Role of female fighters in the liberation war

Source: Role of female fighters in the liberation war | The Financial Gazette September 15, 2016

By Fay Chung
ZIMBABWE’S war against colonialism would not have succeeded without the critically important role played by female combatants.

The two political parties of ZANU and ZAPU, which fought a bitter and protracted guerilla war against Ian Smith’s racist regime from the two fronts of Mozambique and Zambia, began to realise the critical role women could play when the military struggle became central to the demand for majority rule in Zimbabwe. The role of women became much more critical when the two political parties decided to change their war strategy by allowing freedom fighters to live together with the people so as to ensure that the whole population was sufficiently conscientised as well as to get the general population to personally know the freedom fighters.  Through this strategy the people would come to understand the aims and objectives of the struggle for freedom and self-rule.


Women, being educators by nature, played a central role in the political conscientisation of the masses. Education and health were key areas for women’s participation in the liberation struggle.
Their sterling work, high moral, religious stature and their dedication played an important role in incorporating the country’s rural areas into supporting the liberation struggle. Without the support of the people the liberation struggle would have completely failed.
Military struggle
So it became essential for women to participate in the military as well, as it proved more advantageous and essential for liberation forces to succeed.
This was because the colonial-settler regime believed that freedom fighters were men, so they would arrest all men under the age of 50, but because they believed women could not play any role in a war, they ignored women.
That was how large numbers of women were incorporated into the liberation struggle in the 1970s, marking a turning point in the success of the war. Without the participation of the women, success would have been far more difficult.
In fact women proved to be the tipping point after society became very impressed by the courage and determination of the women freedom fighters living among them.
Communities then came to the conclusion that “if women can undertake such strenuous and dangerous work, and be prepared to suffer death, we should all support them”.
The recognition that women could play such a critical role in undertaking vital tasks was first recognised by the late Josiah Tongogara, the military supremo of ZANLA — ZANU’s military wing.
His training and experience in both China and Mozambique convinced him that the liberation struggle could not succeed without the participation of women. He actively supported having women at every level of leadership.
For example the late Sheiba Tavarwisa, a female combatant, was a member of the military High Command, and actively participated in all aspects of the liberation struggle, in particular the military, education and the rear camps in Mozambique.
There was only one woman in the high command, and that was Tavarwisa. As a member of the High Command she held a powerful position in deciding on the policies and strategies followed. A teacher and a woman’s rights activist, she was a much-respected and much-trusted leader.
One of the achievements that distinguished her was that she would not allow any women in any of the camps she headed to be sexually exploited when senior leaders, known as “chefs”, came to visit these camps. Most camp commanders would give in to the pressure from “chefs”.
A large number of women provided military leadership as general staff and as camp commanders. More than 20 women served as members of the general staff, who comprised the military leadership working directly under the High Command. Prominent general staff women leaders included Tichaona Freedom Nyamubaya, who trained hundreds of both male and female fighters; Sifikile Masocha, who was camp commander of Mavhudzi Refugee camp and school; Teurai Ropa Mujuru, who was a member of the ZANU Central Committee and served both as trainer and a camp commander; and Theresa Mbune, commander of Women’s North China camp re-named Nehanda camp. Many women served as detachment commanders, such as Obvious Beatrice Mahlunge.
Women as transporters of arms
One of the first tasks that women undertook was carrying arms from Zambia to Mozambique to enable the military offensive to begin and be maintained.
Their traditional roles as carriers of water and firewood prepared them for long journeys, mostly carried out at night, carrying heavy loads.
Amongst the first group of women who transported material from Chifombo in Zambia to the Zambezi River from 1973-1975 included  comrades Apronia, Tracy,  Catherine Garanewako, Mathonesa, Nyemwemererai, Serbia, and many others.
They carried all sorts of weapons, including hand grenades, landmines, Bazookas, LMG gun rifles.
They would take seven days from Chifombo Camp in Zambia to the Zambezi River and that was truly hard work. Mozambicans would then take over at the Zambezi River. They also carried their own food and water.
Each team was accompanied by a nurse, one of whom was Nyepudzayi Pasipanodya, who had to carry her medical kit as well. One challenge was that some of these women had not yet had the opportunity to receive military training in order to be able to defend themselves if necessary.
Another group went through Mozambique’s Manica province in 1975. These women risked their lives by entering into a war zone, especially so for the untrained participants. They accepted the risks with courage.
Women freedom fighters at war front
It was only in 1977 that a group of women, who were operating from Pfutseke Base in Manica, entered the war front after the Rhodesian forces attacked Chimoio Camp in Mozambique as well as other camps in Mozambique and Zambia.
This was a joint group of men and women comrades which included Sobusa Gula-Ndebele, Ziso, Josiah Tungamirai, Tonderai Nyika and Mupunzarima, Catherine Garanewako and Mationesa. The integration of women freedom fighters into the frontline then became commonly accepted.
Abuse of women and rape during the war
In order to avoid abuse of female combatants, ZANLA applied and strictly observed the rule of males not taking liberties with women as per “Nzira Dzemasoja”, the code of conduct for soldiers. Sexual abuse was covered under the verse: “Tisaite choupombwe muhondo ye Chimurenga” of the code of conduct. The verse said: “We must not engage in promiscuity while waging a revolutionary war.”  In fact the spiritual leaders, vana sekuru, who lived in every camp, specifically forbade illicit sexual activity during war. They warned that the ancestral spirits would punish with death all miscreants.
Combatants who wanted to date or to get married had to register with political commissars. This avoided double dating, cheating and conflicts amongst lovers.  Digression from these rules always met with severe disciplinary action.
Sexual promiscuity was seriously prohibited during war activities, especially exploiting the village girls who cooked food for the guerrillas.
In the war zones comrades who strayed by taking liberties with women were severely punished by their colleagues for exposing the struggle into disrepute with the people. However, despite these rules of war and dire warnings, some senior military leaders regarded sex and sexual exploitation as part of their “reward” for risking their lives at the front.
Sexual promiscuity and sexual exploitation were not generally rampant between ordinary male and female cadres, but was imposed on rear camps by visiting high ranking and powerful leaders.
Many camp commanders behaved as “pimps” who would provide suitable girls on demand.  Young girls, many of them teenagers, were forced to have sex with the top leaders in rear camps.
Women who were more prescient would go into hiding when senior leaders visited the camps. Since the camps were located in vast forests this was possible.
Educational opportunities 
More than a 100 cadres were sent for education and training either in African countries or overseas.
Women comprised a large number of these, especially for educational and health training.
For example some women enrolled at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo; a large number did teacher training in Denmark including Ropa Irene Mahamba; many went to university in Sierra Leone and other African countries which offered scholarships.
ZANU ran eight schools in Mozambique, providing education covering early childhood, primary, secondary and higher education. A total of 9 000 students, mostly children and youths, participated in these studies. However, literacy courses were also run for their parents.
Women who played an important role in education included the late Sheiba Tavarwisa; three general staff members, Mabel Mutasa, Kudzai and Sifikile Masocha.
Sifikile Masocha was also camp commander at Muvhudzi Refugee camp and school; Vimbisai Nhundu and Ropa Irene Mahamba worked as researchers, teacher trainers and writers.
This writer was in charge of teacher training, curriculum development and research. The department had over 600 trained teachers before independence in 1980.
Prominent women leaders and officials in the health department included Angeline Tongogara, Pamela Tungamirai, Gertrude Mutasa, Margaret Dongo, Evermore Haatsari, and Dignity Dzikiti.
Challenge of poorly educated freedom fighters
A brief study I carried out of the educational levels of recruits in 1978 in two military camps showed that half were illiterate and the other half had form two and above. A smaller number had “O” and “A” Levels, college and university qualifications.
There were some 30 000 cadres in Mozambique alone at the time.
The educational levels accurately reflected the neglect of education for Africans under the settler-colonial regime, where only a third of the age group managed to get some primary education, and this was mainly the boys, whereas fewer girls attended school; and only four percent of the population entered secondary education.
It also reflected the recruitment strategy of ZANLA and ZIPRA, the military wings of ZANU and ZAPU respectively. They would recruit village youths, many of whom were poorly educated; and secondary school students from schools near the border areas with Mozambique and Zambia.
After Independence in 1980 the government, in partnership with Swedish International Development Agency established a scholarship fund for war veterans and former refugees of about ZW$2 million a year, then equivalent to US$2 million.
This fund allowed some 10 000 war veterans and an even larger number of former refugees to obtain education in the first decade after Independence.
Most studied and trained at the nine Zimbabwe Foundation for Education and Production institutions that were established after independence to specifically cater for war veterans so that they could obtain education and job training.
The war veterans had left school, college and university very young to join the liberation struggle, and the aim was to support them to continue with their studies.
However, some freedom fighters, particularly amongst the less educated, were not keen on going back to school, and instead sought to integrate themselves within their communities without furthering their education.
A few of them obtained land under the first land resettlement programme (1980- 1985). However, few women obtained land.
They received little extension or inputs support, and many descended into rural pauperiastion.
Less educated cadres received traditional education, mainly through the traditional religious leaders, who ran their own religious and training institutions during and after the war.
These powerful leaders continued to have an important moral and educational influence over their followers, who may have not sought Western education.
Thousands of women war veterans who followed a Western type of education received further education after Independence.
Those who received teacher training during the liberation war were able to upgrade their qualifications at teachers’ colleges and universities after independence.
Those who were in the medical department were also able to upgrade their qualifications.
Today there are hundreds of women war veterans with university education, some with PhDs, such as Irene Ropa Mahamba who has a PhD from Harvard; Margaret Dongo who has a Master of Administration from Harvard; and Vimbisai Nhundu, who has a PhD in Education from a Canadian university.
These are only a handful of those who have managed to improve their education after Independence.
Fay Chung was a member of the Education Dept of ZANU in the 1970s.  She was in charge of teacher education, curriculum development and research in Chimoio and Matenje Teachers’ College in Tete, Mozambique.


  • comment-avatar
    Mukanya 7 years ago

    You can waffle around upon their immense contribution during the war, but the truth cannot be erased/escaped………….They were the sexual snacks to the “CHEFs” and this is fact.

    • comment-avatar
      bhekumuz' 2 years ago

      very true. we have grand mothers and mothers who give us undiluted events of the times. women were greatly sexually abused by male fighters. fact.

  • comment-avatar

    How can a man survive without a fleshy snack l may say

  • comment-avatar
    Punungwe 2 years ago

    “Working directly under the High Command.” Many a true word written in error.