UNTIL authorities decided it was rather niggling to enforce a law penalising a stranger for winking at a woman by classifying batting an eyelid as a form of sexual harassment, Zanzibari women appeared overly prot
The pesky law in religious communities raised controversy as to defining how the flutter of an eyelid should constitute an offence.
Women themselves found it embarrassing to take strangers to the community court and prefer charges that he had intentionally twitched his eyelid at them. And complainants had to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that it was not just an involuntary twitch but that the stranger rippled his eyelid intentionally for more than three seconds.
Such imprecise definitions seem to have crept into Zimbabwe’s new Domestic Violence Bill currently under discussion in parliament.
Women that paraded the streets a fortnight ago to protest Mabvuku-Tafara legislator, Timothy Mubawu’s utterances during debate on the Bill might have clapped their hands too early before they had all their ducks in a row.
The Bill has an ominous catch. A person that makes “any false statement in any application or affidavit made in terms of this Act, knowing such statement to be false or not believing it to be true, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or to both such fine and such imprisonment”.
The MP raised the protesters’ wrath with his biblical references to the highly controversial Bill that caught cultural revivalists, orthodox Christians and modernists alike in a flat spin.
Mubawu dared stand alone like Daniel in the lion’s den for saying that the Bill against domestic violence was diabolic.
“I stand here representing God, the Almighty. Women are not equal to men,” Mubawu told fellow legislators during debate.
“It is a dangerous Bill and let it be known in Zimbabwe that the right, privilege and status of men are gone. I stand here alone and say this Bill should not be passed in this House. It is diabolic.”
His supporters say the Bill could trigger matrimonial upheavals on a scale never seen before.
Domestic violence has for long been conceived primarily as a private family affair to be resolved silently within the walls of the home.
But women’s rights lobbyists seem to have triumphed in turning the age-old marital harmony on its head, according to critics.
Said Kadoma West MP Zacharia Ziyambi: “There are certain cultural values that shape every family which are likely to be at stake with this legislation and many families are going to break up.”
In terms of the Bill, domestic violence means “any unlawful act, omission or behaviour that results in death or the direct infliction of physical, sexual or mental injury to any complainant by a respondent”.
It includes such acts as physical abuse, sexual, emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, economic, intimidation, harassment and stalking.
When enacted the legislation will penalise perpetrators for abuse derived from any cultural or customary rites or practices that discriminate or degrade women.
These include a raft of transgressions such as forced virginity testing, female genital mutilation, pledging of women or girls for the purposes of appeasing spirits, abduction, child marriage, forced marriage, forced wife inheritance, sexual intercourse between fathers-in-law and newly married daughters-in-law.
Whereas the privacy of the home and the centrality attributed to intimate relations are valued, privacy and intimacy often provide the opportunity for violence and the justification for non-interference.
But Mubawu was not standing alone when he made the assertions that prompted women into pillorying him.
Chief George Chimombe, a representative of the chiefs in Manicaland, pointed out that the proposed Act was vague in relation to virginity tests.
The traditional chief, a cultural revivalist, argued in defence of virginity tests, saying the law was seeking to take the practice out of context, disregarding its advantages.
“Virginity testing is not conducted by just anyone,” he argued.
“There are selected elderly women in the villages who are responsible for that,” he added, citing an incident when the cultural norm helped expose cases of child abuse, resulting in the culprits being brought to heel.
It could take a lot to define some sections of the well-intentioned Bill such as “emotional, verbal and psychological abuse” which the Bill says mean a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct towards a complainant.
Women lobbyists, however, have hailed the Bill as long overdue.
“Women were crying for such a Bill and were getting disillusioned by the delays. We now have hope that government is showing concern about domestic violence,” Angela Makamure of the Federation of Media Women of Zimbabwe, said.
“Not everything in the Bill is rosy though. For instance the Bill is vague on sheltering for the victim of domestic violence,” she added.
“It might not appeal to economically challenged women whose husbands are the sole breadwinners because once convicted under the Act, the breadwinner could spend some time in jail, creating hardships for the family,” Makamure said.
“A husband coming from prison might be hardened by the punishment to the extent that he no longer loves his spouse. Either of the spouses could easily be ostracised by the relatives and the Bill is silent on the safety nets in such instances.”
She also said the Bill should have been taken on a roadshow to the rural areas before it was tabled to allow rural women to input into it.
But director of Women’s Action Group (WAG), Edna Masiyiwa, said this had been done.
She said it had taken too long for the Bill to come to parliament.
“We have worked for this type of Bill for the past six years since 2000. It is something that we have been wanting and we are glad it has finally come about. I hope it will be passed soon.”
Masiyiwa said in collaboration with Msasa Project, WAG had been running workshops in rural areas such as Guruve and Marondera to sensitise women about domestic violence.
“We will continue pushing for as many rural women as possible to know how the Bill protects them,” she said.
Enforcers will find it asocial to charge offenders for “the repeated exhibition of obsessive possessiveness or jealousy”, just as the Zanzibari women felt they were overly protected from legitimate courtship.
Seeing the vague definition, Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, on Tuesday, proposed to amend contentious sections that deal with jealousy, and unreasonable denial of conjugal rights.
“I am impressed by the debate over the Bill and praying that it sails through parliament,” a University of Zimbabwe media student, Cleopatra Ndlovu, said.
She said it was evident from the divisions between men and women parliamentarians over the Bill that some men had unfounded fears that the Bill was meant to penalise men only by disempowering them.
“The Bill penalises both and will foster harmony in the families.”
For communities that had invested all their faith in a harmless connivance allowing sexual intercourse between fathers-in-law and newly married daughters-in-law, and other such practices to guarantee continuation of a generation, the Bill could be diabolic.
The Bill seeks to punish spouses for unreasonable deprivation of economic or financial resources to which a complainant is entitled under the law or which the complainant requires out of necessity, including household necessities, medical expenses, school fees, mortgage bonds and rent payments, or similar expenses.
On economic abuse, spouses “shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level fourteen or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years or to both such fine and such imprisonment”.