Review of For Better or Worse: Women and ZANLA in Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle - International Journal of African Historical Studies

For Better or Worse: Women and ZANLA in Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle
Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi
2000: 210 x 145; 192pp, more about 2 maps
ISBN 0 7974 2105 X

The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Volume 34, Number 2 (2001)
Reviewer: Elizabeth Schmidt


A damning exposé of the unhappy marriage of Zimbabwean women and ZANLA

Heralded for its role in bringing about independence in 1980 and excoriated for its human rights abuses in recent years, Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU(PF)), has been subjected to renewed scholarly scrutiny. The lone voices that challenged the romanticized view of the liberation movement in the 1980s are increasingly finding company.

Contributing to a more critical and nuanced understanding of the liberation movement, this book provides a damning exposé of the unhappy marriage of Zimbabwean women and ZANLA – the armed wing of ZANU(PF) – during Zimbabwe’s liberation war. Despite ZANU(PF)’s claim to be an emancipatory force for women, the movement’s rhetoric was not matched by reality. In both military and civilian life, women continued to be subordinate to men. They were denied positions in decision-making bodies and were generally relegated to less valued auxiliary roles. Their inferior position during the armed struggle mirrored both their pre- and post-war lives.

Nhongo-Simbanegavi’s fresh perspective is bolstered by a massive array of new sources, mainly from the ZANLA archives, which until recently had been largely closed to scholars. This rich source of internal documentation from the operational areas includes military reports, inquiries into guerrilla indiscipline, and examinations of the interactions between ZANLA combatants and the civilian population. The author also conducted some two dozen interviews with female ex-combatants.

Based on her findings, Nhongo-Simbanegavi concludes that, far from transforming gender roles, the war further entrenched male dominance. During the liberation struggle, women continued to perform tasks long associated with their gender. They cooked, washed clothing, and performed sexual services for the male guerrillas. However, the fulfillment of these tasks was now trumpeted as their patriotic duty. In semi-liberated and liberated areas, women served as porters, moving war matériel from rear bases toward the front lines. These tasks expanded upon pre-war domestic duties that entailed the carrying of water, firewood, and agricultural products. As ‘natural’ teachers and nurterers, women rallied support among the local population and nursed the sick and injured. Relatively few women served as guerrilla fighters. With the exception of a limited number who were connected to powerful men, women were generally excluded from positions of power and authority.

Most disturbing, internal ZANLA documents and ex-combatant interviews reveal that sexual abuse of women by male guerrillas was rampant. The perpetrators ranged from the lowest ranks to the highest leadership. Within the liberation army, contraceptives were banned. Women alone were blamed for pregnancies and venereal disease. Mothers were disparaged and ostracized. By the late 1970s, as the numbers of ill-trained, undisciplined recruits soared, the sexual depredations of male guerrillas among the civilian population heightened tensions between the local people and those who were purportedly liberating them.

Nhongo-Simbanegavi concludes that because ZANU(PF)’s emancipatory rhetoric was only rhetoric, it is no surprise that women’s situation changed very little after the war. Their contributions denied, large numbers of female combatants were demobilized as ‘refugees’, and hence, did not receive the same benefits as their male counterparts. The post-independence organs established to deal with ‘women’s affairs’ subordinated their agendas to that of ZANU(PF)’s male leadership. Legal reforms, while admirable on paper have had little impact on the vast majority of women who are materially dependent upon fathers and husbands – and fearful of social ostracism.

This book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the complexities of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. By destroying longstanding myths, it helps us to better comprehend the continued subjugation of women in post-independence Zimbabwe and, by extension, elsewhere in the modern world. It is highly recommended for college and university libraries.

© The author/publisher

Review of For Better or Worse: Women and ZANLA in Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle - Financial Gazette

For Better or Worse: Women and ZANLA in Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle
Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi
2000: 210 x 145; 192pp, for sale 2 maps
ISBN 0 7974 2105 X

The Financial Gazette
22-28 March 2001
Reviewer: Grace Mutandwa


War reinforced women's subjugation

Zimbabwe's 1970s independence war brought about many changes in the lives of the country's citizens and drove women into arenas of violence in an unprecedented way.

At the end of the war in 1979, many thought the conflict had given birth to a gender revolution because women had participated in it equally.

In For Better or Worse, Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi disputes the official orthodoxy that a gender revolution took place during the war of liberation. Through investigations she reveals that ZANLA, the ruling ZANU(PF)'s military wing, extensively mobilised women as porters, nurses, secretaries, cooks and teachers. She says although although these women's duties were crucial to the struggle and glorified as such by the politicians' rhetoric, the guerrilla movement perceived their roles as secondary to the activities of men.

'Female fighters were confined to the rear, limiting their participation in what the commanders perceived as the real battles - the engagements with Rhodesian security forces at the front. ZANLA erased women from promotion in the liberation army's hierarchy, from decision-making and from voicing their very real concerns.'



The writer, who had access to ZANU(PF)'s archives, scrutinises a doctrinal terrain laced with tension between ideology and tradition, between the more and less educated cadres and between the women on the ground and the party's leadership.

In a vivid manner, she tells the story of women who escaped from fetching water and firewood and cooking for their families, to the more menial work of cooking for the male guerrillas and carrying food and weapons to and from the war front.

'The Zimbabwean nationalist movement was a violent exercise, violating both men and women, but in ways that were specific to their gender,' Nhongo-Simbanegavi says, but adds that, 'This study does not in any way suggest that women monopolised suffering in the liberation war, neither does it suggest that all men were privileged and that they all benefited from the war.'



The author says it was only towards the end of the war in 1977 that ZANLA started slowly recognising the importance of women within its ranks.

In that year Teurai Ropa Nhongo, now Joyce Mujuru, was appointed to the party's decision-making central committee as secretary for women's affairs. A year later, she became the head of the Department of Women's Affairs. But other female cadres largely saw the department as a club for the commanders' wives. Mujuru, married to Rex Nhongo (Solomon Mujuru), the ZANLA commander, was deputised by the late Sally Mugabe, the wife of ZANLA's commander-in-chief Robert Mugabe, and Julia Zvobgo, the wife of Eddison Zvobgo, the party's publicity secretary at the time.

For Better or Worse supports the argument made by other authors that while ZANU(PF) embraced women within its military wing, it only reinforced women's subjugation by relegating them to 'less important' military roles.

It proves why Zimbabwean nationalism is increasingly seen to be of male orientation.

© The author/publisher