THE Parliament of Zimbabwe has come under the spotlight over its failure to act on several reports of gender-based abuses mainly perpetrated against female legislators by their male counterparts within the precincts of the august House.
This comes at a time the country is joining the rest of the world in commemorating the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.
While most female MPs, particularly in the National Assembly have experienced snide remarks about their body shapes, or other unsavoury remarks from male MPs during debates in the house, the hardest hit female MPs have been Joanna Mamombe (Harare West MDC Alliance), Jasmine Toffa (Bulawayo Proportional Representation MP MDC Alliance) and recalled former MPs Lynette Karenyi (Mutare Proportional Representation MDC Alliance), and former MDC Alliance leader of the opposition Thabitha Khumalo.
Nkayi South MP Stars Mathe (Zanu PF) also recently experienced a sleazy remark from Settlement Chikwinya (Mbizo MP MDC Alliance) which resulted in her storming out of the house in tears; after she was heckled in the National Assembly and told that she was heard screaming in a hotel room at night.
Disturbingly, parliament has not taken action against the offenders, including Buhera South legislator Joseph Chinotimba, Tafanana Zhou of Mberengwa North, and Gutu West MP John Paradza who have been reported for verbal abuse after they referred to some female MPs as prostitutes, among other undesirable words.
Speaker of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda, who also chairs the Standing Rules and Orders Committee, which has power to enforce orderly conduct in parliament, told the Zimbabwe Independent in an interview this week that female MPs must report any cases of abuse to the police.
“We (parliament) advised the female MPs concerned to report the cases to the police because it is criminal. These are straight forward criminal cases and they must report to the police,” Mudenda said.
In most of the cases, the male MPs concerned get away with it after they are ordered to withdraw their hurtful remarks in the House, and they do so.
While some female MPs are also well-known for heckling, their remarks are rarely as stinging as those made by male MPs.
As a result, female MPs now feel that the best punishment to these notorious male MPs is for parliament to suspend an MP who perpetrates GBV on women for some time without pay.
Deputy Chairperson of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus Sibusisiwe Bhuda Masara said the issue of verbal abuse of women in parliament was getting worse.
“There are a lot of snide comments about female MPs’ bodily shapes, especially those that are voluptuously built. We are a lawmaking body but we are actually the ones violating laws. It is very embarrassing that when we went to the launch of the 16 Days [of Activism] against GBV, on the very same day in parliament, Mamombe was attacked by Chinotimba and told that she is mentally disturbed,” she said.
“These were painful words that were actually targeted at an MP who is experiencing issues of GBV outside of parliament and she continues to experience violation. If GBV abuse happens to female MPs in parliament, what more on the women in rural areas? The utterances said in parliament now resemble those said at beer halls,” she said.
One of the victims of GBV in parliament, Jesmaine Toffa, opened up on her experiences, which she says really hurt her.
“In parliament you get MPs that are male saying whatever they feel about you and your body shape. For me particularly, what hurts the most is that some male MPs created false and malicious rumours in parliament saying that I am having an affair with someone.
“Such false rumours and heckling from fellow male MPs makes me feel very uncomfortable. The intention will be to deter me from debating and to ensure that I lose my confidence. Luckily, my constituents know that I am not such a woman and I continue to debate despite the heckling,” Toffa said.
She said she has personally confronted the male MPs concerned to tell them outrightly that what they are doing is wrong. Toffa also feels that if parliament comes up with stringent sanctions for the male MPs concerned like suspension, it will deter them from abusing females.
“What hurts is that last year I made a report to the deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Tsitsi Gezi about the GBV abuse but the issue died a natural death,” Toffa said.
The verbal abuse on Toffa and Mamombe was perpetrated by Zanu PF MPs, Zhou and Paradza who often sit at the back in the National Assembly where they hide and shout obscenities at female MPs.
In the case of Chinotimba, on December 26, in 2018, he caused a melee in parliament during the 16 Days of Activism against GBV when he called Khumalo “a prostitute”, which caused her to storm out of the Chamber in anger.
The following day, Chinotimba and Khumalo buried the hatchet and they told the acting Speaker of the National Assembly William Mutomba that they had engaged over the matter.
“Mr. Speaker, we are currently observing the 16 Days against GBV and by burying the hatchet, I and Khumalo are trying to show people that we must say no to GBV in parliament and everywhere because it is bad,” Chinotimba said then in 2018.
But this year just on the first day of the 16 Days against GBV, Chinotimba repeated the same abuse on Mamombe when he taunted her for a medical condition she has.
All these GBV abuses in parliament happen despite that on November 24 this year, MPs discussed a motion on GBV which was moved by Masara and seconded by Makoni North MP, James Munetsi, which shows that some male MPs are against GBV.
Bhuda Masara said GBV includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, psychological abuse, threats, coercion and economic or educational deprivation, whether occurring in public or private life.
Msasa Project recently reported that during the Covid-19 lockdown period, GBV increased in the country by 70%. They also said between January and March 2020, 5 581 cases of GBV were reported to Msasa Project across the country.
The figure had risen to 10 849 in April and June, 6 189 in July and 3 685 in August. Parliament, therefore, plays a pivotal role in being exemplary and refraining from GBV on female and even male MPs.