The UK’s decision to deny visas for two pioneering female anti-poaching rangers to attend an awards ceremony has been criticised by organisers.
Zimbabwean Nyaradzo Hoto risks her life every day to protect elephants from ivory poachers in an all-female anti-poaching unit.
She and a colleague were due to accept an award for the team on 3 November.
But Ms Hoto’s trip, her first outside Zimbabwe, was called off after visitor visa applications were rejected.
“I haven’t told my daughter yet. I don’t want to disappoint her, she was so proud of me,” the 26-year-old whispers down the phone.
“It would have been my first time on a plane. She said ‘I wish you good luck Mummy!'”
Zimbabwe International Women Awards (Ziwa) created the Founder’s Award specifically to honour the unit known as Akashinga, which means the brave ones in Shona.
In a rejection letter, the Home Office cited Ms Hoto’s and Petronella Chigumbura’s lack of financial assets and property, suggesting they were not genuine visitors and could try to remain in the UK.
Ms Hoto’s six-year-old daughter would not have joined her on the trip and the ranger says emphatically: “I wouldn’t flee Zimbabwe, I have to look after her.”
Like many Akashinga women, Ms Hoto is a domestic abuse survivor.
She says her daughter Tariro tells her how proud she is now that her mum protects wildlife.
“I’m someone from a tough background, so I’m working hard to fill in the potholes of my life,” the star ranger, who featured in a BBC short documentary, explains.
“I couldn’t understand the rejection, it’s not fair.”
Women’s war on poaching
Akashinga women are trained to be armed soldiers, patrolling and protecting an area in the Lower Zambezi Valley, an ecosystem which is home to some 11,000 elephants.
Since October 2017, Ms Hoto and her colleagues have made or contributed to 72 arrests without firing a single shot.
“We’re seeing increasing evidence that empowering women is one of the greatest forces of change in the world today,” says Damien Mander, the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation.
The Australian, a former soldier who hand-picked the Akashinga women, believes placing wildlife conservation in their hands not only empowers the rangers but improves their communities.
“Women in rural Africa are often the most oppressed demographic. They’re given the least amount of opportunity, it’s very hard for them to rise up and acquire property and status.”
The group of British women who founded Ziwa say they were gutted when Ms Hoto and Ms Chigumbura were denied their visas.
“The awards are there to change the narrative of African women,” Rhoda Molife, one of the founders of Ziwa and a former doctor in the UK’s National Health Service, told the BBC.
“Other Zimbabwean and South African nominees got their visas,” she added.
The organisation, which wrote letters supporting the rangers’ visa applications, believes their socio-economic background negatively affected the outcome.
“It’s only because of their circumstances that they are where they are, not because of what’s in them – their potential,” Dr Molife says.
The awards ceremony went ahead without Ms Hoto and Ms Chigumbura in Birmingham.
“I was looking forward to interacting with different women from different countries, to learn leadership skills,” Ms Hoto laments from her unit’s camp, more than six hours north of the capital, Harare.
“It would’ve been a beautiful event, and a great thing for our project.”
A Home Office spokesperson told the BBC that the women’s personal and financial circumstances were “considered on their individual merits”.
“The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that they satisfy the immigration rules,” the spokesperson added.