Justice! What Justice? Reflections from women survivors of sexual violence in mining impacted communities in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone

crowd of african women posing infront of a blue banner

(Photo: Participants at the Development Alternatives workshop in Johannesburg)

Justice! What Justice? Reflections from women survivors of sexual violence in mining impacted communities in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone

“My community is diamond rich, but we (the locals) live in abject poverty. Our houses are cracked from the blasting by the mining company, and we have no recourse. Rape of women is an everyday occurrence and yet when you go and report, you are asked to buy the paper and pen that the police officer can use to record your case. Where do I even get the money to buy this pen and paper?”

Hawa Kono, Sierra Leone

As a woman activist deeply connected to the struggles of women on the ground, I was left helpless listening to the often-brutal accounts of women survivors of physical and sexual assault, and rape, at recent Justice Options workshops in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. What caught my attention more with each account was the circumstances under which women on the frontlines of extractives industries are living, which in turn make them vulnerable to rape and violent attacks.

WoMin – where I work as the WoMin Extractives, Militarisation and VAW Coordinator – is committed to supporting women to work through some of the trauma they experience. In this work, this is a necessary step in making violence visible and empowering women to claim justice on their own terms. The violations that the women in communities affected by mining have experienced ranged from sexual, psychological to physical violations by state forces, mining company employees and private security companies brought in to “protect” mining operations. The harrowing testimonies women shared included rape, being forced to have sex as a “fine”, being forced to expose body parts, being subjected to invasive body searches, being shot, bitten by dogs, assaulted with fists, boots, and weapons, and detained in exposed cages with no food. 

All the women, both in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leonne come from mineral-rich communities however, most of the communities do not have basic social services such as clinics, police stations, schools and access to clean water, etc. In cases where they exist, they are not well resourced. Most of the minerals that are being mined in these communities do not benefit them in any way. 

These paradoxical realities make the question of what justice means for women who have experienced violations in these contexts becomes that much more complex.

What does ‘justice’ really mean for women?

Between April and June of this year, these conversations have provoked me to think about alternatives to justice and how we understand this concept of ‘justice’ itself. Who’s justice? What justice?  

In 2019, WoMin partnered with the Counselling Services Unit (CSU) in Zimbabwe and brought together 18 women who had experienced trauma from militarisation and securitisation of areas surrounding and impacted by mining activities. The same model was replicated in Sierra Leone where WoMin partnered with Women in Mining and Extractives (WOME) and Graceland to support another group of 18 women.   

For participants in these processes, justice is not just about laws and seeing the perpetrators of rape and other violations incarcerated. It is about the structural violence that predisposes them to other violations. As Nadia* from Penhalonga in Zimbabwe shared,

‘My whole life and existence are an injustice. I have to walk long distances to find water and firewood and you get raped in the process. You leave your children at home to go and fetch water, you get home they have been raped. How do you expect me to talk about justice? If we lock up one man, yet I still need to go out and look for firewood and water, will I be safe?”

Drawing lessons on the complexity of ‘justice’

As we search for ways of working with and supporting women who are dealing with the violence of dispossession, as well as of rapes and murders perpetrated by state and company militia and security, there are lessons to be drawn from these evolving understandings and conversations. We need approaches that do not only focus on legislation but address the structural inequalities that exist in our society. We cannot talk about access to justice without addressing the multilayered, systemic injustices that exist in these communities. 

The women in communities where minerals are plundered daily are facing high levels of poverty, of which they bear the heaviest brunt. They need basic social amenities (safe water, access to medication in clinics, police stations etc.) that are equipped to serve, and schools that are close. 

As part of this more holistic conceptualisation of justice, there would also be a need for legislation and state and company adjudication processes. At the heart of realising this justice is understanding that these legislative processes exist within a predatory capitalist, extractivist system which “lets some die.”  We also must understand that this is a legal system set up to privilege multinational companies, the rich and the powerful.

We must find ways to help build the power of women in communities so that they can formulate visions of real justice for themselves that hold states and companies to account but also create space to heal, and build collective, women-centred and community-based avenues for support, solidarity and radical wellbeing.

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