Jestina Mukoko holds the position of Project Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, an organisation that monitors and documents human rights abuses and political violations within the country. She values her work within the human rights sector because it allows her to contribute to the improvement of the situation in her country. Jestina talks about the progressive Constitution of Zimbabwe, the families of human rights defenders, and also the ways that help her relax and clear her mind from the intense work that she undertakes every day. She addresses future women human rights defenders,”If your passion is not human rights, don’t do it”.
Could you please start by giving us a little background, what you do, how you began, and what initially inspired you to get involved?
My name is Jestina Mukoko, I am the National Director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, an organisation that monitors and documents human rights violations, and all political violence. I might actually say I started my work by accident. I must have been the very last person to submit a CV and application to this organisation. I remember it had closed for the day and I just threw my envelope over the gate, not being sure if I had made it in time for the deadline. But to my surprise, after being called to several interviews, I got the position.
I think journalism was probably my launch pad into human rights work. I had gone with a private radio station to speak to women in the Southern part of the country, commonly known as Matabeleland. My conversations with the women there involved talking about the situation that engulfed a country in the early 1980s, when there was a fight between the nationalists and liberators of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF, and the late Joshua Nkomo of ZAPU. It was estimated that around 2000 people were massacred over the years of the war occurring, which has come to be known as Gukurahundi in our national language, meaning ‘the first rains that come and sweep away the chaff’. So you can imagine what that actually means, when so many people are killed. Those women were giving me accounts of what they had been through, and I recognised that as a journalist I had not done much in terms of uncovering what had happened in Matabeleland. I thought that if I got into human rights work, I would be able to contribute better to the situation. So, this is how I then find myself doing human rights work.
Can you think of any good practices either legal, administrative, policy based – that allow you to carry out your work safely and how these would be made more gender sensitive and more sensitive to women human rights defenders of different identities?
I will start with the Constitution - Our Constitution is a progressive Constitution. You can never get a perfect document. But I think it’s a good working document that has expanded, yet it still does not talk about the rights of LGBTI people. There are issues in Zimbabwe in relation to that topic. But the Constitution lays it out in such a way that it does not discriminate in terms of who should be doing what, when, and how.
I think that when you look at the Constitution, it assumes that everybody has got the opportunity to be able to work in any field, defending and promoting human rights. But once you get into the field, you recognise that things are not as clear as that. I think because of the increased risk, we also find that even our families give us continuous caution in terms of involving ourselves in the work that we are doing. You find that families are not too happy with us as women to be involved in this kind of work. I do not think there could be anything else other than the criminal law of the land that creates a good environment for us to be able to operate in.
Do you have any ideas on how the women’s rights movement could be strengthened globally?
I think it is something that would probably need to be worked on. There is a Rapporteur for human rights defenders, but having particular Rapporteurs responsible for women human rights defenders would be a welcomed development. It might work in terms of ensuring that the rights of women human rights defenders are always taken care of, because we find ourselves in very difficult positions as we are trying to discharge the mandate of the work that we do.
In your experience, which techniques and practices have been particularly effective at keeping you safe in the work you carry out?
I think it is just being alert. I am one person who has gone through targeting by the State. I was abducted from my home in 2008. I was kept incommunicado for 21 days and then was committed to a maximum-security prison for 69 days. Those are some of the things that a lot of people question, when they think about these experiences, they tell themselves they do not want to cross the line into issues that deal with human rights because they recognise the risk that is associated with that. But I think what I have learned is that it is important for me to be alert.
I think the ethics within the organisation in which we work ensure that we do not sensationalise situations if something has not happened. We will not report on it as if it has happened. In other words, we will not create cases to make a statement. Our mandate is to advance sustainable peace in Zimbabwe, and that entails the reduction of incidences of human rights violations.
In the face of the risks and challenges opposed to women human rights defenders, what gives you motivation to continue?
I think I get the motivation from several friends. The fact that I got into human rights looking at abuses that happened in Matabeleland, and what I have gone through myself as a human rights defender is what is keeping me on track in terms of working around these issues.
What kind of self-care methods have you felt are most effective (for battling things like burnout)?
Self care is an issue that is quite important in the work that we do, because there is a danger of getting secondary trauma or suffering from burnout. I am a Christian and it is those teachings that allow me to meditate and have some time to myself. That helps in terms of reinvigorating me and during the time that I faced the ordeal [of being imprisoned], it was always helpful for me to have someone to talk to about what I was going through.
We meet regularly within the community where we talk about some of the cases that we have been attending to. We also have team building exercises just to clear out our minds and also re-charge our bodies. When it gets really hectic, you actually feel that you have knots in the shoulders.
Do you think it is beneficial to meet with fellow women that can understand the kind of things you have been through?
I feel at times we also get together, go out for meals, for a drink, have a laugh, and just strengthen each other in terms of the issues that we will be facing. That also helps in terms of us starting on a clean new state.
What advice do you have for other women activists, particularly for young women interested in getting involved with the movement?
If your passion is not human rights, don’t do it.
I think it works best if you are really passionate about it, because if not, you might actually be very disappointed because it is really not a walk in the park.
Unless you are true to yourself in human rights work, you are highly unlikely to succeed. I think it is important that you are able to engage on a regular basis. For young women, things do not happen overnight. It demands someone who is patient, someone who will keep on working on things, someone who does not easily give up when faced with disappointment. Things do not just happen overnight, they take a long time.
Resilience is a good quality to have. But at the same time, it is also important for people to take care of themselves.
If you could give your younger self when you when just starting out in human rights, one piece of advise, what would it be?
To be aware of what is happening in other parts of the world. We do not exist in a vacuum and knowing what other women human rights defenders are doing helps to strengthen our struggle.