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Zimbabwe strengthens rape legislation, improves reporting process for victims

Global Press Institute - Mon, 23 Jan 2012 10:33 GMT
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Reporting Rape: Part Five in a Global Series - Global Press Institute BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE - Dorcas Mbvuto, 32, was raped by a spiritual leader in her church in April 2010 on the outskirts of Queens Park West, a Bulawayo suburb. Three months later, the quiet woman was shocked when she discovered that she was pregnant with his baby, says one of her sisters, who declined to be named. Mbvuto is a member of the African Apostolic Church, commonly known in Zimbabwe as "Mapositori," which means "apostles" in the local Shona language. One day, she requested a prayer from her church prophet, a spiritual leader believed to possess the powers to heal the sick and break evil charms and spirits. He told the tall and slim Mbvuto to come to the shrine late in the evening for the prayer. During the prayer session, the prophet ordered her to take off her clothes so that he could cleanse her of the "evil spirits" that he had divined were the source of her problems, her sister says. The prophet then raped her. Persistent efforts by her older sisters to force her to reveal the man responsible for her pregnancy were in vain. Suspicious, they started to investigate the case. They eventually discovered what had happened and confronted Mbvuto, but she begged them not to take any action against the prophet. He had threatened her that he would cast evil spirits on her if she reported the case to the police. "We were always suspicious of the goings-on in this church," her sister says. "Their shrines are normally located in the bush, and spiritualists from the church conduct prayer sessions with women during the night when there are no other church members. We now know why." Mbvuto now has a 1-year-old daughter. Without a steady job, she sustains herself and her daughter by working as a floor polish vendor in the high-density suburbs of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. She spends most of her time trudging from door to door with a heavy basket of floor polish tins for sale and her baby tied to her back with a worn-out bath towel. Her torn and dirty clothes bear testament to the misfortunes that have befallen her. Like Mbvuto, the majority of rape victims know their perpetrators. Advocates say Zimbabwe has created various laws under which victims can report rape. The government, police and nongovernmental organizations have also collaborated to establish the Victim Friendly System in order to provide specialized services for victims of sexual violence. Still, many say the issue has to be approached from a cultural perspective to combat underreporting and make care and justice accessible to all victims. There is no national data on the incidence and prevalence of sexual violence, but there is emerging evidence that violence of all types is a significant problem here, according to a joint report by the Zimbabwe government, UNICEF and Save the Children, an international charity. One in four women ages 15 to 49 surveyed in Zimbabwe's most recently available Demographic and Health Survey in 2005-2006 reported having experienced sexual violence. Results from the 2010-2011 survey are still pending. Mbvuto's sister says that Mbvuto may not be the only woman who has been raped under the guise of cleansing ceremonies. Around the time of the incident, Godfrey Nzira, one of the Apostolic Church leaders in Chitungwiza, a residential town for people who work in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, was released from prison. He had been convicted of raping women in his church and sentenced to 27 years. The president pardoned him because of ill health, and he has since died. From church leaders to family members, many rape victims know their perpetrators. One father in Queens Park repeatedly raped his 7-year-old daughter for close to a year, says their neighbor, who requested not to be named. Some neighbors became suspicious when they noticed a change in the young girl's behavior. The girl, who had once been cheerful and spent most of her time in the streets playing with other children, suddenly became withdrawn. The mother was aware of what was happening but tried to cover up her husband's conduct. So the neighbor reported the incident to Childline, a local nongovernmental organization that helps children who are abused. The organization reported the case to the police, who arrested the father and charged him with rape under section 65 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. The case is still pending. After relentless lobbying by civic society groups in Zimbabwe, the government has adopted in recent years a number of policies and laws to protect women from sexual abuse. Gerald Matiba, 34, serves as executive director of Christian Legal Society of Zimbabwe, a grassroots network, ministry and association of Christian legal professionals. He says laws such as the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act have gone a long way to protect women from abuse. According to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, "If a male person knowingly has sexual intercourse or anal sexual intercourse with a female person and, at the time of the intercourse, the female person has not consented to it and he knows that she has not consented to it or realises that there is a real risk or possibility that she may not have consented to it, he shall be guilty of rape and liable to imprisonment for life or any shorter period." Sikhathele Matambo, director of Emthonjeni Women's Forum, a nongovernmental organization that advocates against domestic violence in Zimbabwe, says that rape victims can also seek protection under the Domestic Violence Act. The act defines domestic violence as "any unlawful act, omission or behaviour which results in death or the direct infliction of physical, sexual or mental injury to any complainant by a respondent." The act requires each police station to have at least one officer with expertise on this issue. It also establishes an Anti-Domestic Violence Council to review domestic violence in Zimbabwe, disseminate information to raise awareness about it, promote research about it, and monitor the application and enforcement of the act and other laws relevant to domestic violence. Victor Ruombwa, the center director of the Legal Resources Foundation, a civil society organization that offers free legal assistance, says the laws in Zimbabwe have significantly improved to bring justice to rape survivors. "Today, a magistrate can deny bail to perpetrators of rape to ensure the safety of the rape survivor, whereas previously they would have required the consent of the attorney general to do so," Ruombwa says. "The courts now place a lot of emphasis on the protection of the complainant." Ruombwa, whose organization took part in the formulation of the Domestic Violence Act, says that previously the courts took serious note of the failure to make a spontaneous report by the complainant. But now, there is a realization that the complainant may fail to make a spontaneous report because of the traumatic nature of the experience. The Legal Resources Foundation also provides free education to communities on rape. Information includes how to preserve evidence of rape, such as underwear and semen. The foundation encourages community members to report rape incidents early so that evidence can be quickly collected and preserved for the courts. Matambo says that in addition to adequate laws, the country also has policies to provide holistic support to survivors who report incidents of rape. "The country has done a lot in terms of coming up with mechanisms that protect women and also assist victims of abuse," she says. Government ministries, the Zimbabwe Republic Police and various nongovernmental organizations collaborated to develop the Protocol on the Multisectoral Management of Sexual Abuse in Zimbabwe in 2003. The protocol articulates the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in the Victim Friendly System in order to provide psychosocial, medical, legal and referral services to victims of sexual abuse, Matambo says. The Victim Friendly System includes Victim Friendly Police Units, Victim Friendly Courts, Victim Friendly Health Services, the Department of Social Welfare and the Victim Friendly Referral System, according to the joint report by the government, UNCIEF and Save the Children. Police officers in the Victim Friendly Police Units are trained to handle all cases seriously, obtain forensic reports, help victims get medical care and explain the judicial process to them. Matambo says that the Zimbabwe Republic Police also deploys women officers to collect the reports of women victims of rape so they don't have to reveal intimate details of the rape to male police officers. The Victim Friendly Courts have a separate room for victims to testify away from the perpetrator. Prosecutors, probation officers and magistrates are trained to treat victims sensitively, handle cases quickly, and refer victims to post-trial support services. Victim Friendly Health Services are available at primary health care clinics and district hospitals. They offer immediate and long-term psychosocial support and health care. Nurses and doctors can collect evidence for criminal investigations and prepare medical affidavits. The Department of Social Welfare offers safe shelter to survivors before and after the case is heard in court and counseling to the victims and their families. In the Victim Friendly Referral System, regional subcommittees at all regional magistrates' courts hold multisectoral meetings to discuss violence against women. The referral system also includes civic groups such as Emthonjeni Women's Forum and Musasa Project. Emthonjeni Women's Forum operates in Umguza district, a rural area in Matabeleland North province, located to the north of Bulawayo Metripolitan province. The courts refer some rape victims to the organization for pre- and post-trial counseling. Tariro Tandi, a program officer for Musasa Project, says the nongovernmental organization provides psychosocial support and temporary shelter to those whose living situation is dangerous or unhealthy, for example, if a rape victim is living with the perpetrator. The organization refers victims who are extremely traumatized to the Adult Rape Clinic in Harare and Doctors Without Borders. Matiba says the country has an elaborate legal framework to help rape victims, but there is a need to approach the problem from a cultural perspective. "The social, political and economic and cultural status of women in the country exposes them to rape," he says. "Some men, particularly those in the rural areas who are not educated, still think they can have sex with their wives or partners at any time without their consent. Such cases may not even be reported because the perpetrator is usually the breadwinner." Matiba also says that there are a lot of unreported cases of rape within churches as some leaders take advantage of their positions in order to rape women. "Churches such as the African Apostolic sects have rituals and practices that expose women to be raped," Matiba says. "A church leader may ask a woman within the church to go for prayers in the bush at night, and this is where some women may be raped." Matiba also says that women in the rural areas who are raped often do not report the cases because of the culture of silence in rural communities. Many victims fear that if they report the incident, the case will become common knowledge in the community and they may be stigmatized. Tandi says that although the system of reporting rape has improved, the judicial service delivery system needs to be strengthened. "Rape cases still take a very long time before they are decided, and this haunts a survivor who is trying to heal from the pain and yet at the same time has to keep remembering the act vividly for the purposes of administering evidence in court," Tandi says. Tandi adds that the process of administering evidence in court is at times embarrassing to some women who, as they relate their accounts, become like pornography vignettes with the eyes of the whole audience and the presiding magistrate glued on the survivor. Matambo says that in rural areas, many women don't even have the chance to tell their stories. "There are a lot of challenges, which make it difficult for some women who have been abused to obtain justice," she says. "In rural areas, police stations are located 10 to 20 kilometers from some villages. Women in such areas may experience abuse but fail to report because police stations are too far." Mbvuto never reported the rape to the police. But authorities and advocates say they hope that with more awareness of the sensitive services available through the Victim Friendly System that more victims will begin to come forward.

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