Gender-based violence goes into Parly

Source: Gender-based violence goes into Parly | Sunday Mail

BETWEEN the years 2015 and 2019, nearly 140 000 cases of gender-based violence (GBV) were reported to the police in Zimbabwe.

Police data shows that between January 2017 and December 2019, 59 647 cases of domestic violence were reported countrywide.

In addition, in the five years to December 2019, police handled 59 121 cases of rape, while 19 124 reports of indecent assault were filed at police stations countrywide, according to official statistics.

The year 2018 alone saw police handling 21 435 cases of domestic violence.

Through simple extrapolation, we can conclude that around 58 cases of domestic violence were reported to police daily that year.

Gender-based violence refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender.

It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms.

Studies have shown that women are predominantly at the receiving end of this form of violence.

A study commissioned by a coalition of local NGOs earlier this year concluded that there was a dramatic spike in domestic violence during the two-month hard lockdown between April and May.

Data gathered from five NGOs working with survivors of gender-based violence, including Msasa Project, the Adult Rape Clinic and the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, showed that reports of physical violence went up by more than 38 percent during the two months of lockdown.

Reports of emotional violence were up by 80,3 percent, while economic violence, which is generally caused by low incomes, was up by 42,4 percent.

For a nation aspiring to engender equality and eradicate gender-based violence, the above statistics are sobering.

Worryingly, abuse based along gender lines also appears to be taking root within Parliament.

Incidences of verbal and emotional abuse, aimed principally at female legislators in the House, are becoming widespread under the guise of Parliamentary heckling.

On several occasions we have witnessed instances of body-shaming and use of sexual innuendo directed at female parliamentarians by some male legislators.

Legislators, Joanna Mamombe (Harare West), Jasmine Toffa (Bulawayo Proportional Representation), Stars Mathe (Nkayi South) as well as former MPs, Lynette Karenyi and Tabitha Khumalo were all subjected to this form of abuse during the previous session of Parliament.

Failure by Parliament’s authorities to harshly sanction some prominent legislators known for these dishonourable practices appears to have emboldened these characters, who now seem to wear the tag of “abusers -in-chief” on their sleeves like a badge of honour.

In the most recent incident, Buhera South legislator Joseph Chinotimba caused a raucous in the House after he attacked Ms Mamombe, who he described as “mentally disturbed.”

While he was later forced to withdraw the apparent insult, the damage had already been done.

What this does is that it perpetuates the “acceptability and appropriateness” of this practice in the eyes of impressionable observers, who at times are our youths.

This is so because in the eyes of the young and pliable, when an “honourable” Parliamentarian commits such an egregious abuse of a colleague and walks away with a simple slap on the wrist, then surely abuse along gender lines is fair game so long one later issues an apology.

Speaker of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda has, on a number of occasions, insisted that cases of GBV in the House should be reported to the police because they are criminal matters.

Last week, Zimbabwe rounded up its commemorations of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence along with the rest of the world amid this ugly background.

There was very little in terms of awareness campaigns during the commemorations, perhaps illustrating how dialogue on GBV is still considered a low priority.

What was encouraging, however, was how the Senate dedicated the majority of a recent sitting to debating a motion on the scourge that is GBV.

While the debate was a welcome exertion, the quality of debate from the Senators was somewhat disappointing.

The debate exposed how the majority of our Senators remain entrenched in old cultural norms which militate against the aspiration of gender equality.

Most of the discussants could not properly elucidate how this problem should be tackled.

What was welcome, however, was that they all agreed on the need to introduce robust new legislation to punish the menace and also work on changing people’s mind-sets as the starting point of tackling this problem.

How then does Parliament go about doing this?

Because it has been proven that gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful cultural norms are the root cause of GBV, it can only be through addressing these three evils that we can start eradicating this cancer.

Historically, Zimbabwe’s the first attempt to deal with cultural practices that perpertuate GBV was through enacting the Customary Marriages Act, which prohibited the pledging of girls and women into marriage and making the practice a criminal offence.

Later on the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act also prohibited the customary law practice of surrendering women to settle a debt.

In 2007, the Domestic Violence Act, which illegalised specified cultural practices that upheld gender inequality, was signed into law.

Practices that include forced virginity testing, female genital mutilation, pledging of women or girls for the purposes of appeasing spirits, forced marriage, child marriage, forced wife inheritance or sexual intercourse between father-in-law and newly married daughter-in-law were listed as acts of domestic violence.

Experts considered the law as a significant step towards eradicating domestic violence.

In recent years, Government has also toyed with the idea of introducing severely harsh sentences for rape as a way of deterring the practice.

In 2017, authorities undertook to impose sentences of up to 60 years imprisonment for rape cases involving victims under 12-years-old and the physically-challenged, with sodomy and other rapes attracting a 40-year term.

While laws such as these will go some way in deterring cultural practices that nurture GBV, a strictly legalistic approach will not eradicate the problem.

More will need to be done to cultivate mind-set changes among Zimbabweans, and this will prove a more challenging task than legislating.