By Netty Musanhu
The numbers tell a horrific story. In 2011, there were 5,449 reported cases of rape and sexual violence in Zimbabwe. According to UNICEF, one in three girls is raped or sexually assaulted before reaching the age of 18. Girls between 13 and 16 years old account for 50 per cent of all cases. And only two per cent ever seek treatment.
Political, social and economic instability in Zimbabwe has created an environment conducive to sexual violence against women. Rape and sexual violence are being used as political weapons and are destroying families and communities.
During the 2008 elections, rape and sexual violence was used as a tool for political repression. I recently met with a group of about 50 survivors of political rape. They revealed untold levels of suffering, with many of the women opening up for the first time about their experiences.
One woman said that despite having conceived a child from a politically motivated gang rape, she was just now speaking out for the first time. She said, “I am ashamed, I feel dirty. I could not tell anyone, even my husband, as he would have rejected me. What about this child that still brings a lot of memories?”
Although rape and sexual violence against women is often used as intimidation and punishment for political activities, husbands, tragically, reject and isolate their wives.
In Zimbabwe, a woman who is raped is no longer considered suitable for marriage and is said to bring shame on the family.
Tsitsi (not her real name) was raped when she 14 years old by three men in her community. Over 15 years later, her family still rejects her, she has attempted suicide, and the men accused of raping her have not been arrested or charged by police.
Survivors experience physical, social and psychological long-term effects. Women told me of being brutally abused with axes or knives causing permanent scarring, or of being forced to swallow stones and drink their urine after the rape. Constant fear, anxiety, increased forgetfulness and trouble sleeping are the lingering after-effects.
We must build on courage of the women survivors of sexual violence and work to ensure that women feel safe reporting attacks, and get needed medical attention and support in getting justice.
Raising awareness about rape and other forms of sexual violence is key to prevention. We need to work with men to build more equal gender relationships. We need to support women’s organizations that are addressing institutionalized gender discrimination. Aid budgets, including Canada’s, should support programs to advance and protect women’s rights.
Rape needs to be treated as a serious human rights issue.
Ultimately, we need to change people’s attitude towards violence against women. We need to send a message loud and clear: never again.
Netty Musanhu is executive director of the Musasa Project in Zimbabwe. She is in Canada for Oxfam’s Gender Justice Summit, and is in St. John’s today and tomorrow for the start of Sexual Violence Awareness Week.