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Program fights against stigma for Zimbabwe rape victims

by Geri-Leigh Diana | Global Press Institute
Tuesday, 3 January 2012 00:31 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Geri-Leigh Diana  Global Press Institute  HARARE – Rutendo Tapiwa Chigudu, 28, says that her 16-year-old neighbor came to her one day in September and told her she had been raped by the caretaker of their block of flats in Harare, the capital. Chigudu volunteers with The Girls Legacy, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to build the capacity of young women and girls through leadership development and mentoring. She says that Kuda, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, declined to be interviewed for fear of repercussions. Kuda was working as a maid in their block of flats in Harare. Chigudu says Kuda told her that one day, the caretaker of the block lured her into his flat. He took off Kuda’s underwear and threw them under a table before raping her. Later, his wife found the underwear and threatened Kuda not to report the rape. The wife told Kuda that if her husband, the breadwinner of the family, ended up in prison, she would curse Kuda. Using the underwear as a talisman, the wife said that if her husband spent 30 years in prison, then she would curse Kuda with nonstop menstruation for an equal number of years. Kuda received only room and board in the flats for her work as a maid. She did not receive monetary payment, so she had no money to leave the flats. Her relatives lived outside of Harare, so she had no nearby support aside from Chigudu. Chigudu says that the Domestic Violence Act enables anyone to report cases of abuse, so she went to the police and reported the caretaker for raping Kuda. This led to the caretaker’s arrest. But his wife and family continued to intimidate Kuda. “In society, rape is still perceived as the woman’s fault,” Chigudu says. “It is usually believed that the woman brought it upon herself, and if the rapist is married like in this case, then the victim is held responsible for breaking down the family.” Chigudu says that this stigma has hindered Kuda from seeking the help and justice she deserves. She says that Kuda later changed her story under the pressure from the caretaker’s family. She testified in court that she had lied about being raped and instead had had consensual sex with the caretaker. Chigudu says that she went to jail rather than the perpetrator, which reveals a flaw in the system. “The police didn’t investigate further and find out that she had been intimidated into changing her story,” Chigudu says. “Her social status and economic standing has made her vulnerable to abuse. In many cases, such victims end up becoming victims again. It is a vicious cycle.” Kuda spent two nights in jail then had to do more than 100 hours of community service. She then moved back home with her family in a rural area outside the city. Chigudu says that she hasn’t been able to persuade Kuda to go to counseling because Kuda is afraid her current employers or the caretaker’s family will find out. Clinics and specially trained police units work in conjunction in Zimbabwe to provide medical and legal assistance to rape victims, following a protocol that eventually leads to the justice system. But many victims say that although they make sure to seek medical attention at clinics, they refuse to report the incidences to the police for reasons ranging from fear their family members will find out to a lack of faith in the legal and justice systems. Some say the stigma attached to rape in Zimbabwe prevents victims from seeking care, while others say there aren’t enough resources available. Citizens have tried to break the culture of silence during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an international campaign from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, through a march in the capital. Underreporting makes reliable statistics difficult to attain, according to a review of the protocol on the multisectoral management of sexual abuse in Zimbabwe. The Chief Magistrate Office conducted the review in October in conjunction with UNICEF and Save the Children, an international charity. “As there is no law that makes it mandatory to report abuse, and it is widely believed that many survivors of sexual violence are reluctant to report their experience to the authorities, most studies suggest that the available data on reported cases vastly underestimates the actual incidence of sexual violence,” the review states. According to the Harare Magistrate Court’s records, more than five rape cases are brought before the court daily. The Adult Rape Clinic, ARC, in Harare receives more than 40 new cases a month, says Magna Kurangwa, the nurse in charge of the clinic. Kurangwa says that it is standard procedure for rape victims to report incidents directly to the police. But she says that they may come to the clinic first for medical attention. “If the survivor comes to the clinic first, we immediately offer them medical care, psychosocial care and counseling free of charge,” Kurangwa says. “We do the medical examination for a court process and also collection of forensic evidence.” The next step, should the victim wish, is to report the case to the authorities, Kurangwa says. The police are responsible for conducting the investigations, arresting alleged perpetrators and preparing evidence for prosecution. At each police station in the country, there is a Victim Friendly Unit with at least one designated victim-friendly officer who is trained to treat the victim with compassion and confidentiality. Mushonga, a constable at Harare Central Police Station who declined to give his first name, says that new officers are trained as victim-friendly officers at the Adult Rape Clinic every month. The regional magistrate court then hears any cases brought to court. Depending on forensics, evidence, statements and judicial resources, it can take anywhere from one to three months before the judicial process is complete and a verdict is reached. But many victims say that they have no faith in Zimbabwe’s justice system, preferring to seek medical, social and psychological treatment rather than involving the police and the courts. Mary, a middle-aged woman who declined to give her last name, is a victim at the Adult Rape Clinic. She says that three men broke into her home, blindfolded her and her sister and raped them. A mirthless laugh was her response when asked if she would report the case to the police. “The police are too slow,” she says. “They are also arrogant. Maybe if there was a female police officer I might feel comfortable to talk, but even the female officers seem uncaring.” Mushonga says that police may have a lot of work, but they are not slow. He says that victims must file reports in order for police to investigate cases. But other victims say that pressing charges will just create more trouble for them because of the stigma attached to rape in Zimbabwean society.  “I don’t want to make a report because the perpetrator lives in my community,” says a 30-year-old victim at the clinic who declined to be named. “It will just cause trouble for me and my family if it is known that I have spoken to the police. All I want is treatment.” Kurangwa says that many victims feel uncomfortable reporting rape incidents because of the repercussions they may face in their families. She says that the majority ­– two-thirds – of rapes reported at the clinic are committed by a partner or relative, commonly known as acquaintance rape. As it is considered taboo to discuss sexual matters, victims are often disowned or abused by family when they do speak up because of the stigma attached to rape. Kurangwa says that when rape victims delay in reporting incidents, it hampers the clinic’s ability to gather important forensic evidence to turn over to the police and courts. If the victims do not come to the clinic within three days of the crime, it also increases their chances of contracting HIV. “The problem we are facing is that reports are not been made quick enough,” Kurangwa says. “Once the victim is here at ARC, we can ensure compassionate treatment, documentation via a rape kit, and we even provide a shower room and a change of clothes so that the items worn at the time of the crime can be given to the police for evidence.” In addition to the Adult Rape Clinic, other organizations also provide support and services for rape victims, such as the Musasa Project, Katswe Sistahood and Farm Orphan Support Trust of Zimbabwe. But Chigudu says that their resources are limited. “Musasa Project can offer shelter to a victim for up to two weeks,” Chigudu says. “But what happens after that? In many cases, the victims are forced to go back and live where the rape occurred.” Chigudu says that rape victims in rural areas have even less support available to them. “Yes, there are a couple of clinics in Harare, but what about the rural areas?” she asks. Chigudu says that more supportive personnel are also needed outside of these clinics and organizations. “These organizations that give counseling and psychological support are vital to women to enable them to empower themselves,” she says. “But there is so much more that is needed. The judicial system is not favorable towards women. The last thing a rape victim wants is to talk to a male police officer, a male lawyer and a male judge. The system needs to be more female-friendly.” The rape protocol review also noted a lack of resources for rape victims. “Resource constraints were frequently cited by those consulted in this review,” the review states. “Many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of doctors, delaying the completion of medical reports and subsequently preventing the Prosecution from compilation of dockets and the listing of matters for trial. Limited access to rape kits was also often highlighted as a problem in many hospitals.” The review also noted other problems that continue to hamper effective implementation of the reporting protocol, such as persistent power cuts, breakdown of equipment, inadequate witness expenses, and insufficient numbers of public prosecutors, intermediaries and magistrates. Chigudu acknowledges that government funding is limited, but she says that more can be done. “I know we don’t have the resources in our government structures, but surely something could still be done,” Chigudu says. “The police didn’t look into the people who were trying to cover up Kuda’s case. The fact that I, an outsider, reported her rape should have alerted them to the fact that she was being intimidated.” Kurangwa says she believes that there has been improvement in handling rape cases since the clinic opened in 2009. “Before we opened, the only option for survivors seeking medical care was to go to the casualties departments at Parirenyatwa and Harare Hospital,” she says. “Here, they can get private and confidential treatment for free.” She says the clinic also gives trainings to other responders to sensitize them. “Every month, we train several police and social services officers in how to be empathetic and give counseling to the survivors,” she says. Citizens have also taken the ongoing 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence as an opportunity to break the culture of silence surrounding rape. Chigudu says she joined hundreds of women and some men recently in the Code Red Against Rape March in Harare. Chigudu says the march, which was organized by Katswe Sistahood, a movement of young women fighting for the full attainment of sexual and reproductive health and rights, gave her and many others hope that they can halt gender-based violence. “Most notable for me was when an elderly lady got up and recommended castration as punishment for rapists,” Chigudu says. “It sounds extreme, but it was a very huge statement – especially coming from a revered elderly woman of society with every hair on her head being gray. No man would ever disrespect his mother, and that lady represents every man’s mother, so can you see the impact such a statement makes?” Chigudu says that another important statement made at the march came from a representative of Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, ZINATHA, which many traditional healers in Zimbabwe belong to. The representative said that the association did not endorse rape as a cure for health problems or as a ritual for increasing wealth. “The ZINATHA representative challenged the police present at the march to arrest any healers or prophets who rape and use sex as part of healing processes,” Chigudu says. “It was important that such a public denouncement was made in front of so many people.” Chigudu says that women must band together to eliminate rape. “Women must support and empower each other,” Chigudu says. “Women account for 52 percent of Zimbabwe’s population. Women are the fabric of society. I believe all that is needed is for each and every woman to say no to sexual violence. Women run the family, the household, they run society. I feel it is a matriarchal society, but the women are letting the patriarch rule, and unfortunately, men are running off with perceived power.” Read the original article here.