Rape, Zimbabwe’s silent political weapon
A mother of three, Kasirori lives in fear that her husband will discover her third child, a son, is not his.
“My son is a result of rape. I don’t know his father, because I was raped by four men in one night,” she said tearfully.
As she spoke, a helper from the Musasa Project, a Zimbabwe-based organisation helping victims of gender based violence, tried to console her.
they came after me, tied both my hands and said ‘before we deal with you, we must rape you’
“My husband does not know. I can’t tell him about it. I am sure he will kick me out of the house,” she said.
According to the Musasa project, Headlands – the area from which Kasirori hailed, located in the east of Zimbabwe, was the political battle field which left many women scarred in similar emotional and physical ways.
Often, rape is systemically used to target male political activists through their wives.
A majority of men who had their wives raped in politically motivated circumstances usually divorce them once they get to know of it.
Their decisions are motivated by societal reactions to the rape incident where the woman is usually accused of having invited the act on herself.
In very few and rare cases do a man stand by his wife.
An example is that of a Member of Parliament for a Harare suburb who still lives with his wife despite her being raped in politically motivated circumstances and having the case publicised widely.
The women are usually left to struggle on their own.
A political weapon
Rape as a weapon is part and parcel of an embedded socio-cultural attitudes towards women – characterised by “roora” or bridewealth, an inherently patriarchal practise where women are framed as property or conduits of male wealth.
This is when a man pays cash or livestock to the woman’s family to enable him to get her hand in marriage. By so doing the woman will be expected to submit to the man.
This lives women especially vulnerable in countries where violent political tensions and poverty doubly marginalise citizens.
“Rape has been used widely as political weapon. Its the reason why most women shy away from participating in politics.
“They chose not to be active because once they are inside they will be subjected to all kinds of sexual abuse in order to get support to go high up the ranks of politics in Zimbabwe.
“Either way participating actively or not women remain at the risk because they are used as weapons in a power game between competing parties and forced sex is usually the favorite pawn used,” argues Talent Jumo, Coordinator at Katswe Sisterhood, a movement of dynamic young women fighting for the full attainment of sexual and reproductive rights by women in Zimbabwe.
A July 2012 report by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) confirmed that security of women during elections remained the biggest gendered concern.
But as a political weapon, rape is used more conspicuously to ‘correct’ and ‘discipline’ female political activists, particularly those connected to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), one half of Zimbabwe’s ‘unity’ government.
As for Elina Chikwati*, a member of the MDC, any mention of the 2008 elections sees her recoiling with horror.
“In 2008 they came after me, tied both my hands and said ‘before we deal with you, we must rape you,'” Chikwati said.
Asked if she still participates in politics given the dangers she said, , “Its difficult to do it openly, especially when you are a women. There is no worse thing than being raped.”
She explained that if a woman reports a rape “society says you did something to invite the act”.
“I still participate but no longer take a leading role,” said Chikwati.
The story of rape, the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) found, was altogether too common.
About 20 kilometres from Headlands centre is Macheke, a lush farming settlement, where hundreds of small scale farmers were allocated pieces of land at farms previously owned by white commercial farmers who previously dominated the landscape.
The place is home to another rape survivor, a female political activist. Hers is a harrowing story of gang rape.
“They came for me at night […] I was taken away by five men who took me to a place where they camped during elections. I was raped by several men. I cannot remember all of what happened.”
The physical consequences were severe, and as was witnessed by FAIR, the survivor had trouble with severe incontinence.
Unlike Kasirori, her husband divorced her.
“My husband could not understand that it wasn’t my fault. He left me and I have to look after myself and my child from the rape. I am only managing through the help of helpers.” she said tearfully.
Another rape survivor, MDC member Tarisai Majange says she was raped because of her political beliefs.
“I was taken away at night while attending my father’s funeral by people I didn’t know,” she said.
“I was taken to a place I couldn’t recognise, assaulted and raped by two men,” she said, before breaking down in tears.
“I could hear other people screaming nearby. I was helped by a kind female security guard to get out.”
Old weapon, new targets
The spectre of sexual violence as a form of punishment is not a new phenomenon in Zimbabwe but a continuation of old tactics used during the liberation struggle.
73 year-old Shanyisiwe Khumalo*saw the worst of the political disturbances in Matebeleland during the early days of independence, as colonialism came to a wrap.
Rhodesia’s (Zimbabwe’s pre-independence name) army, under minority white rule, was sent into the region hunting for suspected liberation dissidents.
According to Khumalo, who currently lives in a shelter in Harare where she receives treatment for cancer and HIV: “There were soldiers in our rural area who beat us up.
“After we were beaten, we would be raped several times,” she said, adding that systemic gang rape happened “repeatedly”.
“We could not report it because we were threatened with death if we did so,” she said. “My daughter and I were raped together during the dissident era by the freedom fighters who did not demobilise.”
According to Oppah Muchinguri, a former freedom fighter and current chairperson of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF women’s league, rape is not new.
“Even in the war of liberation they were there – a weapon used to weaken women.”
These days, those using the weapon are politically untouchable, and rapes deemed ‘political’ cases by police are difficult to prosecute.
“Cases are ignored if they involve political players,” said Netty Musanhu, Director of Musasa Project.
“Women do not end up reporting because they know that nothing will be done.” Too much disclosure about the rapists, she said, could be used against the rape victims later if police failed to deal with the situation.
“They cannot say I was raped by so and so because we don’t know what will happen to them. That is why we don’t say people’s names. We just want policy makers to know what women are going through and get them to start doing something about this problem,” Musanhu said.
“If they [police] can’t protect us during elections from rape then the elections must not be held. It is a traumatising experience and if there is no protection there should be no elections,” another rape victim warned.
Cause and Effect
Studies reveal the dire state of female bodies as the canvas of violence.
The 2011 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey states that one in every four women suffers sexual violence, while one in three women aged 15 to 49 years has experienced physical violence since the age of 15.
It comes with a price tag too: one 2009 study by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) revealed that violence against women when aggregated in economic terms cost Zimbabwe $2 billion dollars – factoring in their ability to participate as citizens in order to add their voices, perspectives and views to determining the country’s political, economic and social direction.
The United Nations cites the under-representation of women in politics as one reason why they are facing violence.
The presence of women in parliament remains far below the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) target of 50 percent. Currently, the figure currently stands at 18.5 percent according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) .
But others claim a culture of domination, extending to ‘rape’, underpins Zimbabwe’s gendered relations – encompassing the broad spectrum of social relations.
“How do we prevent sexual violence in politics when it is used as a political weapon? There are crazy people who are prescribing rape…[to] get rich you should rape a new born baby or a small child?” questioned Olivia Muchena, Minister of Women’s Affairs and Community development.
Still others point to the justice system.
Roselyn Hanzi, from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said the country’s justice delivery system must become receptive or ‘friendly’ to victims to facilitate confidence.
“When it comes to reporting, of concern to victims is the question of what evidence to keep. Who to tell when it comes to going to court,” she said. “A rape case – whether political must be held in camera”.
But Minister of Home Affairs, Theresa Makone, under which the police falls, says those rape victims who do not report such cases are their own worst enemies.
“Remaining quite is the worst thing you can do to yourself. If the police refuse to arrest their peers then come to me straight,” she said.
Political Rapes Should Not Be Politicised
Nonetheless, the outlook, claim proponents, is not all gloom and doom.
Two rapists were recently sentenced to 90, and 11 years, in jail respectively. Their cases were prosecuted by a female prosecutor.
“At the Attorney General’s (AG) office, our duty is to prosecute without fear or favour. I am proud to tell you that I personally sent someone to 90 years in prison for rape,” said an official from the AG’s office.
But the framing of rape as a political instrument is denied by ZANU, President Robert Mugabe’s political party.
Patrick Chinamasa, the Zimbabwean Minister of Justice, believes the issues of sexual violence against women is a pure human rights issue which is unnecessarily being politicised.
“Depoliticise human rights issues,” he said. “Don’t bring politics into it otherwise you spoil the fight for women’s rights.
“We have done a lot in trying to deal with issues of violations against women’s rights since 1980. The state has provided the legal aid directory to help those that can’t pay to access…. Women should use these facilities to access justice,” said Chinamasa.
*All names have been changed.
Stanley Kwenda, is a Zimbabwean journalist. He is member of FAIR – Forum for African Investigative Reporters, a pan-African organisation of investigative journalists.