A Discussion with Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary, World YWCA

With: Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda

November 16, 2011

Background: During two UN staff training events in Turin, Italy (November 2010 and September 2011), Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda and Katherine Marshall reflected on Ms. Gumbonzvanda’s path and her perspectives on roles that religion plays in advancing her multi-faceted agenda. She argues passionately that these agendas, especially bringing young women into global discussions, working for peace, and fighting discrimination against women, are agendas for all of us, not for “them,” out there. And religion is an integral part of the agenda at every level and needs to be seen as such. She reflects on the YWCA Global Assembly in July 2011 and its significance for women’s leadership and intergenerational dynamism and dynamics. Her work in conflict zones over many years gives her insights into the roles that women play. Speaking to the unique history and role of the global YWCA, she brings a distinctive perspective to the history and contemporary reality of Zimbabwe, its pain and its resilience. She offers important wisdom about decision-making processes—consultation, participation, and empowerment, stressing the need to find better avenues to engage women and young people.

You travel the world constantly, participating in countless meetings. Perhaps most significant, you led the ambitious World YWCA Global Assemby, in Zurich in July 2011. What, looking back, were the highlights? What surprised you?

It was a wonderful meeting, blessed with three women who had been heads of state in their respective countries. All three gave the meeting a high note of hope: Mary Robinson (Ireland), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), and Ruth Dreifuss (Switzerland). The diversity of women at the assembly was remarkable—very young women from almost 100 countries, 1,000 participants, professionals from many different walks of life. What warmed my heart the most was the success of our long-standing effort to build real intergenerational relationships; this was reflected in the election of the new World Board where, for the first time in the 150 year history of the YWCA, 45 percent of the new leaders are under 30 years old. This intergenerational drive has proved a powerful new strategy.

The call for transformative women’s leadership was a refrain that resonated throughout the meeting—in other words, women are claiming far more than numbers in places of decision-making and are asking themselves what they want to achieve with the leadership they have earned. There was systematic discussion of claiming their rights and their place, and insisting on accountability. This is a shift from a traditional YWCA ethos that focused on service in selfless ways—cleaning the church and running kindergartens, for example, to a sense that more is deserved and needed. A sense that while we continue to respond in service of communities, women should ask the question why some of these services are not available in the first place, and who has the primary responsibility to provide such services.

There was much discussion about sexual and reproductive health and issues, often with great humor and remarkable honesty. It showed how essential safe space is, and the need for crucial conversations that can truly accomplish transformation. There is nothing we cannot talk about, and we need to talk about it all. What we need is the courage to talk to each other about the things on which we do not agree, and to do so with respect, with integrity and understanding of people’s backgrounds, contexts, and cultures.

And the assembly made very clear that, though the discourse about development is secular, people are spiritual, in an important and a large sense. This dimension should therefore not be overlooked in harnessing the potential of humanity in seeking peace, dignity, and development.

Violence and technology were on peoples’ minds. The central theme was safety for women and that ran through, with attention to violence at so many levels—in oneself, the home, the community, the church, and the nation. The issue was never far away. The need to use the new tools of technology was another theme, and how unequal (and unfair) the world still is today.

To start at the beginning, where do you come from? Is Murewa, where you were born, still the place you consider home?

I was born and grew up in Zimbabwe, in Murewa, a small community in rural Zimbabwe, and yes, it is still the place I consider home. But that is far more than physical space. Home is part of a sense of belonging, and the source of values, part of what is familiar and welcome. I have lived in many places, and today with our global work, when I am working at any place, whether it is Los Angeles or the Philippines or Cairo, my heart is there. The essence of home is that sense of connectedness to the people, the issues, and the moment with the being.

But Murewa is where my family was from, and it is the place of my early memories. I grew up there during the years of war and violence that gripped Zimbabwe’s search for freedom and independence, and it was all around us. But life nonetheless went on. There were times when the schools could not function, but often they did, and we went to school, came home, and sat around the fire with our family and neighbors. But when members of the family and neighbors were in prison or simply disappeared, the war was very present, and we could not shut it out. And amidst it all, my mother had to get food on the table every day. I grew up watering tomatoes, picking them and taking them to school in a basket, setting them aside during the day, and then selling them to the teacher so I could bring a bit of money home so my mother could buy soap and salt and other things we needed. Life was about work, dignity, and looking out for the other, while at the same time it was about ensuring that each day bring meaning for a tomorrow. And when I woke up every day, I had a sense that another world was possible.

I learned one thing, and my mother reinforced it constantly: poverty does not define a person, and you must not allow it to do so. Even if we could not sleep because we were hungry and we had no shoes to wear to school, she reminded us that we were born in the image of God and should never forget it. I got a lot of inspiration and strength from my mother, who was a strong woman. She died just a few years ago, and when I went home to Murewa for her funeral, I set up Rozaria Memorial Trust to continue the work that she did over her lifetime. Her body may be gone, but her spirit and energy live on in many ways, in the community and in the family. Her pioneering work with people with HIV and AIDS and mental health was remarkable and are the focus of the trust. I lost siblings to HIV and AIDS, and two have lifelong mental health challenges. She had a concept of community care and of a healing society that she inspired in many who worked in the community.

So my idea of development started there, not with a sense that someone should be doing development for us, but from the image of women doing what needed to be done and knowing what they wanted from their lives and community. Development is not about families sitting and waiting for something to be done to them. Women are nurturing families, changing communities, and providing opportunities to others every day. They support children with school work, grow vegetables, and feed the chickens. That is where it starts.

Church and faith were very much part of our lives. Ours was a Catholic community, so I grew up as a Catholic, and that is what I am today. There were other churches in the community, Methodist especially, but belonging to different denominations was not a divider in our community, but a source of celebrating the richness of creation.

Where did you go to university?

Despite the disruptions, I finished formal schooling. I went on to university in Harare, where I studied law. I was interested both in justice and in entrepreneurship. I was attracted to the social entrepreneur culture, of doing and making things happen. I could not accept that one should sit and wait for something to happen or for someone someday to come and do something. My spirit was that I needed to look at what the problems were and then do something about them. But I also had this burning desire to do something about the many injustices I saw around me.

I also became involved in interfaith work while I was at the university. I was involved with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. It was largely my interest in social justice that took me to this work. I came to know [the World Conference of Religions for Peace, WCRP] at that time. The social justice issues that fired us during that period were mostly about land rights, negative impact of the structural adjustment policies, and women’s legal rights issues. We were advocating, in particular, for changes in the laws that affected women’s inheritance and property rights.

What were your dreams at that time?

To be happy! In many respects that came to sum up my understandings and aspirations for development. I also developed a keen sense of fairness, above all the idea that people should be able to be who they are and should be recognized and respected as such.

After university and law school, I worked for some years in the public sector and practiced law for a time, all in Zimbabwe, especially in the area of criminal law. My first trip overseas was actually in the context of my interfaith work, when as a young woman leader I was in selected to participate in the 1992 Evangelischer Kirchentag in Germany. I thereafter became involved with the formation of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers’ Association, which got me engaged in legal rights awareness and greater civil society.

How did you come to be involved with the United Nations?

I began with UNICEF Zimbabwe, based in Harare, as a national child rights advisor. I then had an opportunity to continue working on children’s rights with UNICEF in Liberia, during the war years when Charles Taylor was president. The work with UNICEF gave me the critical exposure to engage at both the policy and community levels around highly complex and sensitive issues such as HIV and AIDS in the Zimbabwe context, and children and armed conflict in Liberia. It was a time, in Zimbabwe especially, when HIV and AIDS was becoming evident as a tragedy and pandemic that affected the whole society. But the silence about the subject and the power of stigma were strong forces. And the public sector simply did not understand the effects on families, on teachers, and on children. The private sector also did not understand what was happening. And the medical community was overwhelmed. It was much later that a robust international response began to be felt, with the establishment of UNAIDS, the World Bank [Multicountry AIDS Program], the Global Fund for HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis, and [the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. What had been consistent though throughout, at times invisible, is the role of communities, and the many caregivers and mostly women who have stood by their loved ones along this journey of life.

In joining the World YWCA, the role of faith-inspired communities, especially in the HIV response, became more evident and more visible, reflecting not only the robust interventions of my own organization, but also the work of local congregations and fellowships. I encountered the work of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, based in Geneva, providing skills and a common platform for action in responding to these challenges of the day. To this day I see a powerful role for alliances and joint training between UN and faith groups. Recently I spoke with the new secretary-general of the World Council of Churches and urged more such joint encounters. Creating these spaces can be very powerful. Yet many UN staff lack exposure to these kinds of groups, so the alliances are not developed as they should be.

What about the World YWCA? When did you first meet them, and how did you come to join the institution?

I first met the YWCA as a young girl in Harare. I was part of a training program for young women leaders, and it had a marked effect on me. The training was focused on values, and it affirmed the importance of remaining centered, connecting our hearts with our minds. The training also introduced me to notions of conflict management and some of the skills associated with it. And it also drew inspiration from the Bible—thinking about what Esther did in the scriptures, and how that linked with the history of my country.

When I was working with the United Nations, YWCAs in various countries were partner organizations. There, I was working on a number of conflict situations in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. I learned there how effectively they could work and the strength that came from the faith origins of the movement. Food insecurity was a major factor in the conflict, in Uganda, the Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The YWCA was able to connect with women and households, and because of that we were together better able to work with communities on food issues. So from that point on I reached out to the YWCA and other institutions, both specific faith and interfaith organizations. It was also during this period that I increasingly got involved with WCRP and chaired the Women’s Assembly in 1994 that took place in Italy at Riva Delgado. Then at the assemblies in Jordan and Japan I was actively involved (and you and I met at the Kyoto Assembly in 2006).

I came more and more into contact with Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and women from other faiths. Translating that into effective practice was, however, somewhat harder. The Christian communities tend to be more hierarchical and centralized, which does make establishing contacts and partnerships rather easier. Muslim groups tend to be more decentralized and self-organizing. Ecumenical organizations offer a good platform for coming together within the Christian communities. There is not really any equivalent in the Muslim communities, and also in Buddhist and Hindu societies.

In 2007, after I had spent 10 years in the United Nations, I was reflecting on what I should do next. I was enjoying my work, and the programs I was leading were strong and important. But, the more I became involved with broad policy work, the more I felt that I was missing something, something that would make it more possible for me, every day, to “touch the earth.” That coincided with the time when my mother was dying, and I returned to Murewa and was so keenly aware of her work and impact. I started to think about what more I could do to honor her, beyond the memorial trust I had established. I wanted to be in a place where I could be in direct interaction with women in their daily lives.

And I found myself in the privileged position of being in a place where I understood global institutions and the United Nations system and also many countries which had faced difficult conflicts. I knew how the world works. I wanted to step into a situation where I could bring my knowledge of globalization, conflict, and women and my many networks to bear. I wanted to bring back some of this knowledge to the communities and to help bring those communities into those spaces. I wanted to give young women the chance to challenge some of those who hold positions of power. And the position of general secretary of the YWCA seemed to suit this ideally.

So in 2007 I joined the World YWCA and moved to Geneva.

Can you describe some ways in which you have been able to bring your experience to your leadership of the World YWCA?

I am still very troubled (as I was when I was a young activist in Zimbabwe) by how the international development community sees poverty. The problems people face are not just about poverty. The very word invokes an image of lack of opportunity and lack of knowledge. And it is not necessarily or always so.

So I work to leverage the symbolism, experiences, and the wisdom of women in communities into these development processes. The voice of women has great importance. It is such a responsibility and also such a blessing to lead an international women’s movement of this kind, at this time.

For the YWCA is an extraordinary movement with a remarkable history. It is over 157 years old, born well over 100 years before the United Nations or the League of Nations came into being. It was founded by women who knew how to work in many different nations, cultures, and societies, all committed to a common vision of fostering the leadership of women and girls for a just and peaceful world. Their advocacy and experience work in fact contributed to the founding of the League of Nations and shaped the content of the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations, and its early commissions, like the Committee on the Status of Women. As leader in the YWCA movement, I soar on the shoulders of thousands and millions of women, innovative women and women of vision and courage.

What is important is that they dared to think beyond themselves, and beyond what is here now. They developed a language that respects the present, but that also looks to a long, long future.

The YWCA is now present in 22,000 communities in 125 countries and reaching 25 million women and girls. Almost everywhere I visit, no matter what country or state, there is a YWCA. I am always amazed to find in each YWCA a bundle of knowledge, energy, and creativity. They are never solely dependent on others, inside or outside, but they are codependent. The light does not always shine down, but out and up. There is something in the way this movement works that the United Nations needs to capture. The strength of an inspired groups draws from more than good organization and a strong institution, but from the individual who give their wisdom, talents, treasure, and inner selves to the vision for peace and dignity for all. The YWCA is truly a social movement that forms itself around common values. It liberates power and knowledge that is present in each community.

The way it works is simple and powerful. A small group of women, say eight, anywhere, can decide to form a group, and they can just do it. It is not hard to get a charter to be part of the movement. They look at what is needed in the community and then work to respond to those needs. They teach each other and they talk. They may talk and plan as they do flower arranging, talking about the school or agriculture. There is an aspect of organic community organizing and engagement that is the essence of the movement. It is about communities coming together.

And the YWCA is always finding ways of self-renewal. It gets young women involved, so that it is always intergenerational. They ask, what are the issues? And then work to find the appropriate intervention, response, or technology to address them. They look at the critical needs of the moment, and ask how we should respond. That means always looking to the future.

The international women’s summit in July 2011 had special importance. It looked at the Millennium Development Goals and what is needed to achieve them by 2015. But it looked well beyond, seeking the thoughts and inspiration of women from all over the world on what comes next. What do we want to do? Because development is not external to you, it is about us.

How does the YWCA work on conflict issues and in the most conflict-troubled nations? How do you see the roles of women in thinking about peace?

Conflict is an important theme and area of thought and action for the YWCA. That is why the theme of the summit was “Women Creating a Safe World.” We are looking for peace with justice.

We see peace in terms of space. It has to start with peace within oneself. And that has much to do with women’s self-understanding. That in turn means the ability to address one’s own issues, and that is what empowerment is about. It is not about sleeping through but about peace within.

The family is an important arena for peace. When girls are married off too young or against their will, and when there is family violence, that works against peace. The question is, who is privileged, what are the dynamics within households. What happens to young widows?

Then, there is the question of peace in the places where we spend many hours of the day: schools, places of worship, and workplaces. These are places where identities are formed and where people and ideas are nurtured and where they nurture others. If the situation there is conflictual, whether sexual harassment or simply situations where women are not affirmed, or feel unwanted, that is not conducive to peace and nurturing of the inner well-being. These are places where we spend six to eight hours each day, and they must therefore be safe, empowering, inclusive, and nurturing.

And there are public places of production and reproduction. Addressing community violence and unsafe cities is important. The community and markets are all involved, as are the places where people fetch water and wood or go to sell their goods. Or go to the bathroom. How safe, how affirming, how inclusive are these spaces?

As to wars and conflicts, women are deeply involved and need to be in far more visible roles. I am part of the Civil Society Group for UN Resolution 1325, and I am a strong advocate. And this is a major area of program growth for the YWCA.

We are focusing now especially on a group of conflicted countries that includes Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Palestine, and Zimbabwe. We are looking at both conflict resolution, conflict prevention, and community peacebuilding. Women in all these cases need to be an integral part of the thinking and action. And women of faith are deeply involved in every instance. When people are displaced, as they are in Zimbabwe, they come to the YWCA for emergency shelter, and we respond with water, prayers, counseling, and support. We engage with the political arms of the United Nations, which consists almost entirely of men. The numbers are stunning: those involved in fighting and in discussions about peace are almost all men, while those who are affected by wars and who are involved in keeping communities and people alive through conflicts are mostly women and children.

These are issues that need much stronger focus. We organized a workshop recently (October 2010) with ICCO (the Dutch NGO) that set out to answer the question: What is there in theology that can help us to work more effectively for peace with justice? How can we maximize the power of faith communities, which have unique or special access and knowledge in these situations? How can we look more clearly at both their formal and informal roles?

We held a meeting with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women [February 4-5, 2011] to focus more attention on the roles of women and girls in these many kinds of conflict situations. We met jointly with young women and organized advocacy training for women also. We brought groups of young women from conflict regions to meet with senior officials.

We talk often of being “at the table,” referring to the challenge of capturing the experience and wisdom of faith-inspired organizations in global policy debates. You have a broad experience, sitting at many prominent tables. What is your view about the effectiveness of how current processes work?

First, it is important to move from mere consultation to effective participation that influences decisions. The consultative processes that the development community undertakes are at time superficial in scope, as they do not fully embrace the complexities of communities in ways that can adequately affirm community knowledge and innovation. The communities come to meeting after meeting out of respect or politeness, fully aware that at times the process is flawed. It’s important that the voices of citizens as rights holders are taken more seriously in policy and program formulations. For example, I was a member of a World Bank advisory council on women and economic empowerment, a very important space in shaping and guiding the World Bank approaches. Again, what was frustrating for me was that the meetings were only once a year and for barely a day. As a representative of civil society, I had questions on process. One has to ask what can really be accomplished in terms of meaningful participation and engagement in shaping policy under such circumstances. For a conversation and contribution of integrity, it is important to invest in a qualitative ways of bringing these diverse perspectives together.

Secondly, it’s the notion of a decision-making table. In my many years of experience, either in peace negotiations, or advocacy for change of laws in countries, or engagement with the UN, it is clear that decisions are not made at any single table. The final pronouncement has to be made at some table, but the process of evolving such decision takes various forms, and negotiations and conversations happen in both formal and informal spaces. It is therefore critical for quality investment in terms of time, funding, networks, and partnership, in ways that enable women and young people to be systematically engaged.

Lastly, it is about intergenerational leadership and gender diversity. We still have very few women represented in decision-making and more so young people. These young people, especially young women, are still viewed as program participants and beneficiaries, at time vulnerable and requiring protection. They are not sufficiently seen as leaders, innovators, with knowledge and expertise. This trend is shifting and must be sustained.

How do you reflect today on how your own faith, and the faith of those you work with, influences your work and organization?

I am fascinated by faith and the role that it plays. I can walk into any religious place, whether it is a cathedral, a mosque, a temple, or a shrine, and feel that it is a space, a place where reflection is possible. We need those spaces that are created by sacredness, those moments of stillness that allow us to come into closer contact with our inner selves. The symbols and rituals, they play a different role. But just being at rest in those sacred places has such spiritual meaning. The focus on meditation in the Buddhist tradition, as an example, inspires a sense of tranquility and a grounding in realities.

In many conflicts it is the churches that are a refuge and also a place and space that enables us to take action. This is why it is a tragedy when people experience violence, abuse, or discrimination in such places.

And religious communities have a special dimension of power. A religious community may not be able to get a formal appointment with a when they want it, but such a community can meet with the president at church on Sunday (or any place of worship)!

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