by Abigail Wendle
- USA -
According to the Zimbabwe Rape Survivors Association, during last year’s highly contested presidential election an estimated 2,000 women and girls were the targets of politically-motivated sexual violence in Zimbabwe. State-sanctioned groups under President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party, ZANU PF, beat and raped women for participating in the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and though men were also beaten, women were specifically targeted because they were easier to physically dominate. The violence, which occurred before international election observers arrived in Zimbabwe, was used to intimidate voters opposed to Mugabe’s re-election. According to Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament, voter turn-out for the 2008 run-off was subsequently “very, very low.”
Today Zimbabwe is at another crossroads. Despite South African Development Community (SADC) intervention, mediated talks between ZANU PF and the MDC are at a sticking point. The unity government’s Global Political Agreement remains only partially implemented and with certain details of the power-sharing agreement in dispute, political tensions are once again rising.
The reverberations of last year’s violence are still being felt by many women in Zimbabwe. Some went to the police seeking justice, only to be told it was a political issue and out of the local jurisdiction. Other women remained silent because sexual abuse carries such a powerful stigma in Zimbabwe. If a woman speaks out, she is invariably subject to questions about her sexual history and accused of promiscuity. Many are traumatized twice: first by the abuse and again when society blames them for it.
Kudakwashe Chitsike, a Zimbabwean lawyer and human rights worker for the NGO Research Advocacy Unit (RAU), is helping these women find their voices. Chitsike co-produced a video called “Hear Us” with the global human rights organization WITNESS in which four women testify to being victims of this violence. Founded by the musician and activist Peter Gabriel 17 years ago, WITNESS trains groups like RAU to create videos that document human rights violations for use in their advocacy and awareness campaigns. The videos also serve as evidence in investigations by international courts into human rights violations.
Last month, Chitsike spoke about her video and the politically motivated violence against women at a panel discussion in New York City hosted by WITNESS. Afterwards, she sat down with me for an interview to talk about what it will take for her country to heal.
“When we talk about gender based violence, it’s not just for women. It’s not just a woman’s problem, it’s a societal problem,” she told me. And part of the problem with this violence, she says, is Zimbabwe’s courts.
“The legal system in Zimbabwe is biased towards men, like in most legal systems in the world,” she says. Chitsike believes legal discrimination against Zimbabwe’s women creates a culture of impunity and contributes to the political violence that sustains the country’s humanitarian crises.
“Once a woman has suffered violence, you have to look at how the violence effects the rest of her family, her children. A woman is responsible for the domestic aspect of her home. If she is incarcerated, nobody is there to cook at home, to look after the children, to make sure they go to school in the morning.”
Though Zimbabwe’s Age of Majority Act was created to ensure that men and women are treated equally when they turn 18, women still lag behind men in education and have fewer employment opportunities. They are unable to get a passport without adopting the surname of their husband and cannot get a birth certificate for their child without the father present. Women also don’t have legal property rights. “Even though the inheritance law says it’s the eldest child, it’s the eldest male. And the constitution says that’s okay,” Chitsike says.
It’s because of these cultural mores that her work with RAU focuses on women’s testimonies. Chitsike believes the act of speaking out empowers women, which is just the kind of change she says Zimbabwe needs.
By partnering with WITNESS, RAU has gained invaluable, though inexpensive, video technology and training to bring Zimbabwe’s story to the rest of the world. WITNESS sees awareness as an integral step in ending human rights abuses, but its primary objective is to reach key government officials who have the power to create tangible policy changes. “Our priority audience is people who can make a difference on the ground. Everything else is secondary,” says outreach manager Suvasini Patel.
Chitsike’s subjects demonstrate the power of her video’s medium: ”Hear Us” gives women like Memory and Abigail the ability to testify to the world since they cannot do so in Zimbabwe’s courts.
“They took me to a base where they torture people,” says Memory into the camera. “They had me remove my clothes. What hurt me was that there were mostly women [being abused in the camps]. There were few men.” At some point during the three times she was raped, Memory contracted HIV.
Abigail, who was pregnant at the time of the beatings, had a miscarriage as a result. “I am deeply pained and traumatized because that is the only child I was going to have,” she says.
The two other women in ”Hear Us” are sisters. They chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Though their faces are blurred, their voices are clear.
Before the runoff election in 2008, the women answered a knock at their door. “There were more than 30 people, all men,” says one. The second woman explains what happened to her after she tried to stop the men from beating her sister. “They took a knife and slashed an X on my back, and they said, ‘This is your vote, you’ve already voted.’”
While the video raises women’s awareness about their right to "be happy, have peace, vote and survive," it also inspires women to advocate for themselves. After an NGO conference screening of the video, one woman in the audience stood up and said that she was a victim of similar abuse.
This is exactly the kind of impact both Chitsike and WITNESS want her video to have. She hopes her work documenting the stories of violence against women will eventually result in the creation of a court in Zimbabwe to try cases of politically motivated sexual abuse. If an impartial court cannot be established in her country, then Chitsike would like to see the cases tried somewhere in Africa, perhaps at the SADC tribunal. She thinks it is important to hold the trials in Africa because many Africans believe that the continent needs to solve its own problems. Many also believe that Mugabe is more likely to cooperate with an African court. Chitsike says such a court would be a sign that Zimbabwe is creating lasting change for women, change that has the integrity of coming from within.
RAU is currently pushing to meet with Zimbabwean officials on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, to gain political support for its campaign. And WITNESS is in the process of prioritizing violations of women’s rights as a core issue in their advocacy work.
“People talk about political violence in Zimbabwe,” explains Patel, “but not specifically against women. Women’s rights and issues are often secondary priorities, if not less. Video is a way to recognize that their lives mater, their stories matter and their stories can make a difference.”
About the Author
Abigail Wendle is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has written for the culture and arts sections of Scallywagandvagabond.com and PopMatters.com, been a contributing radio reporter for the Community News Production Institute, and an intern for the independent film, Sun Come Up. She has a BA in Liberal Studies from Flagler College, studied Islamic Politics at Khazar University in Azerbaijan and is working towards her masters degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her most recent work in print, radio and video is at zoomNyc.