching an estimated peak of 13 billion percent in November 2008.
Mugabe has stifled democracy and human rights since coming to power. The government cracks down on opposition political parties and civil society groups. Basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are not respected. Violence surrounding the 2008 elections led to a power-sharing agreement between ZANU and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Freedom House rates Zimbabwe as not free in political rights and civil liberties, noting Mugabe’s frequent abuses of power, corruption, regime-sponsored political violence, the lack of independent media, and flawed electoral processes.