Women Find No Exit From ‘Shadow Pandemic’ of Abuse

Physical and sexual assaults against women have surged alongside the coronavirus pandemic. But many women feel compelled to drop their cases when faced with Zimbabwe’s criminal justice system.

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Women Find No Exit From ‘Shadow Pandemic’ of Abuse

Illustration by Matt Haney, GPJ

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Sarah’s face is scarred and her back is swollen, the result of abuse she has suffered at the hands of her husband and brother.

“My husband beat me up after I refused to have sex with him,” Sarah says. “One of my eyes was badly injured.” The attack took place last August, in the midst of Zimbabwe’s national lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sarah, 34, reported her husband to the police that month but withdrew the charges a few days later after facing pressure from her family.

When her brother learned what had happened, he beat her with a baton. Sarah reported this attack to the police as well, and her brother was detained for several days. But once again she dropped the charges.

“It’s all because of family pressure and the need to preserve family relations,” says Sarah, who asked not to be fully identified in order to protect her from further abuse.

Around the world, an estimated 243 million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 were sexually or physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the 12 months before the pandemic, according to the United Nations. Lockdown measures have caused cases of domestic violence to increase even further, in what the U.N. has called a “shadow pandemic.”

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Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Sarah, left, attends a counseling session with Kudzai Mandizha, a social worker at the Family Support Trust, which provides medical and social services to people who have suffered abuse.

This has been true in Zimbabwe as well. Reports of abuse increased 38.5% in the first two months of the country’s lockdown, according to a report released last year that compiled data from five leading nongovernmental organizations that provide support and services to Zimbabweans who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence.

Yet women who have experienced abuse face numerous obstacles to obtaining justice, leading many of them to drop their cases.

“For some it’s lack of trust in our justice system,” says Kudzai Mandizha, a social worker at the Family Support Trust, a nonprofit that provides counseling and medical services to people who have suffered abuse. “Some even say that very few perpetrators of sexual abuse are convicted, and this deters them from pursuing their own cases legally.”

This was the case for Chenai, 27, who says a group of men assaulted her on her way to work in November.

“The touts grabbed me and took my bag by force and blindfolded me,” she says. “They took me to an unknown place where two of the men raped me.”

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Chenai, who requested that she not be fully identified in order to protect her from stigma, reported the assault to the police but eventually decided she couldn’t continue pursuing the case.

“I had to be visiting the police a lot of times, repeat what had happened to me several times, and I just got tired and frustrated by the whole process, and I decided that it was better to withdraw the case,” she says.

In addition to the emotional toll, many women also lack the financial resources to see potentially lengthy court cases through to the end, says Tinotenda Madzokere, a legal officer with the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to women. The fact that the perpetrators are often the family breadwinners also leaves women trapped in abusive relationships.

“Most survivors are dependent financially and materially on their abusers, such that, without adequate funds, pursuing justice is impossible,” Madzokere says.

Today, Sarah is still living with her husband, who she says has become increasingly abusive.

“He constantly beats and abuses me verbally for initially reporting him to the police,” she says.

The government has acknowledged that sexual and gender-based violence is a serious problem in Zimbabwe. In a 2012 strategy memo, it vowed to increase efforts to prevent and respond to violence against women, and in 2017 it began working with the United Nations Population Fund to address the issue.

“I had to be visiting the police a lot of times, repeat what had happened to me several times, and I just got tired and frustrated by the whole process.”

The lead agency involved in those efforts declined to comment when asked about the government’s current strategies to stop violence against women and address the obstacles women face when trying to obtain justice. Questions about investigations should be referred to police, says Melusi Matshiya, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development.

Paul Nyathi, a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Republic Police, says he also can’t comment on measures the police are taking to address sexual violence.

The inability to achieve justice can have lasting consequences, says Memory Kadau, co-director of the Adult Rape Clinic, a nonprofit that provides counseling and medical care to people who have experienced sexual violence.

“Accessing justice is key to finding closure and healing after the traumatic experience,” she says.

This lack of resolution is something with which Chenai continues to struggle.

“All I ever wanted was justice to be served and the people who raped me to be brought to account,” she says. “But the whole process of reporting the case was causing me more harm. I have accepted that I may never get closure.”

Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on agriculture and the economy.

Translation Note

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.