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Women paying ultimate price

AS Zimbabwe gears for a referendum on the draft constitution prior to elections expected next year, politically-motivated violence against women is one of the country’s biggest challenges, but efforts to tackle the scourge have so far fallen dismally short of expectations.

Report by Wongai Zhangazha

Rape, murder, emotional, verbal, psychological and economic abuse, intimidation and harassment have largely become synonymous with Zimbabwean elections which have repeatedly been disputed over various charges, including gerrymandering, vote-buying, and ballot-rigging.

As Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating 16 days of activism against gender-based violence which started on November 24, there are indications very little progress has been made in tackling this problem, especially given the violent nature of the June 2008 presidential run-off which left thousands traumatised and scarred.
This year’s activism commemorations are being held under the theme “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence against Women!”

It is thus critical for the nation to deeply reflect on political violence in general and gender-based violence in particular to avoid a repeat of the 2008 violence against women as the make-or-break elections fast approach.

The theme’s exhortation to “challenge militarism” is relevant considering that a brutal and bloody campaign by the security sector in the run-up to the June 2008 presidential poll run-off is credited for President Robert Mugabe’s retention of power. The military has repeatedly publicly declared its support for Mugabe, stating it would not allow anyone without liberation war credentials to rule.

According to the Research and Advocacy Unit’s July 2011 report titled Women and Political Violence: An Update, Zimbabwean women often make up the bulk of participants at any rally or political event despite being marginalised in various spheres of life. The majority of women in the country live in the rural areas where Zanu PF maintains a stronghold and where women are coerced into voting for the party using food handouts, force and other means, the report says.

“Rural women are denied a voice and their counterparts like (Zanu PF secretary for women’s affairs Oppah) Muchinguri speak for them,” the report reads. “Choosing a women’s league meeting to announce decisions to hold elections is tantamount to instilling fear and influencing the way such women will vote. It is at another level an emotional violation of women’s right to peace and choice during elections.”

To compound matters, the Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration, established to promote political tolerance, has not made significant impact on the antagonistic relations among different political parties and members of the same communities. Zimbabweans remain deeply suspicious of each other and the political terrain is tense.

Political analyst, Gladys Hlatshwayo, said given the history of Zimbabwe’s electoral processes where much violence has occurred, women have been the most affected.

“Women ended up being raped and assaulted while their husbands fled the 2008 violence,” said Hlatshwayo.

She cited the abduction and murder of current Harare deputy mayor Emmanuel Chiroto’s wife, who was taken in place of her husband.

“It’s quite important for women and the nation at large to reflect on this kind of violence given there are no substantive reforms, especially security sector reforms, knowing that some of the perpetrators are from that sector. If nothing is done, there will be a repeat of the 2008 violence,” she warned.

Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development deputy minister Jessie Majome said Zimbabwe’s violent history was not a post-Independence phenomenon, but dated back to pre-liberation war days and warranted domestication of international and regional protocols and resolutions on the rights of women.

“Whenever violence is discussed, it is merely the statistics or the body count, but never the rape and other associated sexual crimes perpetrated against women,” she said.

“There is a stigmatisation of the victim especially in the case of rape, which renders the whole experience her deep, dark secret which is never told.”

Majome, who is Copac spokesperson, said she had met rape victims from the 2008 election in Mt Darwin in the course of conducting civic education on the constitution-making process, citing the case of a 70-year-old woman raped along with many other women. The women did not receive medical attention and no investigation was conducted.
Politically-motivated violence should be treated in similar manner to domestic violence and perpetrators should be brought to book, says political analyst Blessing Vava.

“There has been much focus on domestic violence, but the issue here is that violence against women should be condemned whether domestic or politically-motivated. The message should be that it’s a heinous practice and this is a challenge to all Zimbabweans to raise their voices against any form of violence targeting our mothers, wives and sisters,” said Vava.

As elections draw nearer, those commemorating the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence are likely to spare a thought for women who bear the scars of the last violent election, knowing fully well many could suffer similar ordeals.

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