“DEAR President (Robert) Mugabe. I write this letter to you at a time when my whole body is in pain after being mercilessly brutalised by riot police yesterday (February 25 2017),” wrote women’s rights activist Linda Masarira after she was assaulted by police for staging a protest demanding the resolution of a stand-off between government and medical staff over salaries.
Masarira is no stranger to police brutality in a country where repression is used systematically to crush dissent. Several lives were lost due to the impasse between government and public health workers. For expressing her outrage, she suffered injuries.
Masarira and several other activists were protesting the poor state of the public health system, while the president was enjoying a birthday party, which is estimated to have cost US$2,5 million. The activists were assaulted before they were arrested and taken to Harare Central Police Station.
At the height of massive pro-democracy protests that rode on the mobilising power of social media last year, 62-year-old Lillian Chinyerere Mashumba of Chitungwiza, became the face of police brutality when cops brutalised her at the entrance of Harare’s Rotten Row courthouse for participating in a demonstration organised by anti-government movements in August last year.
Pictures of her kneeling and raising her hands in surrender as the police officers assaulted her with baton sticks have gone viral. An officer with a teargas grenade gun in his left hand brutally kicked the elderly woman as she lay on the concrete in pain.
The list of women, especially in the opposition and civil society, who have been brutalised by state security agents demanding solutions to a number of challenges facing Zimbabweans, is endless.
The Counselling Services Unit (CSU), a non-profit organisation which provides medical and psychological care to victims of organised violence, says from January 1 2016 to December 31 2016, it treated 214 new cases of women who sustained injuries after being assaulted by the police during various protests that happened in the country since July last year.
Since 2000, the CSU has attended to 481 women.
As the world celebrated International Women’s Day on Wednesday this week, under the theme “Be Bold for Change”, women in the opposition and those who have generally stood up against brutality, misgovernance and impunity, have fallen victim to arbitrary arrest, as well as physical and psychological torture, yet none of the perpetrators have been arrested.
As the country braces for harmonised elections next year, it is highly likely that women, especially in rural areas, will bear the brunt of the state machinery.
They are subjected to torture, beatings, rape, disappearance and displacement, yet very little is done to protect the women.
Although Zimbabwe is signatory to the Southern African Development Community Gender and Development Protocol, the Zanu PF government has not respected its commitment to the enforcement of the protocol.
According to the United Nations, International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.
According to the Institute for Public Affairs in Zimbabwe (Ipaz) special report on Women’s Day published this week, women in Zimbabwe are highly exposed to violence in both the private and public spaces. Women, the report further states, are more likely to be in abject poverty than their male counterparts — what has been called the “feminisation of poverty”.
“Women in the rural areas are most likely more vulnerable as their cases are more likely not reported and some are denied access to drought relief handouts. Innocent women have been widowed as a result of brutal killings of their husbands (Tonderai Ndira, Kauzani and Gift Tandare) and ultimately forced to become breadwinners and single-handedly raise their children,” wrote Janet Munakamwe in the Ipaz report.
“To worsen matters, the ruling elite are unrepentant and have the guts to tell their victims how to behave in a civilised and patriotic manner. All these atrocities are against the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1325 which denounces violence against women and children. The resolution emphasises the need to implement fully international human rights law that protects the rights of women and girls during and after conflict.”
Munakamwe said Zimbabwean women who opted to migrate in search of better economic opportunities or were exiled in countries like South Africa are haunted by yet another ghost of violence in the form of xenophobia.
Zimbabwe Peace Project director Jestina Mukoko expressed concern over violence against women and girls in the public sphere.
“My biggest concern is violence against women and girls in the public sphere which also includes political spaces. I don’t think a lot is being done in this regard as political issues are considered too risky by most. I am thinking of how a young girl was abducted and detained for several hours in Norton simply because her mother had claimed her constitutional right to freedom of association,” Mukoko said in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent recently.
“Political parties need to take steps to sanction their members if they are involved in activities that endanger the lives of citizens, but in this instance in particular, where the lives of women and girls is affected. What is also sad is that while women and girls might not be direct victims of political violence, they are indirect victims, who eventually have to become nurse to their fathers, husbands, brothers, etc. Unless violence against women is dealt with on the political front, we will continue to decry the minimal participation of women in decision making positions.”