WASHINGTON -- As Americans count their blessings, it is useful to remember women who count their beatings -- in the once-fair country of Zimbabwe, cursed by Robert Mugabe.
Magodonga Mahlangu and Jennifer Williams, leaders of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, sit at a table at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights in Washington, quietly recounting acts of democratic courage that should be shouted from rooftops. "We are very ordinary people," says Williams, about a movement of perhaps 75,000 women who have engaged in more than 100 nonviolent protests -- protests that often end in a hospital or prison.
After visiting the White House this week and receiving the RFK Human Rights Award, Mahlangu and Williams will be greeted in Zimbabwe next month by being put on trial for their activism. They seem unawed by both honor and risk.
Women of Zimbabwe Arise is showing a patriarchal and violence-prone political culture the meaning of peaceful determination. These women demand social justice -- food, education, health care -- not political power. But in Zimbabwe, the mere act of protesting against hunger is considered sedition. "For this," says Williams, "we are accused of being 'unrepentant criminals' and the mouthpiece of a foreign regime."
In a world of liberal economics and conservative economics, Mugabe's Zimbabwe has practiced genocidal economics -- policies of reckless spending, inflation, business restriction, farm confiscation and corruption that have left a nation in ruins. Unemployment is more than 85 percent in the formal economy. Nearly half of Zimbabweans are at risk of malnutrition and starvation. Life expectancy has fallen by half in a decade. Zimbabwean children have the highest levels of mortality, malnourishment and stunted growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
Amazingly and repulsively, this is part of Mugabe's governing strategy. "ZANU-PF (Mugagbe's ruling party) is not only using violence," says Mahlangu, "it is making everyone dependent on assistance. People spend 9, 10 or 11 hours a day just fighting for survival, gathering wood and food," leaving little energy for resistance. Having made his people destitute, Mugabe survives because Zimbabweans are preoccupied with their destitution. It is a kind of political vampirism, in which a despot survives by drinking his nation's strength.