Women’s Month: ‘Don’t put the girl down’ – Zimbabwean human rights champion

22 August 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Lerato Maduna. Voice Cwenga Koyana. Read time 7 min.
Final-year student (finance and economics) Gamuchirayi Manyadzi, human rights volunteer and campaigner for women and girls in Zimbabwe.
Final-year student (finance and economics) Gamuchirayi Manyadzi, human rights volunteer and campaigner for women and girls in Zimbabwe.

“From the time a girl starts walking she is exposed to danger.” It was this realisation and her own experience of sexual abuse that rallied Gamuchirayi Manyadzi to act. The Zimbabwean University of Cape Town student is now championing human rights education through the Voice of the Girl Child Trust. Their task is to reach her country’s most vulnerable: girls and young women.

Human rights are entrenched in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and include the rights to human dignity, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, freedom from slavery, forced labour, the right to equality and non-discrimination, women’s rights, marriage rights and children’s rights.

But these are not entrenched in the public mind, common practice or social expectations of girls and women, said Manyadzi, a final-year student in finance and economics in the Faculty of Commerce.

Gamuchirayi Manyadzi’s own experiences were a wake-up call.

Young Zimbabwean women in remote areas know very little about their rights, said the volunteer for the Voice of the Girl Child Trust. They accept that patriarchy, servitude, gender-based violence and dependence are “just the way things are”.


“But all these challenges and practices just put the girl down.”

At home she is still expected to defer to her brothers and serve them.

“I know it’s about respect,” she said, “but all these challenges and practices just put the girl down. Girls must be taught at a young age and be trusted to make their own decisions.”

And when her first boyfriend sexually abused her, it was a violation of her body and her trust. The response from those around her was fatalistic, underscoring a tacit consent and acceptance: “That’s what guys do.”

Make human rights visible

It’s not good enough, said Manyadzi. Girls’ and women’s rights must be understood and become more visible.

They have a right to know that they are legally entitled to sovereignty over their bodies, safety, the right to make their own choices, education, and other freedoms. These human rights are incompatible with forced child and early marriages among girls and young women – and the common abuses in these unequal relationships.

That Manyadzi has taken the brave decision to share her story of sexual abuse is because she feels a responsibility to other girls and young women to tell it straight. This is important in poor, remote areas where women have few resources – and certainly no access to social media and other platforms where these issues are widely aired.

Her own experiences were a wake-up call, she said.

“That’s why I decided to volunteer,” said the Mastercard Foundation scholar. Volunteerism is an important part of this programme. I’ve always wanted to do more because I was exposed to this situation first-hand. I also witnessed girls being abused and dropping out of school and being married off to older men. I am very passionate about giving back to my community.”

She was fortunate that her parents saw her potential. Education was her lifeline.

UCT opened many learning opportunities, and the ethos of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is volunteerism, said Gamuchirayi Manyadzi.

“Coming to UCT must be the best journey of my entire life. I grew up in a closed community and UCT has exposed me to so many learning opportunities, not only academically but also in social networking. The Mastercard Foundation Scholarship Program has been the most crucial part of my journey so far and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Her vision is to work closely with the Mastercard Foundation and NGOs advocating for women’s and girls’ empowerment, liberty, and equality in Zimbabwe.

Community is central to this. Manyadzi’s involvement began with her community. And through the Voice of the Girl Child Trust that net has been cast much wider. The team has been able to reach schools and settlements in remote areas, carrying their motto: “The Future is Female.”

They offer five programmes: Her Rights; Girl Power; Friends of a Girl (teaching girls about becoming women); Hope in Disability, for those without access to resources and services in remote areas; and HIV/AIDS intervention. In early or forced marriages, HIV is still a significant health risk to girls and young women.

In tandem, Manyadzi plans to create learning and literacy initiatives.

Break the cycle

The programme targets two groups of beneficiaries: children from birth to 18 years.

“From the time a girl starts walking she is exposed to danger,” said Manyadzi.


“They need someone to help them break the cycle as they don't have the courage or the resources.”

Second is the larger community, particularly young single mothers, and those who married young.

“They need someone to help them break the cycle as they don’t have the courage or the resources. We set up community meetings where we can spread awareness.”

There’s also a call for self-development and skills teaching: knitting, sewing and hairdressing to build independence and create avenues for mental therapy.

“You have to create a safe environment where women can come in and talk about their problems, share their struggles and hear how others are handling theirs.”

It’s a long road, said Manyadzi. There is a lack of trust in the law, and embedded attitudes, beliefs, and superstitions too.

“I feel like my society is constrained by its mentality.”

She cites an example from her childhood. A man in their community was arrested and jailed for molesting his stepdaughter. But the family went to traditional healers who suggested he hang his clothes on the washing line. The wind would blow the case away. After two weeks, he was released from jail.


“If we can change the mentality and attitudes of people from a young age, very early, it will help to break the cycle.”

“If we can change the mentality and attitudes of people from a young age, very early, it will help to break the cycle.”

Manyadzi is also looking for volunteering opportunities in Cape Town, to become involved here too.

Her message to women in Women’s Month reflects her own self-actualisation process: “Be a woman. You hold so much power, more than you can imagine. Keep rising against obstacles. But above all, be independent. And for those who are going through pain, abuse, I want to say: I understand. But I urge you to take yourself out of that hole very quickly.”

And to men who are central to ensuring women’s and girls’ human rights: “One is not born a man, but one becomes a man. I just want to urge all men out there to be real men and protect women and girls.”

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