Last month, an article was published by network members, Dr Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda and Dr Rochelle Burgess, in the journal Critical Public Health. This newly published article follows the practice of the Nhanga, a cultural tradition which was customarily known as a women-only safe space. The authors explored how the Nhanga can be used as a form of quiet activism, with the ability to improve the health and wellbeing of women who take part in it.
For centuries, the Nhanga was traditionally used as an intergenerational space of women-mentorship in the Shona/Bantu culture. A space where girls could discuss various matters at the age of adulthood, from private topics including marital conduct, to broader topics of moral virtues. This women-only zone which translates to ‘girls’ room’ offers those who take part confidentiality and protection from anyone who may pose risk – even parents.
The paper explores the Nhanga as implemented by the Rozaria Memorial Trust (RMT), an NGO established by Nyaradzayi, which supports women and young girls in rural communities in Zimbabwe. RMT have regularly used this method over the last 6 years, to give women the opportunity to display and enact power not otherwise available to them. RMT implement the Nhanga in an attempt to change harmful social norms and practices, including child marriage to empower women, and facilitate counselling support. They argue that this way, these community conversations become spaces which promote health activism, including the promotion of good mental health. The authors highlighted the importance of emotional bonds to build bridges between opposed groups, at the local, national and global level – which is enabled during the Nhanga. For example, during the practice, young women are able to discuss their truth with women from older generations, and male policy leaders give power to young women, which further empowers them as they have their voices heard.
With the use of collaborative autoethnography, their analysis showed that each author’s individual account of engagement in the Nhanga questioned the process which encouraged real change in the lives of women. Their analysis indicated that the Nhanga is not only an innovative method, but it also has the potential to change the traditional institutional and relational power hierarchies, with the use of emotions, culture and storytelling - in spaces where these seldom exist.
This study highlighted how the Nhanga method is used as a safe space for activism of health-related topics at several levels of society. The authors suggested this method has the potential to be used locally, regionally and even globally while simultaneously disrupting the power hierarchy through the use of African cultural praxis. They described how the power hierarchy is broken down during the Nhanga, as the powerful actors in these events are able to learn and take the viewpoints and experiences during the conversations into consideration, to inform their future decision-making.
The social power of the Nhanga should not be overlooked. It is important to highlight how this method could be implemented to address intersecting challenges of mental health and child marriage. As the custom of child marriage often runs in families, it is important for young girls who are newly married – or soon to be married – to have safe spaces to discuss private matters such as health and wellbeing, without feeling exposed to any threat.
Furthermore, the Nhanga could be the perfect solution in terms of awareness. Particularly if young women are able to discuss their concerns and experiences with older women, or male leaders in the community, then perhaps the negative consequences of child marriage could be brought to light, and social norms could begin to shift for the better.
Gumbonzvanda, N., Gumbonzvanda, F. and Burgess, R., 2021. Decolonising the ‘safe space’ as an African innovation: the Nhanga as quiet activism to improve women’s health and wellbeing. Critical Public Health, pp.1-13.