RPN 20 published November 1995

6. Mozambican women claiming recognition for the human rights of refugees: observations from Tongogara Camp, Zimbabwe by Shirley DeWolf

Shirley DeWolf notes that the alarming surge in the number of people uprooted from their homes and their countries in recent years has evoked a lengthening list of policies, guidelines, charters, conventions and protocols, dealing with the human rights of refugees, and put together by governments, intergovernmental agencies, non-governmental agencies, academics, legal practitioners, aid workers in the field and other support circles.

DeWolf asserts that, important as this 'paper work' is, it plays only a secondary role. Governments and aid agencies must recognise that the greatest support for uprooted people comes from the uprooted themselves, and that the second most important level of support comes from their immediate host communities. To illustrate this point she relates the story of Mozambican women in Tongogara Refugee Camp in southern Zimbabwe who, through a programme of community development, laid claim to their basic human rights during 11 years in exile.

The population of Tongogara Camp in Chipinge District of southern Mozambique, which stood at 47,000 by 1994, largely comprised Ndauspeaking people who originated from Machaze and Mossurize Districts in the southern part of Manica Province, with a smaller number of Changan-speaking people originating from Massangena and Chicualacual Districts in Gaza Province. In the case of both language groups, the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border forms an artificial divide which separates people of the same families, so cross-border contact has always been common. Most of the adult males who came to Tongogara Camp had a background as migrant labourers, both within Mozambique and in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and some in other countries of the southern Africa region. They were accustomed to being mobile, were conversant in several languages, approximately 25% were either semiliterate or literate, and they were 'street wise' in the international labour scene. In contrast, a small minority of the women who came to Tongogara Camp those who lived within easy walking distance of the border had been to Zimbabwe before as tea and coffee pickers. The great majority had no experience of travel either outside Mozambique or even within the country. Their knowledge, in terms of language and customs, was therefore very specific to their home locality; almost all were illiterate and few had ever made use of a formal health system. There were hardly any single teenage girls to be found, as it was customary for girls to be married by parental arrangement by the age of 14 and this meant that, apart from the exception of the very elderly, almost all had dependent children even if they did not have a husband travelling with them. There was a great deal of separation from male family members during flight and after arrival in the camp. These were to become significant factors in the way the Mozambican women conceived of their female roles in the camp society, the way they approached the claim to their human rights, and in their preparations for the future.

Flight to safety

By the time the refugees arrived in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s they were badly frightened and shocked by forced separation from their families and homes, and many were wounded. During the drought of 1992, Tongogara Camp received another wave of people from Machaze and Mossurize Districts who arrived in appalling physical condition, due to an outbreak of measles which devastated children and adults alike because of their severely undernourished state. The people's first claim was therefore to their right to life, as indicated by their persistent flight to safety against all these odds. This was not a claim made on the basis of any international human rights legislation, nor did they know then or for most of the 11 years of their lives as refugees that such legislation existed.

Settling in to camp life

Those who chose to settle down illegally within the local Zimbabwean population and to take their chances with the authorities had an easier job of reestablishing a way of life somewhat similar to the one which they had been used to at home.

For those who took advantage of the shelter offered in the designated refugee camps, reassembling order in their lives was not simply a matter of reestablishing the pattern of their normal daily activity, as the normality of camp life was entirely different from what they had known at home. While life was at least secure, the institutional order of camp life removed from both men and women the roles by which they were accustomed to having their identity and dignity measured. Mothers were no longer the food controllers: the camp kitchens did that. They were no longer the health caretakers in the traditional methods they knew: the camp health workers did that. Fathers were no longer protectors: the camp police did that. They were no longer the decision-makers and discipliners: the camp base leaders did that. They were no longer the providers of clothing and other items that could not be provided within the immediate household: the NGOs did that. The struggle for recognition of their self-chosen identity was one of the most important expressions of the Mozambicans' claim to their basic human rights. Central to this claim for dignity was the stabilising role which fell to the Mozambican women in exile. Camp life imposed a situation of turmoil where traditional social norms had fallen away, the cultural frame of reference was no longer recognisable and many of the menfolk had either been left behind in Mozambique or had deposited their families in the camps and left to pursue their economic activities in southern Africa, some never to return. In these circumstances women had, in addition to carrying the load of domestic work, to become the providers and preservers of stability, and the maintainers of culture and family history.

Claiming human rights: the milestones

Several milestones can be singled out as the residents of Tongogara Camp made progress in identifying and claiming respect for their human rights.

Problem-solving workshops

The first milestone was a series of problem identification and solution workshops which were requested by the Tongogara women in 1990 and facilitated by Christian Care. These workshops eventually came to incorporate men, youth and children. When the women in Tongogara Camp began to gather to talk about their personal concerns this was a bold step on their part and it took some time for the few who pioneered this effort to encourage others to participate. Until this time only a small number had begun cautiously to participate in the various skills training and literacy courses offered by the NGO staff in the camp, the main reason being that husbands did not allow them to move about the camp except to fulfill basic domestic chores, so unstable was the social environment. In a 1989 study conducted by Makanya and Dhemba1 it was noted that many of the training sessions offered were conducted by male staff members, and husbands objected to having their wives trained by other men. In addition, the domestic chores to which women were tied were very time consuming the most tedious of them being the collection of firewood which meant travelling further and further from the camp in search of a commodity which grew more scarce as the camp population increased. Another problem was a very practical one, caused by lack of adequate sanitary material for use during menstruation and this meant that one week out of every four a woman's freedom to move about and participate confidently in public activities was severely curtailed.

The concern most commonly expressed by the women in these discussion with Christian Care was for their children who were being raised in a physical and social atmosphere which they considered unhealthy to their growth. Very closely following this concern for their children was their personal unhappiness in relation to their male partners and husbands. At first they wanted to make sure that their sharing of these painful complaints would be kept secret so that they would not suffer repercussions at the hands of the men, but later they began to invite men to attend their meetings so that answers to these problems could be found jointly. Closely connected to this was their strong expression of a desire for strengthening or empowerment so that they could be more self-reliant and the skills they already had could receive public recognition and upgrading. Concern was also expressed about issues of hygiene and health, with which they had a daily struggle.

Much practical planning resulted from these first major encounters. One of the biggest efforts was a 10 hectare vegetable gardening project which 180 women instigated, naming their group Simba re Vanhu (People Power). They called on the aid of some of the male well-sinker trainees in the camp to put down three wells and arranged for a course in horticulture and bookkeeping to manage the programme. By the end of the first year this had become one of the most productive cash-generating ventures in the camp, due in no small measure to the enthusiasm which the women brought to the project. The problem identification workshops also assisted the aid agencies to target their programme support more carefully to meet women's needs.

The leaders of the Simba re Vanhu venture were active in creating a leadership committee, combining the heads of all camp projects, women and men, for the purpose of mutual strengthening, ensuring that women's issues and concerns received fair attention at least at the level of practical community programming, and providing what they termed nan eye and an earn in the camp. Twice a month the team would walk the length and breadth of the camp to detect problems which required a community programme-solving approach. Since mid-1987 a camp administration committee, made up of male refugees representing all the bases or housing sections, had been operating as an outreach of the camp authorities for the purpose of maintaining order in the camp. But as Makanya and Dhembans studies revealed, some women in the camp were not even aware that this committee existed, and few had participated in the selection of the representatives from their housing units. The new projects' leadership committee, in which Simba re Vanhu was prominent, provided a structure by which Mozambicans could shape their own community development. Discussions on democracy and the African 'Charter on human and people's rights'.

In preparation for the first national elections which were to take place in October 1992, Christian Care and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission were approached by the residents of both Tongogara and Nyangombe Camps to provide education for their participation in the democratic changes that were taking place in Mozambique. The request came both from men and from women through separate channels. A training series was designed based on a Shona translation of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and a discussion booklet that had been developed for Zimbabwe entitled Understanding Democracy and People's Rights.

It came as a great surprise to most of the exiled Mozambicans that their rights as human beings and even as refugees were globally recognised and documented, and endorsed by the signatures of governments. They wanted to know 'who is this OAU and how does it propose to promote and protect human and people's rights [Preamble] when those people are remotely located in Chintobe or Chioco in the heart of Mozambique?'. They were keen to find out to what extent the Mozambican government was party to these agreements. With the discussions came a sense of power based on the authority which the Charter gives people to claim their rights. As the training sessions came to a premature stop with the rapid emptying and closure of the camps in December 1994, an essential stage in the process of claiming those rights was not covered, namely how to use that authority in their home situations and where to find ongoing advisory services.

The many personal abuses which women suffered during the war and even in the refugee camps were talked about but not exhausted in these human rights discussions. They said that too often they found their problems dismissed as being just an unavoidable side product of the war or part of their 'backward way of life'. The women recognised the advantages they had found in the camps in standing together for mutual support, and in a powerful two-day meeting where they identified the strengths they had gained from this experience and discussed their worries about the future as they returned to Mozambique, they talked about their fear of being alone. Some decided to continue the 'eyes and ears' strategy once they got home: to look out for women in trouble and rally to help them. 'A stick on its own is easily broken, but a bundle of sticks is hard to break', they said would be their motto.


Prior to their departure there was some discussion among Tongogara residents about the recording of their experiences and what they had learned throughout their period of exile. Zimbabweans too who had the privilege to live and work among the Mozambican exiles and who grew to appreciate and respect them, are anxious to record their experiences from within their support circle. Already several observations are being articulated at this level. The first is that in staking public claim to their human rights the women's confidence was not based on faith in documents or in aid workers, but on faith in each other and on the solidarity which that created. A second observation is that it took many years in a quicksand situation of individual struggle for a dignified way of life before they could join forces and haul themselves onto solid ground. Thirdly, once the women took up leadership at community level the entire community made rapid progress in activating their rights and developing their further role as protectors of the rights of others.

If we as supporters of human rights for uprooted people are to learn from this experience, we must begin with a solid respect for the dignity of people in crisis and for their chosen means of expressing that dignity. This respect is the essential starting point for developing a method of support which endorses their efforts. Secondly, we must understand the fundamental roles played by refugee women and other women in crisis situations, not just in keeping children alive and healthy, but in giving direction to the entire affected community. Focus on women, by taking their lead and backing it, is a crucial entry point for our support for communities in crisis.

Thirdly, the Mozambican people, whose dignity remained intact despite the hardships which threatened to destroy it, have been an example to the international community of that indomitable human spirit which gives rise to our declarations of human rights. By so doing they remind us that it is the dynamic human spirit which is the starting point, not the declarations. We must therefore avoid being so stunned by the eloquence of our words that we become deaf to the softer voices of the affected communities, who may even be trying to tell us that sometimes we are a part of the barrier against which they are struggling.

Shirley DeWolf is Refugee Services Coordinator for the indigenous Zimbabwean organisation, Christian Care, the community service branch of the Zimbabwean churches.

This article is abstracted from a paper given at the South Africa Research and Documentation Centre Seminar on Human Rights and Justice, held in Harare, August 1995.


1. Makanya S and Dhemba J, 'The situation of rural women refugees in Zimbabwe: a baseline study', School of Social Work, Hyarare, 1989.

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October 1996