Soldiers patrol a highway from Harare to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe January 2019. Shaun Jusa/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.“A woman’s body is not considered hers and any man who wants it can have it”, said Thando Makubaza, a Zimbabwean women’s rights activist, responding to recent allegations of sexual violence against women by the army.
“Women are more than their bodies, they have feelings, brains and aspirations – but they are not taken seriously”, she told me.
Women’s bodies have been used as weapons of war since time immemorial — and the experience of women in Zimbabwe’s latest civil unrest is no different.
Protests erupted on 12 January when the government announced an immediate fuel price hike of more than 150% as an economic crisis spiralled out of control.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) labour organisation called for a “national shutdown” and strike. Protesters burned a police station, barricaded roads with large rocks, and looted shops in major towns in the country.
The government ordered an internet blackout to prevent protesters from mobilising, while security forces responded to demonstrations with live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas.
According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), armed soldiers and police started visiting citizens’ homes on the night of the 14 January, subjecting them to “indiscriminate and severe beatings”.
Women were hit hardest by price increases of basic commodities and also protested. Some were allegedly met with sexual violence by security forces — though this aspect of the crackdown on protesters has gone under-reported.
The problem, Makubaza told me, is that many fear reprisals. They fear reporting rapes to the very authorities that perpetrated the crimes in the first place.
She described previous cases where authorities weren't the perpetrators, but still “women who made efforts to report, ended up being reprimanded, accused of being dressed improperly, or their behaviour having prompted the abuse”.
Women were allegedly met with sexual violence by security forces — though this aspect of the crackdown on protesters has gone under-reported.
Women in Zimbabwe earn three times less than men, make up most of the informal economy and have higher unemployment rates.
They also control far less land. Under Zimbabwe’s programme to redistribute land to the landless black majority, only 18% of women acquired small-scale farms, while only 12% acquired larger farms for commercial use.
Sexual abuse is widespread. According to the Zimbabwe Statistical Office, between 2010 and 2016, there was an 81% increase in sexual violence with at least 22 people raped every day, and many not reporting such incidents.
Politician and medical doctor Ruth Labode described potentially lasting impacts of such abuse, which can include HIV infection and depression.
“This robs one of their future, worsens poverty as women were holding the fort under the current economic hardship where companies have been closing and their husbands not working”, she told me.
While human rights organisations and the journalists have documented several reports of army rapes amidst the recent protests, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) said only one case had been reported by a woman in Harare.
“We are still investigating the case and that one case is too many”, police commissioner Isabella Sergio told a press conference in Harare, speaking on behalf of the Victim Friendly Unit which handles such cases of abuse.
She added: “That’s why we are calling for women to come forward and report any sexual abuse they faced during the civil unrest”.
The home affairs ministry also acknowledged “reports of alleged rape, sexual abuse and assaults… perpetrated by security forces” but said “so far, the police has received one such report, and the case is already under investigation”.
A protester burns tires to block a road, Harare, Zimbabwe, January 2019. Shaun Jusa/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.In a recent statement, the NGO Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE), appealed for women who were sexually assaulted by authorities to seek medical treatment amidst high HIV rates in the country.
WALPE accused the government of “curtailing women's active and effective participation in politics and leadership” in their crackdown on protesters.
They called for the government “to guarantee justice for all the women affected by the ongoing clampdown by the military” and for “the arrest of soldiers and all security officers who committed torture, rape, murder, assault and robbery”.
The Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) also released a statement calling on the government to end the impunity and adhere to the constitution and the country's UN obligations.
Under section 246 of the constitution, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission has a mandate to investigate and take action against complaints of sexual violence.
A petition from the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) says it must “investigate the alleged reports of rape, sexual assault and violence perpetrated against women and girls during and after the government crackdowns”.
It calls on the commission to guarantee the safety of survivors and “ensure that the injustices committed against the victims are remedied”.
The information minister, WCoZ notes, “is on record saying that the government will leave no stone unturned in investigating these cases. However, to date, it would seem that not much has been done to bring the perpetrators to book”.
“To date, it would seem that not much has been done to bring the perpetrators to book”
The Musasa Project, a key support service for survivors of sexual violence in Zimbabwe, describes on their website how “retrogressive social norms that favour perpetrators” works to silence survivors from speaking out.
Musasa director Nettie Musanhu, recently tweeted: “Dear Comrade Muchinguri. We all celebrated your appointment as minister of defence. Our expectation was that women and girls would in our lifetime feel safe around the military”.
Makubaza said women in Zimbabwe must come together to fight for their rights and change their social and economic position. At the same time, progress requires real commitment from the government to promote equality.
The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, she said, should "engage communities and put in place mechanisms that enable women who were sexually abused to share their experiences and come forward”.
“In the case of the military personnel”, Makubaza continued, “we need to inculcate a culture of respect especially toward women and girls, targeting [them] during their military trainings to help and stop these acts”.
* This article is part of a series on women's rights and economic justice from 50.50 and AWID, featuring stories on the impacts of extractive industries and corporate power, and the importance of tax justice for the rights of women, trans and gender non-conforming people.