Fadzayi Mahere is one of the few politicians standing up for the rights of the citizens of Zimbabwe, even if that means risking prison. She’s the latest addition to our new Limitless series on young African women who are changing the game in male-dominated areas.

Whether through her work as a lawyer doing civil, constitutional and matrimonial litigation, or in politics as the National Spokesperson of the main opposition, the MDC Alliance, Mahere stands out as a high-profile, professional Zimbabwean woman using her voice to make a difference.

But that means the 36-year-old Cambridge University graduate has not escaped the notice of Zimbabwe’s oppressive political apparatus. In the span of her political career, she has been arrested four times. Last year she was arrested for calling for an improved health care system and then following that arrest, she was sent to Chikurubi Maximum Security prison for retweeting a tweet advocating against police brutality.

“I’ve had four arrests – that was my worst one. [These prisons] are particularly bad for women. They have no water. You’re menstruating – there is no sanitary access. You’re stripped of your underwear and given a green dress with no bra. Our prison conditions are very cruel, inhuman and degrading,” Mahere says. She adds that this sort of treatment is designed to deter women from entering politics in Zimbabwe’s increasingly fraught system.

In spite of these efforts to deter her, Mahere soldiers on and her communications as opposition spokesperson draw attention for their clear articulation of MDC Alliance policies. Mahere however still finds people intent on ignoring her professional work, and focusing on her personal life as an unmarried woman in such a high-profile role.

I would urge women in politics to keep going

“There are a lot of gendered attacks against women in politics which is extremely disappointing. Sometimes I’ll do a press conference about the land issue, or policy. Then they ask you about whether you are married, or say ‘Your hair is so pretty’ and ‘You have so much time to criticise the government because you’re not married. If you were married a man would shut you up.’

“I’ve been at the game of politics for over five years,” she says. “But I would urge women in politics to keep going. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by these problematic things.”

Mahere relies on her strong network of other African women politicians for support. “I really have to acknowledge the amazing mentors I have. I will ring the former president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or the Mayor of Freetown, or politicians in Namibia and Zambia and we just continue to support and inspire each other.”

A lawyer by training, Mahere graduated from the University of Zimbabwe and received her Masters from Cambridge University. Shortly after she graduated in 2008, she began working as a prosecutor at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal For Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

On her return to Zimbabwe, she became increasingly dismayed by the continual decline in the standard of living of Zimbabweans under the four decades-long leadership of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF political party. “I grew up at a time when things were a lot more functional than they were now. My dad was a teacher and my mother was a nurse,” she says. “The conditions were such that they could have a very decent middle class life. They owned their home, they had a mortgage. It was not a top end life, but it was decent and very respectable.”

Everyone has a battle to fight. Life is a game of snakes and ladders

In 2018, she decided to venture into politics running as an independent candidate in her constituency of Mount Pleasant. “There just simply wasn’t any space for a politician like me: a young, middle-class, woman professional. I just wasn’t a common feature in the body politic at the time.” She lost and in 2019 joined the leading opposition party, the MDC Alliance after being urged to help make a difference at the national level.

Her motivations are simple, she says. “A general internal conviction that life can always be better than it is. I have a drive towards continual self improvement in my personal life, my work life, and for my community. What can we make better? How do I act to drive change in this regard? I come from a very Christian family. Life does not just start and end with you. Your decisions impact positively and negatively. Everyone has a battle to fight. Life is a game of snakes and ladders, sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down.”

Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid

Mahere compares her work at the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda with Zimbabwe’s own genocide in the early 1980s. “Both underwent the enormous trauma of genocide,” she says. “The key distinction is that Rwanda promptly set up institutions to address that trauma following that genocide to acknowledge what had taken place…We did not have that same level of accountability in Zimbabwe which has resulted in a huge hangover and trauma, especially in the Southern part of Zimbabwe that needs to be addressed. The echoes of it come up every now and again.”

As Zimbabwe begins to prepare for elections in 2023, Mahere along with party leader Nelson Chamisa, is at the forefront of an opposition that is perceived to be an underdog against incumbent party ZANU PF. The stakes for political control of Zimbabwe have never been more desperate for its citizens whose quality of life has reached rock-bottom. The next two years will require even more of Mahere’s strength of will. Fortunately, she is more than up for the challenge. “Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid,” she says. “You choose to stand up for what you believe in, and you choose to hold those principles.”

With thanks to Africa No Filter who made this series possible.