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This paper focuses on providing a nuanced understanding of how COVID-19 lockdowns in Zimbabwe exacerbated the vulnerability of women human rights defenders (WHRDs). It utilises a desk research approach to narrate the lived experiences of WHRDs in a context where historically they have faced abuse, exclusion, and social and political stigma. COVID-19 evolved from a public health crisis to a sociopolitical and economic crisis that affected multiple groups. Government responses to COVID-19 exacerbated the ‘hostile environment’ specifically for WHRDs in different social and virtual spaces, and they had to grapple with the multi-dimensional crises of livelihoods, health, state repression, and everyday survival. Civil and political liberties came under severe attack in Zimbabwe after March 2020. The most apparent were the violations of the right to freedom of movement and the right to freedom of association (including the right to religion) through curtailment of population mobility as well as postponement of political and elections-related activities on 25 March 2020. In all these spaces WHRDs were targeted by government and their activities curtailed by the curfews imposed within communities. The soaring economic crisis and the effects of COVID-19 are intertwined with police brutality, abduction of political and media personalities including WHRDs, and harassment of press and silencing of WHRD voices. State-sponsored attacks against women have come in the form of beatings by the police and army, and arrests under the guise of enforcing COVID-19 restrictions. This paper also highlights the agency of WHRDs to continuously create spaces and ways to keep fighting for improved service delivery in the face of increased state repression, by confronting institutionalised impunity, risking jail to protect and promote civic and political rights, and challenging oppressive traditional practices.

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