Political Rape Survivors Come Forward in Advance of 2011 Election

In Zimbabwe, women who campaign for the opposition party are being raped. More than 2,000 women reported being attacked in the run up to the 2008 election here. Now, as a new election approaches, women are speaking out and participating in a new video project to bring awareness to the issue of political rape.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE – Tendai Gomo, 34, was a youth leader and a polling agent for the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, one of Zimbabwe’s leading political opposition parties in 2008. Gomo was knowledgeable about social issues in Zimbabwe and about the polling process. What she did not know is that political rape was fast becoming a tool of the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, ZANU-PF.

One day, as Gomo walked down a familiar road, she says a red Peugeot 404 with tinted windows pulled up beside her. A man jumped out and grabbed her. She was forced into the backseat and blindfolded. She was accused of supporting opposition politics. They drove the car to a rural area and the men took turns raping her. They forced beer bottles into her vagina. They bit her and hit her until she passed out.

“I tried to resist them,” Gomo says. “Then one of the men told me to choose – get raped or killed.”

She succumbed to her choice.

“One of them tore my trousers and underwear, then one of the men got on top of me and raped me,” she says. “All eight men raped me, but only the eighth man used a condom. The rest ejaculated inside me.”

The torment lasted for hours and when they were through they tied her up and discussed what should become of her.

“They argued amongst themselves whether they should kill me or leave me there,” she says. “One of the men ordered that I should be killed because he thought that I knew him and would report him to the police.”

In the end, they decided to leave her in the bush, saying she would likely die there. When she was certain they had left, she began struggling against the ropes that bound her hands and legs and eventually dragged herself to safety.

Gomo says she did not report the rape to protect her marriage. But her ordeal did not end there. Three months after the rape, she fell ill. When she was taken to the hospital, a blood test revealed that she was HIV-positive.

Today, she says she is taking antiretroviral medication and is learning to live with the memory of her rape.

I tried to resist them. Then one of the men told me to choose – get raped or killed.

In Zimbabwe, political persecution is nothing new. President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party began targeting and harassing political opponents and their supporters as early as 1994. In the run up to the 2008 election here, more than 2,000 women were attacked, assaulted or raped for supporting the opposition party, the Movement of Democratic Change, MDC. With new elections scheduled for 2011, advocates here are working to publicize the issue of political rape with a new project that records and videotapes the stories of survivors in hopes of drawing attention to the issue. But for many political rape survivors, the new election season is just a reminder of their attacks.

According to Consultancy Africa Intelligence, CAI, an organization that provides up-to-date analysis and insight into the African continent’s political, economic, financial and social affairs, in Zimbabwe, political rape has “proven to be terrifyingly effective in spreading terror and fear.”

In 1999, the MDC party was formed. Led by Morgan Tsvangirai, the party had become a direct threat to Mugabe’s regime by 2008. There are many conflicting reports as to what really happened in the 2008 election here. Some reported that Tsvangirai withdrew in the second round of voting citing violence against his supporters. Others suggested that Mugabe lost the race, 48 percent to 43 percent, so he declared the election null and void and remained in power. Regardless of how it transpired, MDC supporters like Gomo paid a price for their political opposition. As Zimbabwe prepares for new elections in 2011, many say Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party may again use political rape as a tool of political persecution.

Gladys Nyoni, 30, was also raped for her support of MDC in 2008.

He pushed me and told me to open my legs. He started removing my panties [while] another one of them sat on my forehead. My hands were held on either side by one of the men so that I could not move.

Nyoni’s story has reached a global audience thanks to a new campaign by the Research and Advocacy Unit, a local nongovernmental organization that is working in partnership with Doors of Hope Development Trust, a self-help organization for victims of rape. Together, the groups have interviewed 40 women who were raped as a tool of political persecution leading up the 2008 elections here. So far, 28 of the women have signed affidavits confirming their stories and allowing them to go public. Four of their stories were used to develop a new video, the first of its kind here, which vividly tells the stories of political rape.

For Nyoni, the decision to come forward and participate in the project was a way to heal. Five men raped her in her own home as her husband was forced to watch.

“It happened to me during the run-up to the June 27 election,” she says. “A group of men and women dressed like the ZANU-PF paid us a visit while my mother-in-law, father-in-law, my sisters-in-law, my husband, my daughter and I were [having lunch] in the kitchen hut. The group marched everyone over [and] locked them in another hut. My husband and I were then tied and the leader of the group, whom we did not know, started to harangue us for supporting the Movement for Democratic Change.”

Nyoni says one of the members told her he was going to rape her so that she and her husband would know how to vote.

“He pushed me and told me to open my legs,” Nyoni recalls. “He started removing my panties [while] another one of them sat on my forehead. My hands were held on either side by one of the men so that I could not move.”

They took turns raping her. No one used a condom.

“I was raped by five men,” Nyoni says. “After each had finished, I heard them saying, ‘I am done, you can come.’ They left me on the floor. I was helpless and my husband was still tied up. They let out my in-laws and my daughter. I heard them say that they had accomplished what they came for.”

After the rape, Nyoni’s husband forced her out of their home. She has not been allowed back for more than two years.

Kudakwashe Chitsike, of the Research and Advocacy Unit, has taken similar stories of political rape and brought the issue to a global stage. Chitsike says more than 2,000 women and girls were abducted, raped, tortured and beaten due to their political affiliations in advance of the 2008 election here. In order to prevent a similar statistic before next year’s elections, Chitsike created a 16-minute film featuring four survivors who were raped by the ZANU-PF.

Chitsike says that her organization wants to use their stories as a part of a new advocacy campaign to end political rape during this year’s 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women, which began last week on Nov. 25 and goes through next Friday.

The theme of this year’s 16 Days is “Structures of Violence: Defining the Intersections of Militarism and Violence Against Women.”

“This project is part of a broad campaign that we have on ending political violence against women,” Chitsike says. “Part of the campaign is to seek justice for women victims of politically motivated sexual violence by collecting their stories through extensive interviews with affected women where affidavits will be produced with medical and psychological evidence supporting their allegations of rape and other forms of sexual abuse.”

According to a report titled “Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe” that was produced by the AIDS Free World, women who survive political rape suffer many side effects, both physical and psychological.

“All of the women [we interviewed] have experienced trauma from the rapes, including recurring nightmares and flashbacks,”  the report says. “Six victims admitted to feeling dead or suicidal in the aftermath of their ordeals, and at least one woman tried to kill herself.”

The report details a litany of post-traumatic stress symptoms victims experienced, including ongoing headaches, stomachaches, depression, fatigue, weight loss, trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, nightmares, insomnia, loss of appetite, body pain and a desire to be alone.

For many women, like Nyoni, the aftermath of the rape also included being shunned by family and community. And for others, like Gomo, a host of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, resulted from the attacks.

Chitsike says documenting and publicizing political rape is risky here, but she hopes their work will help put perpetrators behind bars and discourage future attacks in the coming election year.